Forester, Conservationist & Wilderness Visionary, 1879–1975
“For we need this thing wilderness far more than it needs us. Civilizations (like glaciers) come and go, but the mountain and its forest continue the course of creation's destiny. And in this we mere humans can take part-by fitting our civilization to the mountain.”—Benton MacKaye
Best known as the originator of the Appalachian Trail, MacKaye was an American forester, planner and conservationist.
Born in Stamford, Connecticut on March 6, 1879 to actor and dramatist Steele MacKaye and his wife Mary, Emile Benton MacKaye was the sixth of seven children. Benton had five older brothers, and a younger sister, Hazel.
MacKaye’s early childhood was transient, as his father squandered what money he earned in the theater. When his second oldest brother William purchased a small estate in Shirley Center, Massachusetts, a quiet village west of Boston, in July 1888, the family moved into their first home. Eight-year-old Benton was immediately taken with the beauty of life in the country and the freedom it offered. “The Cottage,” became MacKaye’s true home for the remainder of his life.
Upon his fathers death in 1894 MacKaye became head of the household as his older brothers were attending college. Struggling with the loss of a father who was often absent, he enrolled in the Cambridge Latin School. Despite enjoying Boston and living with family friends, by December he had made the decision to drop out, and study independently for the entrance exams to Harvard University. MacKaye was accepted into Harvard and began classes in October 1896.
During his undergraduate studies John Muir, a mountaineer and founder of the Sierra Club and Gifford Pinchot, chief of the U.S. Division of Forestry, visited Harvard. Their passionate lectures about the challenges facing American forests and their enlightened views on the wilderness moved the seventeen-year-old. MacKaye embarked on his first hike in the mountains of northern New England after his freshman year, an experience that influenced his future response to the world around him.
In October 1903, as the forestry profession began to establish itself, MacKaye returned to graduate school, enrolling in Harvard’s new forestry school. He became the first to graduate in 1905 and would spend the next five years alternating between teaching at the school in Petersham, Massachusetts, and working as a Forest Assistant with the U.S. Forest Service.
In 1909, a change in Presidential administrations and controversy surrounding Pinchot’s dismissal from the Forest Service were disruptive to the conservation movement and MacKaye found himself unemployed creating a crisis for his family. With the advice of his sister Hazel, he completed the textbook, A Theory of Forest Management, using the planning of a Peterborough, New Hampshire estate as a key case study. Unable to find a publisher, he shared it with the Forest Service chief, Henry Graves, who offered him a job in Washington D.C.
In Washington, MacKaye became involved with progressive leaders of the conservation movement. In 1913 he met Jessie Hardy “Betty” Stubbs, a suffragette, who he would marry in June 1915. The two pursued their independent careers with MacKaye traveling the country for his Forest Service work, and Betty accompanying him doing suffrage work. Unfortunately, the marriage was short-lived. Betty committed suicide in 1921 by jumping into the East River.
Not long after Betty’s death MacKaye proposed the idea of hiking a path along the ridgeline of the Appalachian Mountains. Refining his plans he first published his idea for the Appalachian Trail in the October 1921 edition of the Journal of American Institute of Architects in an article entitled An Appalachian Trail: A Project in Regional Planning. The article detailed his plan for the trail and proposed setting aside wild lands along the route similar to those being created in the West.
Following the article, new hiking clubs emerged and the Committee on Community Planning became the trail’s major benefactor. In 1925 the disparate groups converged to form the Appalachian Trail Conference. Work proceeded quickly and a footpath running from Maine’s Mount Katahdin to Georgia was completed in 1937.
In 1935 MacKaye, with other prominent wilderness supporters including Bob Marshall and Aldo Leopold, founded the Wilderness Society, the first National organization dedicated to the preservation of the wilderness. The group’s influence grew steadily, impacting government policy and public consciousness. In 1945 MacKaye was elected president eventually becoming honorary president, a title he held throughout his life. His involvement and energy inspired veterans and newcomers alike to the wilderness cause.
Benton MacKaye died at the age of 96 on December 11, 1975. In 1979, the Benton MacKaye Trail Association was founded and in 2011 Benton MacKaye was inducted into the Appalachian Mountain Club Hall of Fame.