On My Own, 1917
The first thing next morning, I asked for an appointment to see Secretary
Lane as soon as possible. I was standing before him about twenty minutes
Lane listened intently to me, only interrupting when he needed more
information on some point I made. I told him everything I could
remember, holding back nothing, dating back six months or so as I kept
recalling Mr. Mather's unusual behavior from time to time.
When I fell silent at last, he seemed deeply sympathetic and moved
by the sadness of the situation. He appeared to roll the facts around in his
head and finally asked: "Albright, you know this man better than anyone.
Do you think he will ever be well enough to assume his duties back here?
Would the strain be too much even if he seems to recover? Should I think
about replacing him now?"
I didn't hesitate a minute: "Mr. Secretary, there is no one else like
Stephen Mather. I really believe he will recuperate, although no one
knows exactly how rapidly, but no one else should take his place unless it
is absolutely necessary. There really isn't anyone on earth like him."
He thought about this and said, "Do you think you can replace Mm?"
And I replied: "No, I just said there is only one Stephen Mather. I
can certainly keep his place open, can surely do all that is necessary in
the foreseeable future to try to obtain the necessary appropriations and to
organize the National Park Service. That much I can promise you."
"But, Albright, you have told me repeatedly that you were going to
leave the department as soon as a Park Service was created. Now what?"
"Well, that's just not in the cards," I said. "Not until the future of the
service can be delineated, started up, and assured that plans Mr. Mather
and I have formulated can be realized."
The secretary stood, put out his hand, and said: "We'll let it stand at
that for the time being. It certainly isn't my choice to replace Steve, and
I hope you will convey this to him until I can do it myself. Go ahead
with whatever plans you and Steve have made, but just keep me informed.
I'll keep everything you have told me today and what may come up in the
future close to my chest."
In the future I assessed Franklin Lane in a different light because of
his political intervention on conservation matters, but I always gave him
credit for his decision at this time, and I was deeply grateful for his
He could have called on any number of people, under political
pressure, to replace Stephen Mather. But his friendship and trust fortunately
made him give the right decision in 1917. It certainly gave me the
needed boost of confidence.
Then the charade began of hiding Mather's true condition from the
public eye. Dr. Weisenburg called to tell me that he had completed his
studies of Mather. He said he was worn out, exceedingly nervous, and
seriously depressed, which gave the most concern for his recovery.
The seriousness of his illness never got beyond the doctors, Mrs.
Mather, Lane, and me. I was part of this conspiracy in 1917, and several
other times through the years, to hide his mental problems. I always kept
the papers concerning these at my home, in my own personal files. In
later years, I often wondered whether I should destroy these records for
the sake of his family, but was held back by the thought that, as a historian,
I ought to save them. Was I right or not? Well, as I approach my
century mark, it seems so far in the past that the whole story should now
For the first few weeks, Mr. Mather's condition worsened. Twice his
despondency caused him to attempt suicide. Once he broke away from his
male nurse and tried to hurl himself down a flight of stairs. I don't know
any details of this or the other attempt. It was not my policy to ask questions,
just to wait until I was given the facts. However, by the end of
January 1917, Mather was eating and sleeping normally, but was restless
and constantly worrying. This was apparently the pattern of his former
Mrs. Mather was optimistic. He had pulled out of that one. He could
pull out of this one. One difference to her was the fact that he was more
deeply immersed in the national parks than he had been in business in
1903. She felt strongly that he should be cut off from the Park Service
Dr. Weisenburg totally disagreed. He felt Mather's salvation lay in
healing him physically and then slowly reintroducing him to the only
thing that seemed to interest him, national parks. He recommended that
Mather be kept in isolation from everyone except his doctors and nurses
until his depression had lifted. When that time arrived, he felt I was to be
the first one allowed to visit. Mrs. Mather could see him afterward.
When Weisenburg told us this, I started to protest, but Mrs. Mather
quickly agreed, saying, "Stephen always could be more at ease with men
than with women."
The doctor replied: "It isn't men versus women. It's national parks
versus anything you might bring up, Mrs. Mather. We have to go along
with him, rivet his attention on the one thing that seems to be paramount
in his mind at this time."
Back at the Interior Department, I consolidated Mather's and my
work operations and tried to see any of our field personnel that were still
in Washington. It was the only opportunity to discuss field problems, for
there was no way I could get out of Washington in the foreseeable future.
I was lucky to find Washington B. Lewis, a popular fellow known as
"Dusty," still sightseeing and roving around museums. Undoubtedly he
was the most important superintendent to be brought into the park
system, a superb engineer, another "steal" from the Geological Survey.
