Thoughout much of his life in politics, Pinchot’s name had been occasionally thrown around as
a possible Presidential candidate. It never happened. He was eventually elected to public office
as Governor of Pennsylvania in 1922, largely through the support of rural counties and the new
women’s vote. During his 1923-1927 administration, his major goals were the regulation of
electric power companies and the enforcement of Prohibition. In a crusade for “clean politics,”
he reorganized state government, did away with many longstanding political practices, eliminated
the state’s $30,000,000 deficit, settled the anthracite coal strike of 1923 and was known for
Because Pennsylvania governors were then prohibited from successive terms, Pinchot ran again for
the Senate and lost. But in 1931, he began his second term as Pennsylvania’s governor during
the depression years. He advocated Federal economic relief for states and donated a quarter of
his own gross salary for one year. He successfully pressed for large reductions in utility
rates and built twenty thousand miles of paved rural roads to “get the farmer out of the mud”.
When Pinchot left office in 1935, he was seventy years old. He made a third run for the Senate
and later again for the governorship. Both campaigns stalled in the primaries. During his last
decade, he fought the transfer of the Forest Service from the Department of Agriculture to the
Department of the Interior, an agency he insisted was still corrupt. He assisted his wife in
her political career and a third unsuccessful bid for a Congressional seat. During World War II,
he developed for the Navy a special fishing kit to help sailors adrift in lifeboats survive.
The military commended him for saving countless lives.
Shortly before his death, he completed a ten-year effort to write an autobiographical account of
his work between 1889 and 1910 and his part in the development of forestry and conservation in
the United States. Breaking New Ground, the title excerpted from a Roosevelt accolade, was
published posthumously in 1947. Other writings that Pinchot had authored included The Fight
for Conservation, a dozen monographs on forestry subjects, a popular book on his journey to
the South Seas, and approximately 150 published articles, reports, bulletins, lectures and
On October 4,1946, at the age of eighty-one, Gifford Pinchot died in New York City of leukemia.
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
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
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
When he died in 1946, Pennsylvania’s government offices closed in special tribute on the day
Pinchot 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.
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
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
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.”
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
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.
Meanwhile, 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”.