Stephen T. Mather was the National Park Service's first director and guiding voice.

Stephen T. Mather was the National Park Service’s first director and guiding voice.

Today is the anniversary of the founding of the National Park Service. It was on this date in 1916 that President Woodrow Wilson signed the enabling legislation creating the system. National parks themselves pre-date the 1916 Organic Act. Yellowstone goes all the way back to Ulysses S. Grant’s first term in 1872. Many people helped create the NPS; the one who stands out the most was its greatest advocate and first director: Stephen Mather.

Mather was an independently wealthy industrialist who worked tirelessly for America’s wilderness areas as Park Director. He held that position for a dozen years, from 1917 to 1929. Things were markedly different in those early years. Most parks in the system at this time were west of the Mississippi. Note that the Civil War battlefields were not yet under the auspices of the Park Services. The War Department managed Gettysburg, Antietam, et al during these years. It was Franklin Roosevelt who put the battlefields under the management of the NPS in the early months of his first term. FDR’s New Deal also left a strong mark on the parks; CCC and WPA crews built light infrastructure–camp grounds, stone walls, parking lots, restrooms–in Civil War and other parks.

Eisenhower was another big influence on the Park Service. In 1956 he created the Mission 66 initiative to build visitor centers and other tourist accommodations. The idea was to get this billions-of-dollars undertaking complete for the 50th anniversary in 1966. This work was imperative. The parks were feeling the strain of the millions of American families Seeing the USA in Their Chevrolet during those prosperous postwar years. The Richard Neutra Cyclorama Building in Gettysburg was one example of the Mission 66 movement.

The NPS urges all Americans to Find Your Park during the centennial. Thankfully this is easier than ever. There are now over 400 National Park Service sites within the United States and even overseas. Many of the newer sites are reflective of the changes in historiography that have taken place in recent decades, with an emphasis on telling the stories of traditionally underrepresented groups. There are still very few World War One related destinations within the system; that is because the battles were fought overseas and the American Battle Monuments Commission handles the memorials and cemeteries there. I know firsthand that the rangers and volunteers at Governors Island National Monument are working hard to tell the story of the American Expeditionary Force. The island is rich in WW1 history. That will all play out in the next few years.

Wherever you are, I urge you to visit your national parks.

(image/Stephen T. Mather as he was around the time of the National Park Service founding; Library of Congress, permalink: