Visalia relishes role in creation of National Park Service

Group photo of Mather mountain party on top of Mount Whitney.
Group photo of Mather mountain party on top of Mount Whitney. National Park Service collection

One hundred years ago, a high-profile party of politicians, scientists and business leaders departed Visalia for Sequoia and Yosemite national parks to garner support for the creation of the National Park Service.

Led by Stephen Mather, assistant secretary of the Department of the Interior, the Mather mountain party assembled at The Palace Hotel in Visalia on July 14, 1915 for a Mexican food dinner and networking.

The journey, launched the next day, proved to be an unqualified success.

A year later, President Woodrow Wilson signed into law a bill creating the National Park Service, and the following year Mather was named its first director.

“I think it’s one of those rare occasions when Visalia history overlaps with national history,” said Bill Tweed, retired Sequoia National Park naturalist and historian. “The role Visalia played in the creation of the National Park Service is pretty strong.”

To celebrate Visalia’s connection to the Mather mountain party — and by extension the creation of the National Park Service — the Visalia Convention and Visitor’s Bureau and the Sequoia Natural History Association are hosting a gathering at The Palace Hotel, which still stands in downtown Visalia.

The event for invited guests will take place July 14, which is 100 years to the day that Mather and the others endured the Valley heat.

The role Visalia played in the creation of the National Park Service is pretty strong.

Bill Tweed, retired Sequoia National Park naturalist and historian

The centennial next year of the National Park Service is sure to get substantial publicity, so a local event focused on the Mather mountain party centennial allows Visalia to take its own bow, said Suzanne Bianco, tourism and marketing manager at the convention and visitor’s bureau, who came up with the idea.

“The national park in our backyard is one of Visalia’s greatest assets,” she said.

Although Mather died in 1929, his spirit will be at the 100-year anniversary in the form of a historical re-enactor greeting visitors at the top of the Palace Hotel stairs.

The Palace Hotel ceased operations decades ago, so the main event will take place on the building’s ground floor at what is now The Lunch Box restaurant.

Woody Smeck, superintendent of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, will discuss the connection between the parks and Visalia.

Other guests will include people associated with the park service, local history and Visalia, said Mark Tilchen, executive director of the Sequoia Natural History Association.

“To know there’s an historical connection is pretty cool,” he said.

100Number of years since the hike that led to creation of the National Park Service

Mather, a University of California graduate, believed the dozen or so national parks needed unified administration instead of each being on its own, and he wanted Congress to authorize the creation of a federal bureau of national parks.

He had invited several high-powered people to meet him in Visalia so they could see the giant sequoia trees of Sequoia National Park and the grandeur of Yosemite and take the cause to Washington, D.C.

“This was a political trip as much as a recreational trip,” said local historian Terry Ommen.

Among those at the Palace Hotel that evening were Rep. Frederick Gillette of Massachusetts, who chaired the Appropriations Committee; Gilbert Grosvenor, founder and editor of National Geographic Magazine; and E. O. McCormick, vice president of the Southern Pacific Railroad.

Others included the chief geographer of the United States Geological Service, Bob Marshall; state engineer Wilbur McClure, who designed the John Muir Trail; Ben Maddox, publisher of the Visalia Daily Times and general manager of Mt. Whitney Power Co., which evolved into Southern California Edison; and Visalia lawyer George Stewart, former editor of the Visalia Delta, who is considered the father of Sequoia National Park due to his campaign in 1890 to create the park.

Mather’s role in the history of Visalia is not well known, but he visited the city at least six times, Ommen said.

In fact, Mather was in Visalia the year following the mountain journey when, Ommen said, he got a telegram relaying momentous news: “He came to Visalia at the end of a trip in August 1916 and learned Woodrow Wilson had signed the bill” creating the National Park Service.

Lewis Griswold: 559-441-6104, @fb_LewGriswold