He had taken over Yosemite in March 1916, had proved to be extremely
capable, a master at dealing with the quarrelsome concessioners, and was
already one of our trusted lieutenants. We had several long sessions
together. I was so impressed with him that I decided to let him help me
in the field and to try him on work outside of his own park.
One more thing I had to settle immediately was Bob Yard. The
minute he learned that Mather had left Washington, he rightly guessed the
truth of another breakdown and raced back from vacation, assuming that
he would step into Mather's shoes. I had a long, careful talk with him,
telling him that Lane had instructed me to take over Mather's job until
further notice, that he was to continue his same work, that I would
continue paying him from Mather's funds. Above all, he was to have no
communication with Mather until Weisenburg gave permission.
Yard immediately circumvented me. He contacted Thorkildsen to try
to see Mather and, failing that, attempted to write Mather. Fortunately, he
sent the letter to Mrs. Mather to be forwarded. The letter was returned
unopened. Next he wrote Mrs. Mather, pouring out a lot of tales about
Washington affairs going badly and about how he was trying to fix them,
but how he must talk with her husband. She was quite alarmed, sent me
his letter, and appealed for help.
I sat Yard down and had another straightforward talk with him. "Bob,
perhaps you didn't understand me the first time I told you Mr. Mather's
situation. You went through his 1903 breakdown, and you know if doctor's
orders aren't followed, it could be a disaster for our friend. Maybe a
permanent disaster. Now I'm a lot younger than you, but I happen to be
in charge here, and you will obey me or you will be released to go back
to newspapering in New York. Believe me, and let's work together to
accomplish what Mr. Mather would want us to do." I expected him to
explode, but instead he quietly agreed.
By the middle of January every other problem had to be put aside as
I was called to appear before the appropriations committees for our funds
for fiscal year 1918. Mather's absence actually made it easier for me to
testify, as the members knew and liked him. Then, too, I played on their
sympathy for his tireless work and subsequent "exhaustion."
That was the Senate committee. The House committee was another
matter. I had to spend nearly three days defending our estimates. The
committee, as usual, handled me pretty roughly. Of course, the chairman
was our old enemy, Fitzgerald the curmudgeon. He singled me out for a
severe verbal beating because of unauthorized enterprises undertaken by
both Mather and Marshall during 1916.
Fitzgerald regarded the removal of troops from Yellowstone under
the plan worked out by Mather and General Hugh Scott, using the
revenues of the park to cover the costs of the new ranger force, as unauthorized
if not unlawful. He was determined to put the troops back in the
park no matter what the cost in money and in men who might be needed
for military service.
Furthermore, plans for the Yosemite power plant had been changed
to such an extent that a large deficiency had been incurred. Fitzgerald
blamed Marshall and Mather and was furious. As though it was all my
fault, he roared at me in the same vein he had used the year before:
"Albright, that power plant will remain in Yosemite forever, as is, and I
hope it will always be there to rust as a monument to the incompetency
of you men running the national parks."
The Sixty-fourth Congress adjourned on March 4, 1917, without
taking any action on the appropriations. It was a real blow, as I thought
I'd have to go through this whole thing again with the next Congress.
Fortunately, I didn't have to give testimony again, and the bill passed in
June pretty much as we had requested except for Fitzgerald's insistence
that troops return to Yellowstone.
This wasn't the only financial ordeal. A more urgent problem was
emergency appropriations in the Deficiency Bill, the only avenue to get
money to operate the Park Service until regular appropriations were
forthcoming for the fiscal year. Lane roared with laughter when I reported
that I had "crawled on my knees in sack cloth and ashes," begging for the
money. Ever after he would tease me, when I asked for anything, by
calling me "Old Sack Cloth and Ashes."
The Deficiency Bill finally passed on April 17 and provided for deficiencies
in appropriations for the fiscal year ending June 30, 1917. That is,
it covered appropriations for the Washington office for the period April
15 to June 30, 1917. It certainly wasn't much to go on, but something was
better than the nothing we'd been operating on since the Park Service
was authorized in August 1916.
One bright spot occurred on February 26. Mount McKinley, in
Alaska, was created a national park. We had been working on this for
some time with the Boone and Crockett Club, which was trying to save
the Dall sheep and other wildlife for which the region was famous.
Sadly, McKinley was treated like our other new parks, Lassen and
Hawaii. No money was made available to staff, operate, or improve them.
Not a red cent to hire a superintendent and rangers. Nothing for protection
of the wild animals (and there was unlimited hunting of them by
poachers). Nothing to make it possible for visitors to enjoy the wonders
of volcanic activity and the magnificent Alaskan wilderness.
