03 Introduction

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 Marian Albright Schenck

Some people will ask what this book is, and why Horace Albright, approaching his century mark, chose to undertake another narrative about the National Park Service. Hadn’t enough been written about Stephen Mather, Horace Albright, and the history of the National Park Service? In a way, the answer is yes. But in another way, the answer is an emphatic no. What he called “the missing years,” 1917-19, had never truly been examined.

This book is not an autobiography in the precise sense. An autobiography is a biography of a person written by himself. Instead this is a book conceived, planned, and for the most part overseen and checked, page by page, by my father. I did research, meticulously copied his spoken words as we discussed the events of his life, followed his directions in locating material, and then wrote the narrative for his correction and final approval. He died on March 28, 1987, before the last section of the text had been completed, although the outline had been created and important parts had been written.

My father took on this chore in his nineties because for many years he had been concerned that the early years of the National Park Service had not been chronicled in sufficient depth. He realized that he had been partially to blame because of his reluctance to discuss this period. He had overseen, corrected, and approved all three books published about Stephen Mather and himself (plus an unpublished one). They contained much the same material and presented history as he wanted it told at the time. He feared that a full disclosure might harm Mather’s reputation. My father worshiped Mather and wanted to do nothing to damage his name.

As the years went by, however, my father grew increasingly worried about the rising criticism of early Park Service policies and actions. He considered some of the criticism unwarranted and disparaging of Mr. Mather’s reputation. He decided that the time had come to write about these “missing years,” to explain how the policies were formed, and to emphasize the serious difficulties that had to be overcome.

But my father faced a terrible dilemma. Since 1916 he had kept files of these early days in his home. He allowed access only to such documents as he chose. These files contained sensitive material about Mather and other matters. He agonized that laying out the detailed history of the years 1917-19 would do more harm than good. He treasured the memory of Mr. Mather and felt that his daughter, her husband, and her family had to be protected, for he loved them all as his own family. He wavered over whether he should destroy these records for the sake of the Mather descendants, but was held back by the belief that, as a historian, he should save them.

Finally, because these events were so far in the past and because some modern writers were distorting the true history, he believed that his personal documents and memories were needed, as he called it, “to put the record straight.” He was uneasy with the writers’ reluctance to use primary sources and with their simplistic and revisionist tendencies. He concluded that if he could set down the factual history it would throw needed light on those shadowy years. He wanted to clarify the context of that eventful time and place. He would relate the development of the National Park Service, but he would also show how profoundly Mather had suffered and how he had emerged through his own strength to return to years of brilliance that benefited the service.

Even as we worked on other projects (A Trip to Paradise 1920, My Six Trips with Ickes, and The Mather Mountain Party, the last for the centennial of Sequoia National Park), my father began to formulate the story of “the missing years.”

First, my father read every document and letter in his old Phoenix File boxes, sorting out what would be pertinent to the narrative. He intended to start with meeting Stephen Mather and end with Mather’s return to Washington after his prolonged illness. He then made a general outline of the narrative he wanted to write.

Next, my father and I combed the material that he and Frank Taylor had used to write a biography of Mather several years after his death in 1930. My father had written to more than four hundred people who were close to Mather, asking them for anecdotes or anything else they could recall about the man. I don’t know how many responded back in the 1930s, but quite a few answers remained in his files. There were also chapters from their uncompleted book Along Came Steve Mather. In addition, there were more than a hundred pages of my father’s handwritten or typed information prepared for that book but as yet unused. Much of this Robert Shankland used when my father asked him to start afresh on the biography later published as Steve Mather of the National Parks.

For the period we were writing about, my father had retained his personal files, his pocket diaries, my mother’s diaries, and his scrapbooks. There were files with data provided for Donald Swain’s Wilderness Defender, as well as oral tapes and transcripts for Robert Cahn when he was working on The Birth of the National Park Service. My father also had four or five transcripts of tapes he had made for Columbia University, the National Park Service, and other organizations and individuals.

After we had culled all these sources for the years through 1919, my father sent me to the University of California at Los Angeles, to which he had donated personal papers.The research assistant there helped me check these out and made copies of items I thought useful. Historians from many parks combed their libraries for material. I might add that a few years after the death of my father, the Park Service’s bureau historian, Barry Mackintosh, introduced me to the early records of the service in the National Archives, where I double-checked some of the details.

Now the work was to start. By this time, my father lived at the Chandler Convalescent Home near Los Angeles. But he spent much of his time at our home, a drive of about ten minutes. In a study my husband and I had set up for him during the years he had lived with us were his books, files, photograph albums, and my computer. We spent hours here as we began to put the book together.

As my father grew older, he remained at Chandler more of the time. A different routine became necessary. We would discuss the work on the book. I would take down his instructions and conversations, go home, check out details, write a section, and take it to him to read, correct, or make additional suggestions. Another rewrite or more might be necessary until he was satisfied.

