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“…It is a tropic sunset done in stone…” John Roberts White’s letter to Stephen Mather from Bryce Canyon

Yes, there was a time, before texting and TikTok, when an indelibly evocative picture could be found in a written line…when a letter could fully and unaffectedly convey both wonder and warmth.   We have such a letter, sent to Stephen Mather by British-born John Roberts White, the Superintendent of Sequoia National Park

It is transcribed here in its entirety. 

                                                                      September 27, 1929

Dear Mr. Mather,

       It is natural that in this colorful southern Utah country which you loved so well, & which you opened up many years in the advance of the course of things, our thoughts should turn to you.  Hence this note to let you know that the Whites are winging their way back to the Big Trees from the Yellowstone conference.

     It was good to see you even in the movies which were shown at Haynes’ studio and we hope that we may see you in the flesh in Calif. this winter.

     Just to let me know in advance and I’ll run down & even chauffeur you around if Walter Morse is not on the job.  Anyhow, his speed will be too much for you now.

     This place entrances me.  It is a tropic sunset done in stone.  If I were supt. I would not rest until I had brought the world’s prima donna here to sing “The Holy City” from a vantage point overlooking the spires and minarets. I get here the same sense of the immanence of the Almighty that I have under the Big Trees; a sense that the Master Architect has here wrought on earth some faint image of the heavenly above—a preview, so to speak, of the Heavenly City.

     As an ex-publicity man, & a good churchman, that should appeal to you.

     With all good wishes for continued recovery from us both and all, I am

                                                                            Ever faithfully yours,

                                                                                        John White


Several months earlier, in late 1928, John Roberts White wrote to Stephen Mather from Sequoia National Park.   A brief portion of that letter is transcribed…


                                                                                        December 18, 1928

My dear Mr. Mather,

     This will serve to carry to Mrs. Mather & yourself Christmas greetings from the Big Trees (not to mention other things) superintendent & Mrs. White.  And, of course, to express the hope that you are much better…

     …We are having the wintriest winter even in the experience of Judge Fry.  There has been snow at Ash Mt. for a week & better early snow at Giant Forest than in many years.    But we are driving in & scores or hundreds of people are winter sporting under the sequoias.

    Everything goes well, except that you are on the shelf.  If good wishes will help you to recovery, you have them in plenty from Sequoia.

    Phyllis [White’s daughter] Mrs. White, join me in all sympathy and hearty good wishes to you all.  

                                                                                                    Faithfully yours

                                                                                                    John R White


From the letters, three questions arise.   What was Haynes’ studio?   Who was Judge Fry?

And, of course, who was John Roberts White?   A brief biography of John Roberts White is provided below.  The remaining questions will be answered in forthcoming blogs.


John Roberts White 1879-1961

Colonel John Roberts White managed Sequoia National Park from 1920-1947. In those years he implemented new conservation ideas that influenced national park policy and wilderness management in the United States. Prior to his time with the Park Service, White traveled extensively and experienced several important historical events. After leaving his childhood home of Reading, England, he fought with the Greek Foreign Legion before traveling to Alaska and the Yukon in search of his fortune. During his travels to America, he enlisted in the military and served in the Philippines. White spent several years with the Philippine Constabulary before managing Iwahig penal colony, also located in the Philippines. Struggling from poor health, White returned to America and actively sought work within the newly created National Park Service. After serving briefly in the Grand Canyon, White transferred to Sequoia National Park, where he fought for sustainability, especially within the Giant Forest.

An article entitled “The Genesis of National Park Management: John Roberts White and Sequoia National Park 1920-1947” states “The promotion, development, and protection of Sequoia National Park under the supervision of the archetypical “Mather man” John Roberts White demonstrates the park-level articulation of the Mather tradition.”


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