In the past two columns I’ve introduced the story of a group of influential men who gathered in Visalia in July 1915 and spent almost two weeks exploring the remote backcountry that now forms the wilderness heart of Sequoia National Park.
Just to remind us, the group included the federal congressman who chaired the House Appropriations Committee, the director of the National Geographic Society, the president of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, the chief geographer of the United States Geological Survey, and the state engineer of California.
Leading the party was Stephen Mather, a Californian who had volunteered to spend a year helping the federal government organize its fledgling system of national parks.
Mather’s assignment for that year, given to him by the Secretary of the Interior, was to organize and lead a political campaign to create a federal agency to oversee the national park system. At that time, such a bureau did not exist. Each park reported directly to the secretary and had its own unique regulations and policies.
Mather had carefully selected the members of his High Sierra group with the hope that they would bond together and form a core team to support the park bureau campaign.
In this, he succeeded brilliantly. Once out of the backcountry, and after a quick visit to Yosemite to dedicate the recently purchased (from a mining company) Tioga Pass Road, the members of the “Mather Mountain Party” scattered and set to work.
Locally, Ben Maddox, publisher of the Visalia Daily Times (the “Times” in the modern Times-Delta), wrote a series of glowing articles about the trip. Here, in the style of journalism of those days, are the front-page headlines from the edition of July 30th 1915:
“Noted Men and World Travelers of Mather Party Extol Sierra”
“Mountain Scenery of Tulare County is Not Surpassed”
“Wonderful Sequoias of Giant Forest and Grandeur of Kern and Mt. Whitney Sections Impress Visitors”
“LET THIS BE SACRED HERITAGE”
Other members of the team went to work as well. Congressman Frederick Gillette used his seniority and leadership role in the congress to move a park bureau bill forward.
Gilbert Grosvenor, with the goal of building public support for the parks, dedicated an entire issue of National Geographic Magazine to the beauty of America’s landscapes and the need to protect them. The highlight of the issue was a foldout, full-length photo of Sequoia National Park’s General Sherman Tree.
Henry F. Osborn of the American Museum of Natural History rallied support for the campaign within the scientific community.
E. O. McCormick of the Southern Pacific Railroad worked to insure that the corporate world of Wall Street understood the benefits of better managing the national parks.
Several writers who had taken part, including Emerson Hough, generated a continuing flood of stories for the popular magazines of the day including especially the Saturday Evening Post.
And it worked. The following summer a bill successfully made its way through congress authorizing the creation of an agency to be called the National Park Service. President Woodrow Wilson signed it on August 25, 1916.
The following day, the good news was transmitted to Stephen Mather via telegram. He was staying, once again, in the Palace Hotel in Visalia. The telegram said it all: “Park Bill signed at nine o’clock last night… have pen used by President in signing for you.”
Years later, Mather’s personal assistant during this time, a young Californian named Horace Albright, would sum it all up when he remarked that the 1915 pack trip was the “final catalyst” that led to the passage of the act that created the National Park Service.
Few wilderness trips have accomplished more.
© Wm. Tweed