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Creating the National Park Service: The Missing Years, By Horace M. Albright and Marian Albright Schenck, Foreword by Robert M. Utley


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by Robert M. Utley

I first met Horace Marden Albright on an autumn day in 1968. I was chief historian of the National Park Service, he a venerated icon of the formative years of our service. Also a passionate student of history, he dropped by my Washington office to get acquainted. For three hours, this spare, soft-spoken, kindly man reached deep into his incredible memory to pour forth a chronicle of the origins of the National Park Service. Expressed in the animated and lucid detail that marked his conversational style, Albright’s fascinating stories yielded new insights into my professional antecedents.

Beginning on that day, I formed a lasting friendship with Horace Albright, one grounded in respect, admiration, and shared interests and values. After I left the government in 1980, we continued to exchange letters until his death in 1987 at the age of ninety-seven.

Horace Albright’s significance in the early years of the National Park Service can hardly be overstated. As the second director, 1929-33, he expanded and diversified the National Park System and solidified the canons of its management. Greater and more lasting contributions, however, marked the first years of his service. In the painful birth of the National Park Service itself, and in the adoption of a creed to guide the infant agency toward maturity, Horace Albright played a decisive role.

Albright was twenty-three and a graduate student at the University of California when he went to Washington in 1913 to take a position on the staff of Secretary of the Interior Franklin K. Lane in the new administration of President Woodrow Wilson. Stephen T. Mather was thirty years his senior and a man of great wealth when he arrived in 1915 to oversee the national parks. The extraordinary bonds of friendship, admiration, and respect cemented between these two took an agonizing turn when Mather suffered periodic episodes of manic depression.

Near the end of his long life, Albright and his daughter Marian came increasingly to term the formative period of the National Park Service, 1917 and 1918, history’s “missing years.” For this Albright himself bore some of the responsibility. So solicitous was he of Mather’s significance and reputation that he blurred or withheld vital information. In his last years, however, his daughter persuaded him that he owed posterity a true accounting of the missing years.

These were the years when the newly established National Park Service was organized and placed on a firm foundation of policy, principle, and tradition. These were also the years in which Mather suffered what then passed as a “nervous breakdown” but now is seen as the fluctuations of manic depression.

Mather’s illness left his young assistant with daunting political and administrative responsibilities, hidden from public view because Mather’s condition had to be kept secret. Earlier publications have contained hints of Albright’s pivotal role in the congressional passage of the National Park Service Organic Act in 1916; in the formulation of principles and policies to govern the management of the national parks; in the defense of park resources against exploiters using the cover of World War I to gain entry for cattlemen, sheepmen, lumbermen, and miners; and in other issues critical to the future of the fledgling parks. Until his last years, however, Albright persisted in hovering outside the spotlight that bathed Mather.

Albright enjoyed a phenomenal memory until the day of his death, and he kept nearly every scrap of paper that recorded his life—correspondence, reports, news clippings, little pocket diaries, and even railway ticket stubs and the menus of special dinners. He and his daughter, set forth to tell the story of those years. They wrote, in Albright’s characteristic style, a virtually day-by-day chronicle of the missing years, as well as the preceding years. The result was a huge manuscript of more than two thousand pages.

Much reduced for publication, here is Albright’s story, assembled with the devoted help of Marian Albright Schenck. This book restores Albright to his proper place in history without diminishing the significance of Mather and reveals, in incontestable detail, that the momentous events that gave birth to the National Park Service were a joint achievement. Stephen Mather was the public-relations giant of sweeping vision, exceptional ability to persuade and move people, and unswerving dedication to a splendid system of parks for all Americans—talents tragically crippled by mental illness. Horace Albright was the young, able, self-effacing, hardworking lawyer who made certain that the grand visions of his chief were carried into reality. It was a crucial partnership; neither could have achieved the outcome without the other.

Albright’s memoirs close at the end of the missing years. Newly married and with an infant son, he had intended to return to San Francisco and practice law. Instead, in July 1919, he moved his little family into the big stone commanding officer’s quarters at Fort Yellowstone and became the first National Park Service superintendent of Yellowstone National Park. His health restored, Mather assumed his duties as the first director of the National Park Service. During the decade of Mather’s tenure, Albright served both as Yellowstone superintendent and as “field assistant director,” a post in which he continued to aid his chief in the political, budgetary, policy, and management activities of the service. He was Mather’s obvious successor and served as second director from 1929 to 1933, when he resigned to embark on a corporate career. He retired as president of the United States Potash Company.

Although it is a significant historical document, Horace Albright’s book stands out as a story of compelling human interest. In addition to his distinctive relationship with Stephen Mather, he lays bare his own feelings and self-doubt as he confronts demands almost overwhelming to one of his youth and inexperience. He also relates without reservation his love for Grace Noble, the tortuous course that led at last to marriage, and the influential role she played in his career.

Throughout, Albright tells engagingly of his dealings with political leaders in the Wilson administration, the Congress, and state and local government; with eccentric but potent figures of the conservation movement; with luminaries of the scientific community; with corporate functionaries and media giants; and even with walk-ons such as Buffalo Bill Cody, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Thomas A. Edison, and Orville Wright. Personalities are vividly drawn and forcefully judged. Conflict and harmony are set forth candidly and incisively. Humorous anecdotes abound.

Finally, Albright exposes graphic fragments of the social history of the United States in the years before and during World War I. The ways in which people thought, behaved, dressed, lived, and traveled are implicit in the narrative. In particular, a continuing theme is travel, by mule back and wagon, by railroad and auto, coupled with the magnificent American scenery that unfolded before the eyes and emotions of a young idealist from California. Here is a virtual travelogue of the United States in the second decade of the twentieth century.

In the years since World War II, America’s national parks and monuments have suffered a variety of crushing impacts. Millions of people in millions of automobiles demanding ever-expanding road networks; proliferating campgrounds, lodges, and hotels; rampant development crowding against park boundaries; air, noise, and water pollution; and a host of destructive special uses severely damaged the very qualities that gave the parks national distinction. At the same time, shrinking appropriations and new scientific insights into the vulnerability of delicate ecosystems severely impaired the ability of the National Park Service to cope with the challenges and, as commanded by the Organic Act of 1916, preserve the parks “unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”

Against this backdrop, modern critics fault the Mather-Albright administration for laying the groundwork for some of these afflictions. Mather and Albright organized a massive publicity campaign to lure people to the national parks, championing automobiles, roads, luxury hotels, and other amenities of comfortable travel.They adopted measures to afford visitors maximum opportunity to view and even interact with wild animals. Albright himself lived to see their knowledge of the natural world outmoded by scientific research.

Such criticism not only unfairly disparages the reputations of two great men but egregiously distorts history. It judges Mather and Albright by the conditions, knowledge, and experience of today; it ignores the social, political, and economic realities of the early twentieth century. Mather and Albright knew that Congress would not create any new parks or fund existing parks unless people visited them. Without publicity, roads, comfortable accommodations, and relaxed enjoyment at the destination, people would not travel to the parks in numbers sufficient to prompt action in the Congress. That the United States today boasts a National Park System at all testifies to the validity of these Mather-Albright policies.

Most national parks display a bronze tablet bearing in bas-relief the likeness of Stephen T. Mather. The text reads: “He laid the foundation of the National Park Service, defining and establishing the policies under which its areas shall be developed and conserved unimpaired for future generations. There will never come an end to the good that he has done.” As Horace Albright’s chronicle makes plain, a truer tribute would read, “There will never come an end to the good that they have done.”