One of the problems in operating the bureau was my inability to get
anything printed. I had learned a lot of bureaucratic tricks in my years
around the government and decided to use one that other bureaus did.
Whatever they wanted printed, they would get it introduced as a bill
or have a congressman make a speech about their topic. Consequently,
it was published in the Congressional Record and was printed in vast
On March 3, 1917, the day the Sixty-fourth Congress was to adjourn,
I brought up a batch of things I wanted printed to Representative Billy
Kent of California. I explained: "Billy, I'm in a real fix. Haven't a nickel
to get these articles I wrote printed up. They're really important, especially
the stuff I wrote urging the creation of the Grand Canyon National
Park. I need to send them out all over the country to rally support for the
That's as far as I got. Billy was feeling very jolly, largely as a result of
end-of-the-session liquid celebration. He quickly grasped what I had
come for, gave me a healthy swat on the back that almost knocked me
down, and roared: "You old coon, you know I'm always ready to do
anything for the National Park Service. Let's make this Grand Canyon a
national park. Hey, let's make the whole damn country a national park and
introduce a bill to abolish Congress."
On February 27 I received a letter from Dr. Weisenburg that made my
day. He wrote that Mr. Mather seemed well enough to allow me to visit
him. With Congress adjourned and the Wilson inauguration hoopla
concluded, there was an opening to slip away from Washington. I made
plans to go to Philadelphia on March 7 and thence on to Devon to see
I had the blessing of Secretary Lane. He said, "I want this whole
episode of Mather's illness kept under wraps." He made it clear that the
position of director of the National Park Service was still open. Mather
had not been appointed to it because of the seriousness of his illness. It
followed that if his breakdown leaked out, there would be political pressure
to fill the directorship with someone else. Lane concluded with,
"Albright, this is just between the two of us, our secret to keep."
After spending the night at a hotel in Philadelphia, I met with Dr.
Weisenburg at his office and had a long, fruitful discussion. He gave me
a detailed report on Mather, going over every fact he knew from his birth
to the present morning. He even made a phone call to Devon, before I
had arrived, checking on Mather's immediate condition.
It was a tragic story of this brilliant, creative, and successful man who
was burdened with a mental condition that could burst upon him,
without warning, when fatigue and stress mounted. In the light of
contemporary knowledge, his condition might be labeled manic depression.
His energy and exuberance, which accomplished so many great
things, could turn to deep, silent, suicidal depression with little warning.
In 1917 treatment was a program of isolation from the outside world
coupled with a regimen of plenty of sleep, a nourishing diet, and regular
exercise. Above all, no excitement, no problems.
"Weisenburg explained why I was the first one to be allowed to visit.
Mather had requested me, not only because he said I was "the one he
trusted above all others," but because his sole interest at this point was
the national parks. Mrs. Mather endorsed this move, as she felt I would
have the judgment to filter what Park Service news could be discussed
and what should be withheld. Weisenburg grimly warned me, though,
that I had a tremendous responsibility to maintain a balance between
giving Mather news of the Park Service for which he hungered and yet
not divulging anything controversial or upsetting.
Devon bore no resemblance to a hospital. It was a lovely, large home
tucked into green lawns and lush forested land. When I arrived, I was
immediately taken down a long carpeted hallway to Mr. Mather's suite of
rooms. They consisted of a large, brilliantly sunny sitting room with a
rather Spartan but warmly pleasant bedroom painted yellow and a bathroom
with tub and massage table branching off to the side. The sitting
room was furnished with comfortable chairs covered in pale green, a few
side tables, and Mather's own small desk from his Chicago bedroom. The
only decorations were two framed pictures of Yosemite, which I learned
that Mrs. Mather had relayed to him as a gift from Dusty Lewis. I noticed
immediately that the glass had been removed from the frames. I also
checked and was relieved to see that there was no evidence of windows
with bars. I had dreaded the thought that this free spirit could have been
cooped up like an animal.
As I entered the room, Mather jumped to his feet, bounded forward,
and gave me a bear hug. "Horace, how wonderful to see you," he said. As
he stepped back, I saw tears on his cheeks, his hands shaking, how close
to the surface were his emotions, how difficult it was for him to control
himself. I guess I might have had tears in my eyes too, as I saw how
incredibly better he looked, physically strong and healthy, with his old
animated expression and shining blue eyes. It hardly seemed possible that
the frightened, shaking, dispirited shade of a man two months ago had
been replaced by a vigorous, smiling figure.
Weisenburg had warned me that physical appearance meant nothing.
