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Historical InformationPhoto of Governor Pinchot on horseback in Calvin Coolidge's inaugural parade - 3/4/1925

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Governor Pinchot


After Pinchot left the Forest Service, his interest turned to holding public office. Many conservationists regretted it. With his talents diverted, they claimed, the progress of the movement declined. He was criticized for political opportunism and the relegation of forestry to the second burner.

A Republican, Pinchot ran for the United States Senate in 1914 and lost--soundly. In the words of Pinchot's new wife, Cornelia, the powerful incumbent, Boise Penrose "mopped up the floor with my bridegroom."

But when Penrose died in 1921, the old political machinery in Pennsylvania hiccupped. Pinchot ran for governor. Among his supporters were numerous labor unions, farmers and a number of progressives. Perhaps his strongest backers were various women's organizations. Pinchot insisted it was due to Cornelia and the women she organized that contributed most to his success. An underdog, he won the primary by just 9,000 votes. Soon after, in 1922, he was elected.

Pinchot viewed his two terms in the governorship as the most interesting and challenging years of his life. He is still considered to have been one of Pennsylvania's best and most progressive governors. Because he took a strong stand against the old guard of the Republican party, the people respected and trusted him. His accomplishments in fiscal management, reorganization of the state bureaucracy, and regulation of power companies all earned him esteem. Labor relations and public relief were core to his administrations both at the state and national levels.

When he died in 1946, Pennsylvania's government offices closed in special tribute on the day of his funeral.

First Term (1922-1926)

Governor Pinchot in car waving his hatPinchot was first elected Governor in 1922. In typical fashion, he jumped right in, often working sixteen hour days. He was "always stepping," said a member of his staff who had worked with several governors, "and it keeps us stepping too." Brimming with new ideas, Pinchot began an open door policy, moving into the huge reception room outside his office two hours a day, three days a week. Anyone could get in line and talk to him. It worked. "I am seeing at least three times as many people as I could the other way," he said.

Pennsylvania's fiscal matters were in disarray when Pinchot took over. Only a week after his election, he presented the first budget in the state's history. His desire to hold down spending quieted those who feared he was a "radical" or a "socialist." He also pushed through legislation to reorganize the government, to give it a more business-like look and standardize state salaries. Within two years, the state's thirty million dollar deficit had been wiped out. Pinchot himself took a pay cut.

In true progressive style, he tried harder than anyone else to enforce prohibition. Most of the "wets," in his opinion, sided with big business, supported child labor as well as the general abuse of the people, and struck a blow to the common good. He had some success. By 1923, liquor still flowed, but not so freely. His optimism showed in a letter to a friend: "The booze hounds will die out pretty soon and the liquor question will pretty much disappear with them." Well, not quite.

In 1926, while still Governor, he again ran for the United States Senate. In his heart, he was "constantly more interested in National work than in State work." Indeed, at various times, his name had been mentioned as a possible Presidential candidate. But it was not to be. During the senatorial primary, Pinchot did well in the rural areas but poorly in cities like Philadelphia where the Republican machine had firm control. Again he lost.

Then came the anthracite coal strike. After it became apparent the President of the United States would do nothing, Pinchot took the matter into his own hands. He asked for both sides to meet with him in Harrisburg. Placing each in separate rooms, Pinchot acted as a roving mediator, promising that anything said to him would be held in strict confidence. He never broke his word. Basically siding with the underdog coal miners, Pinchot settled the strike. But the operators merely passed the wage increases on to the consuming public, who were not pleased. This confirmed Pinchot's opinion of the anthracite managers as "hard-boiled monopolists whose sole interest in the people is what can be got out of them."

Pennsylvania law at that time disallowed consecutive terms for Governor. Just prior to stepping down and with his flair for the dramatic, Pinchot addressed the General Assembly with a stinging speech. "I am going out of office with the most hearty contempt not only for the morals and intentions, but also for the minds of the gang politicians of Pennsylvania." He named names and singled out the Mellon machine in Pittsburg as typical of city organizations spreading "their black hawk-like shadows over the community." He blasted "respectable elements" for collaborating with "organized crime" to support such machines. In prior administrations, he said, the state was run by big money, and the "people got little more than the crumbs that fell from the rich man's table." But Pinchot had resisted, he claimed, and in a stirring conclusion, he called for all to rally behind the "liberal movement to which Roosevelt gave point and power."

The applause, nevertheless, did not knock him from the podium. He later told his sister he "really had a great time writing it, and even more fun delivering it. You ought to have seen the opposition squirm!" He wrote to John L. Lewis, the leader of the mine workers' union, that he "greatly enjoyed rubbing it into the gangsters in the Legislature."

Pinchot was proud of his record. The majority of Pennsylvanians agreed with him. So did the Philadelphia Inquirer: "The Pinchot administration has accomplished much," it said. And on the floor of the United States Senate, Pat Harrison of Mississippi praised him for his "integrity, honesty, and high purpose."

Second Term (1930-1934)

Pinchot was elected Governor again in 1930. Four things were on his mind--control of the public utilities, the state economy, improving rural roads and the 1932 presidential election.

Over the next four years he battled relentlessly and with some success for regulation of public utilities. This was also the time of the Great Depression, and Pennsylvania was hit hard. Nowhere did a governor, or anyone else for that matter, fight more tirelessly for unemployment relief than did Gifford Pinchot. With a flurry of innovation, he set up work camps throughout the state, which later became models for Roosevelt's Civilian Conservation Corps.

His second term, like the first, boiled over with lively battles. He was often at odds with both parties, loving every minute of it. Always on the lookout for the best person for the job, he appointed two women to his cabinet. During another coal strike, he attacked the "swine of the Steel Trust" as he called them, and threatened to take control of the mines.

photo of horse and carriage stuck in muddy roadMeanwhile, he became upset with a report from the Society of American Foresters, an organization he had basically founded. He called the organization "wishy washy" as the nation's forests continued to shrink through fire, erosion and massive neglect. Collaborating with Bob Marshall, the father of modern day wilderness, Pinchot wrote a letter chastising the forestry profession for its policy failures and "spiritual decay."

In 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt asked Pinchot to recommend a new national forest policy. Pinchot' s reply, essentially drafted by Marshall, forecast a bleak future for the nation's forests. Private forestry, in his opinion, had failed. The only solution was a radical approach: the nationalization of all forest lands. That, of course, never happened, but it was probably the closest he ever came publicly to sounding like a socialist.

Pinchot's most favorite accomplishment during his second term was "taking the farmer out of the mud." The men in the relief camps built twenty thousand miles of paved, country roads. Light but effective, they were adequate to enable farmers to get to their markets. Thousands were thankful. Still today in Pennsylvania you can hear someone occasionally mention one of the "Pinchot Roads."

USDA Forest Service - Grey Towers National Historic Site
Last Modified: Monday, 16 December 2013 at 14:19:05 CST

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