At some point in this process—I don’t remember exactly when—my father decided he wanted to tell the whole story of his life before the missing years. I believe my daughter asked him to do that, not for the book but just for family history. He got out some manuscripts he had written years earlier, a partial autobiography. Publisher Alfred Knopf, his friend and a longtime park supporter, had asked him to write this and intended to publish it. However, my father never got beyond the years from his birth to his move to Washington in 1913.

This was a turning point for him, because he decided that he wanted every possible detail about his early life written down.The planned book would still cover only 1915-18. Later he decided to extend it into 1919 to include his appointment as superintendent of Yellowstone National Park. Of course, the narrative now burgeoned well beyond the original concept, but my father said the part for the book could later be cut down to size. Meantime, we were going to write every fact that we could find and he could remember. As he worked over the primary source material, the photograph albums, and his old scrapbooks, the narrative kept growing as my father’s fabled memory clicked in, providing an incredible amount of detail. It turned into an extraordinary marathon.

We found it fairly easy to bring his original manuscript up to the creation of the National Park Service in 1916. From that time on, however, especially with Mr. Mather’s breakdown in January 1917, it was a slow, meticulous task. It’s hard to describe how painful much of this was for my father. He wanted to skip lightly over Mather’s illness, and sometimes he would say that certain facts couldn’t be included, or he would want to gloss over them, always trying to protect the Mather family. Then he’d come around to feeling that the story had to be written, that it had to be true history this time. Occasionally tears slowly coursed down his cheeks as memories became too vivid.

We worked for several years in this manner. Then in the summer of 1986 my father nearly died. When he returned from the hospital, he seemed to feel that he wouldn’t live much longer. He had to finish his projects as rapidly as possible. From that time until March 1987, when he left forever, we finished his Six Trips with Ickes and polished The Mather Mountain Party for publication. But he always pushed ahead with this book too. Believing that his time was getting shorter, he fortunately insisted on skipping ahead to get down the facts on Mather’s problems at the end of 1918, his own conflict with Interior Secretary Franklin K. Lane, his resignation and ultimate settlement with Mather, and his assumption of the superintendency of Yellowstone National Park in 1919.

In the years after my father’s death, I worked on this project whenever possible. To finish the last section myself, I followed the same procedures we had used for so many years. My husband and I made trips to places that figured in my father’s life, down old roads to destinations bypassed or forgotten and on to modern parks. I spent hours in various national parks going through the archives with the always helpful rangerhistorians. Few people still lived who were involved in the missing years, but I corresponded or talked with most or with their relatives, many of whom I had known as a child.

Finally, this monster of a manuscript, close to two thousand pages, was wrapped up. And then the question arose of what to do with it. My father had often said he would have a National Park Service historian look at it. So I hesitantly asked our friend Bob Utley, a retired chief historian of the service, if he would do this. He kindly read the whole thing and felt that, with careful editing, it could be offered for publication. At his suggestion, a “prequel” of my father’s life from birth to 1915 was included as an introduction to the main story.

To pare the manuscript down to publishable dimensions, many large segments had to be cut out altogether. To connect what remained and preserve continuity, “bridges” became essential. My father, of course, could not oversee these; I created them, using his distinctive first-person style and his own words and thoughts where possible. I am confident that he would have changed virtually nothing in these connecting paragraphs. They are set in italics to distinguish them from the body of the text.

It is impossible to state the debt we owe to Robert M. Utley. His place as a historian of America’s past is well known and honored. His face and voice are recognizable through his appearances in and contributions to fine television documentaries, such as Real West and How the West Was Lost. But only those who know him personally can appreciate the man who is kindly, intellectually brilliant, and devoted to his country and the National Park Service. I also owe him my humble appreciation and gratitude for his endless hours of plowing through thousands of pages of manuscript to pull together a clear and concise narrative while leaving my father’s original words and actions intact. As for me, I learned an encyclopedia of information on editing, punctuation, and writing discipline from his patient teaching and sage advice. More than that, I learned about a man who is in many ways a “clone” of my father: a fine-honed mind with an understanding, gentle, humorous, optimistic, and idealistic soul.

In conclusion, let me say that my father and I tried to produce a narrative as historically accurate as possible, using almost entirely primary source material along with his memory of dates, places, and events he had experienced. His age precluded his writing the text, but he read and approved all except the last chapters. His death left me with only a short period to cover, a time for which he had already supplied the salient facts.

This, therefore, is neither a personally written autobiography nor a personal memoir. It is an effort on the part of a man who loved his National Park Service and Stephen Mather and wanted to tell the history of both to the best of his ability in a factual historical manner.

National Parks and Monuments, October 1, 1917. Seventeen national parks containing 9,773 square miles or 6,254,508 acres and twenty-two national monuments containing 143.4 square miles or 91,824 acres. Courtesy National Park Service.