"Take special, gentle care of his fragile mental condition. He is not at all
Mather excitedly threw a barrage of questions at me. "Did McCormick
get his OK on the rail line? How fares the Desmond Company? What
about our appropriations? How did Fitzgerald act?" It was wonderful that
he had such a recall of our problems, and yet I had been forbidden by
Weisenburg to discuss anything controversial. Because of such a flow of
questions, I had time to pick out one to answer, and I chose the good
news, Mount McKinley National Park. I had brought the bill passed by
the Congress as well as a stack of photos of the park and congratulatory
letters to him from various sources across the country. It immediately
diverted him. We kept up our conversation on one thing after another, all
very light and inconclusive. Things were going perfectly.
Then I inadvertently mentioned Bob Marshall's help on some road
and trail planning in Mount Rainier. Bob Marshall! From being a happy,
talkative Mather, he erupted from his chair, pounding back and forth the
length of the room, calling out Marshall's name and denouncing himself
and his treatment of Marshall in the worst possible terms. Although totally
alarmed, I fortunately didn't have to cope with the situation. The male
nurse quickly signaled me to leave and gently but forcibly steered Mather
toward the bedroom.
In a few minutes the nurse reappeared and suggested that I go to the
kitchen to have something to eat, and he'd get back to me. He did very
shortly, telling me he had administered a mild sedative to Mather, that I
could go back now to say good-bye. Mather was quite calm once more
though disinclined to talk. However, he sat quietly and listened to me for
perhaps another fifteen minutes. I was nervous about his silence.
He loved jokes, so I quickly dredged one up. I still remember it was
about Mesa Verde. It seems some woman tourist was walking around an
old cliff dwelling there, listening to the guide explain what an incredible
civilization the ancient Anasazi had built here. Suddenly she inquired,
"Well, if these people were so marvelous, why did they build their towns
so far from the railroad?" Mather loved it, slapped his knee, and roared
with laughter. I left him on this high note, promising to come back very
On March 17 I wrapped up my work and caught the train for
Philadelphia once more, again spending the night at the hotel. The next
day I spent over eight hours with Mr. Mather. I determinedly steered him
away from current events and problems but had long talks about the
future, such as what glorious things we would do when we got the Grand
Canyon into the Park Service.
The most gratifying time came when Mather's nurse wheeled in a
projector and screen. I had brought motion pictures of the 1915 Mather
Mountain Party. While it was shown, he laughed, recounted anecdotes,
and pointed out scenic features. When it came to an end, he said, "Oh, this
is wonderful. Show it again." We showed it again, and again, and I think
a fourth again.
My joy didn't last long. I received a short note from Dr.Weisenburg
telling me that my visit had been a little strenuous for Mather. He didn't
blame me, saying that it was difficult to hold him down now that he was
somewhat better. "Any sustained effort on his part tires him and then, of
course, causes the consequent depression." I felt terrible, even if I apparently
wasn't to blame.
* * *
WAR. It changed everything. For the nation, the National Park
Service, and me personally. On April 6, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson
asked Congress for a declaration of war against Germany and its allies.
The majority of Americans had believed Wilson during the recent presidential
campaign when he had promised to keep us out of the war. That
had been the key to his defeat of Hughes. But now patriotic fervor swept
the nation, and the United States was off to make the world safe for
For the National Park Service, the war held up many things Mather
and I had in the works or had planned. However, in view of the fact that
I was now alone and solely responsible for the bureau, it did enable me
to slow down, contemplate, and quietly formulate policy and operations.
As for the immediate situation, my first order of business was to have
a complete review of the national park war policy with Secretary Lane. I
offered my resignation as acting director, a position to which he had just
appointed me. I outlined my military background in college and my qualifications
for an appointment as an officer in the army. At heart I loved
the military, and in spirit I was perhaps overly patriotic. I really wanted to
enlist as soon as possible and see service in France. Lane, listening passively
as usual, let me pour out my emotional presentation.
When I had exhausted my rhetoric and oxygen, he quietly said: "No,
Albright, you can't be spared to play soldier. You know the government
of the United States not only has to be a white knight in armor and save
the world, but we also have to operate and preserve the nation at home.
A war can't be run without soldiers and a government can't be run
without competent men. I'm sending in the proper papers to exempt you
from wartime service."
I tried to change his mind. It was a dead end. He stopped me then
and closed me off throughout the war. Gradually I came around to his
thinking that with Mather incapacitated perhaps he had no replacement
for me, and valuable men in the Park Service, like Dusty Lewis, were also
irreplaceable. I ended up talking many men of this type out of enlisting
or freezing them in their government positions.
