“The National Parks”: Episode Three

Ellsworth and Emery Kolb photographing in the Grand Canyon

By Jeff Pfeiffer

The National Parks: America’s Best Idea continues tonight on PBS with the third episode, “The Empire of Grandeur (1915-19).”

Though this episode chronicles only a short period of time, it is a very critical time in the history of the national parks. As the episode begins, the nation has a dozen national parks, but they are haphazardly organized, and under the supervision of different federal agencies. Before he passed, John Muir had suggested an overseeing body to manage the parks. After the failure to protect the Hetch Hetchy valley, conservation groups pick up on Muir’s idea and push the government to establish one unified national parks agency. And, in 1916, the National Park Service is established.

The story of its first director, Stephen Mather, is very interesting. He is a self-made millionaire who becomes a passionate park advocate following his various visits to the sites. He seems to be like Muir, whom he had once met, in that he frequently needs to get out among nature to recharge himself mentally, spiritually and physically. We do learn that Mather suffers from occasionally crippling bouts of depression (we hear about some of his frightening breakdowns in this episode), and being out among nature can help ward them off. Becoming disgusted by the condition of the parks, Mather complains about it to his friend, Secretary of the Interior Franklin Lane, who invites Mather to do something about it himself. Mather accepts the challenge.

One of the many good things about this miniseries is that it shows how lots of different people, of all cultures and economic standing, played major roles in the development of our national parks, and it usually all started with the person being struck by the beauty of the land. Often, wealthy, corporate types are stereotyped to be against the environment, but we learn in this series that if it weren’t for the well-off likes of Mather and Theodore Roosevelt, there may not be the park system as we know it. Not only did they have the passion to protect and advance the parks, but they also had the money and connections to set wheels in motion. And Mather does set many things in motion in his crusade to put the national parks under the heading of one federal agency, taking on a staff and paying their salaries out of his own pocket. He also raises funds from his rich friends to purchase more park lands, along with buying some himself, to donate to the NPS for protection.

Stephen Mather (with flag) on a 1915 tour of the national parks

We also learn in this episode about other well-to-do men who played a key role in the national parks. Textile industry heir George Dorr embarks on a relentless campaign to have a large island off the coast of Maine designated for federal protection. In 1916, 5,000 acres of Mount Desert Island is set aside as a national monument, eventually to become — with further prodding from Dorr and John D. Rockefeller, who had himself paid to create a series of scenic carriage roads on the island — Acadia National Park.

When World War I breaks out in 1914, the railroads begin a “See America First” campaign. Mather embraces this. Travel restrictions to Europe will keep wealthy Americans home, and Mather wants them to have a chance to see the beautiful wonders in their own country. He even takes several influential Americans on a tour of the Sierra Nevada mountains, hoping to convince them of the need for an overarching agency to manage such places.

Mather and his young assistant Horace Albright also attempt to accomplish what Theodore Roosevelt was unable to — establish the Grand Canyon as a National Park. It currently is a National Monument, but is threatened by the likes of Ralph Henry Cameron. Cameron owns claims on the most scenic and strategically located spots and feels the canyon is his private domain (he even wants to charge people to use the trail into the canyon, and for using the only outhouses along the way).

In the segments talking about the Grand Canyon, we are also introduced to the interesting Kolb brothers, Ellsworth and Emery. They are incredibly hard-working entrepreneurs working around the canyon, offering photos for tourists, and bravely documenting through film and photographs places in the canyon others dared not go. They eventually come away with the first moving pictures of the canyon and the raging river that formed it.

Congress finally passes a bill establishing Grand Canyon National Park in 1919. But we haven’t heard the last of Cameron. He refuses to give up his canyon interests, and when elected to the U.S. Senate, swears revenge on those trying to infringe on his “private property.”

Episode Three is a satisfying and inspirational look at all that went on in these five formative years of the national parks, including the creation of Rocky Mountain National Park, Hawai’i National Park, Lassen Volcanic National Park, Mount McKinley National Park (later renamed Denali) and Zion National Park. Stephen Mather is a fascinating man to get to know here, and he truly seems to have been the “right man at the right time,” as one interviewee says. It’s no wonder that shortly after his death in 1930, every park had a bronze plaque erected in his honor, with the words, “There will never come an end to the good that he has done.”


Kolb brothers photo: Credit Grand Canyon National Park Museum Collection

Mather photo: Credit Marian Albright Schenck