I always regretted not serving my country in wartime, but my Grace
certainly didn't. Philosophically, she bordered on being a pro-draft dodger
if necessary to keep me safely home with her. However, she was the first
to volunteer her service through the Interior Department and was soon
appointed the head of its ladies' service division.
Although I was frantically busy in those first few weeks of war
activity, I felt I had to respond to Dr. Weisenburg's urgent summons to see
Mr. Mather. He reported that Mather was terribly upset by the advent of
war, frightened, and worried over the national parks. "You must come
quickly and reassure him," Dr.Weisenburg telegraphed, "or I am fearful for
a serious setback in his condition."
So on April 15 I entrained for Philadelphia, had a few hours of consultation
with Dr. Weisenburg, and spent a good portion of the sixteenth at
Devon with Mather. Indeed, he was in a fearful state, pacing back and
forth, wringing his hands, and deeply depressed. He fretted over what effect
the war would have on the parks and our plans for them. I tried to let him
talk it out, but he became more and more agitated. Finally, I linked arms
with him, slowing his walking down, quietly explaining that our department
was being virtually ignored, that if any problems arose in the future,
Lane and I could handle them. Nothing to worry about.
The male nurse had slipped away and now returned with large iced
glasses of lemonade, Mather's favorite beverage. Mather sat down, sipping
his drink, quiet and subdued. It never ceased to astound me how he
flipped from one mood to the other in a matter of minutes.
On May 9, 1917, Secretary Lane formalized Mather's and my positions.
There were now funds from the Deficiency Bill to pay salaries and
organize the bureau. Furthermore, Lane felt confident enough about
Mather's future recovery to have him approved as director of the
National Park Service and myself as assistant director. At the same time,
I was officially designated acting director during Mather's absence. There
was one slight hitch. Both the directorship and assistant directorship
called for men in civil service, and Mather and I did not have civil service
status. Secretary Lane simply went to President Wilson and asked him to
waive the rules and appoint us directly because of our knowledge and
experience in park affairs.
However, when I happily broke the good news to Mather, he rejected
the position. He said he wasn't well enough to become director now and
probably would never be strong enough in the future to take on the
burdens of the office. Mrs. Mather agreed, feeling strongly that the job
would kill him sooner or later.
Weisenburg felt that Mather had to accept the position, to have an
interest that would bring him back to physical and mental health. I finally
had to promise Mather I would remain as assistant director for a year or
longer if necessary. Only then did he agree to let Lane go ahead with his
appointment. My appointment was May 9, Mather's May 16.
There was one thing connected with my new appointment that I
had to settle. Heretofore, Mather had been paying me two hundred dollars
a month over my government salary. Then when I was promoted to assistant
attorney in the Interior Department, with a salary of two thousand
dollars, I asked Mather to dispense with his allowance, but instead he
merely lowered it to one thousand dollars a year. Now I discussed the
situation with him in light of my new position as assistant director. I
insisted that he dispense with his monthly stipend, and he calmly agreed
he would do so as soon as my new salary kicked in.
As it turned out, Mather secretly instructed his attorney, Oliver
Mitchell, to keep me on at one thousand a year. When Mitchell sent me
the usual check to handle Mather's financial affairs in Washington, he
always included the monthly allowance for Yard and me. When I noticed
that he was still doing this, I wrote him that Mather wanted mine stopped.
Back came the letter with Mather's instructions in it as well as the
cryptic comment from Mitchell that I deserved the money far more than
Yard. Mitchell added, "To what extent is Mr. Mather obligated to retain
I answered: "So far as I know, Mr. Mather is not obligated to retain
Mr.Yard at all. The obligation, as I understand it, was to employ him here
for two years. Certainly there is no written obligation to retain Mr.Yard,
Personally, I do not think he is doing work of a character that a man
commanding a salary of $650 per month should do."
Liking Bob Yard personally, though, I suggested to Mitchell that we
let the matter drift along until Mather was well enough to handle the
situation himself. It was far too delicate for us when we had no real guidelines
to follow. Mitchell replied that it might not be a good idea to leave
the problem in Mather's hands. "I'm not sure if he will be in condition to
undertake the unpleasant duty of tying a can to Mr. Yard. . . . Candidly I
think we would be doing Mr. Mather the greatest kindness if we would
dispose of the Yard matter."
I prevailed, insisting that Yard stay until Mather might be well enough
to go over the situation quietly and thoroughly. After all, Yard was one of
Mather's oldest friends, best man at his wedding, and a very volatile fellow
too. Mather couldn't take any excitement of the type Yard conceivably
As for my financial dilemma, Mather cleaned the situation up in a
letter to me on May 6: "I want to continue to pay you $1,000 a year after
you get your new government salary as assistant director."