A “New” First Permanent Woman Ranger

For almost a century Marguerite Lindsley (later Arnold) was believed to be the first permanent woman park ranger, appointed to the position at Yellowstone National Park on December 28, 1925. In fact, Mary J. Sullivan held a permanent ranger position at Glacier National Park more than a year earlier.

From City Slicker to Western Woman

Mary Josephine Appel was on born August 19, 1867, in Rochester, New York to Joseph Appel and Mary Bacher. She attended school through the eighth grade, which was not uncommon at the time. She married Charles E. Palmer, but he died around 1912. They had two sons.

She first visited the Flathead Valley in Montana in 1908 while still living in New York. It’s possible she met Thomas Sullivan then as he worked as a guide and packer at Glacier National Park, but their early relationship is undocumented. She returned to Montana and married him on December 19, 1914, in Kalispell. He became a park ranger at Glacier in 1917, and they lived at Camas Creek Station.

A Convenient Hire

Mary Sullivan reported that she had an appointment as a “temporary registration agent” (a park ranger who checked and registered cars as they entered and exited the park) at Polebridge Station in 1923. That position isn’t recorded on her official service record card, which probably means she was hired as a day laborer.

Sullivan became a permanent park ranger at Glacier National Park on July 1, 1924. The National Park Service (NPS) seems to have only grudgingly hired her. A letter dated June 2, 1924, from Glacier superintendent Charles J. Kraebel to NPS Director Stephen T. Mather requesting her appointment as park ranger stated that she would act as the “registration agent at the Polebridge entrance to Glacier National Park. This is one of the unimportant entrances to the park but requires a ranger to act as registration agent.”

Mary Sullivan standing in front of a log building wearing a long dress.
Photo of Ranger Mary Sullivan from her official personnel file, ca. 1924. (National Archives photo)

Another significant factor in her appointment (and those of many other early women rangers, see A Family Affair) was also noted in the request. “There are no quarters available at that place for another ranger. Mrs. Sullivan is the wife of Ranger Thomas J. Sullivan and if she acts as registration agent at the Polebridge entrance the housing problem is solved.” The appointment request referred to her only as “Mrs. Thomas J. Sullivan.” The NPS Washington Office wrote back requesting her first name, as it was required for the paperwork.

Despite hiring her out of convenience, the NPS gave her a permanent ranger appointment, not a temporary one. Evidently they recognized that she would fill a recurring need. Her starting salary was $900 per year.

It's unlikely that Sullivan wore the NPS uniform even though she was a permanent ranger because she only worked about two and a half months each year. No photographs of her in uniform have been found; the photo at the right is the only known image of her.

A December 4, 1925, memo in Glacier’s museum archives lists her as a temporary ranger (“registration clerk during the tourist season”). That is contradicted by her official personnel file at the National Archives and Records Administration and by an October 1, 1926, memo in the park collection listing her among the permanent rangers. Some confusion may have resulted from the fact that her permanent appointment was designated “when actually employed” (WAE) meaning that she could be furloughed when she wasn’t needed—which was most of the year.

Sullivan worked each summer from 1924 until 1930 but only during peak visitation, usually July 1 to September 15 but occasionally starting in June. In 1926 she was given “classified status” qualifying her for retirement benefits. On July 1, 1928, her position was reclassified from park ranger to park ranger (checker), as was the case for most women rangers at that time. Her salary increased from $1,020 to $1,200 per year, less $120 per year for rent of government quarters.

She reached the mandatory retirement age of 62 on August 19, 1929, but she didn’t have the 15 years required to receive benefits. When calculating her retirement, it was determined that she only worked a total of one year, five months, and two days. For some reason she was permitted to work from June 15 until September 30 during the 1930 season. Sullivan resigned her position on March 31, 1931, the letter stating, “sending in my resignation as ranger checker at Polebridge Station for the past eight years” which reflects her temporary ranger position during the 1923 season.

Losing Her Place

Although Marguerite Lindsley was believed to be the first woman hired as a permanent ranger, Sullivan’s personnel records reveal that she was hired 17 months earlier. Until recently, Sullivan had largely been forgotten and only snippets of her later career were known. How is it that her status as the first permanent woman ranger has been overlooked for so long?

Lindsley’s story ran in many syndicated newspaper articles and magazines in the 1920s. She was young, athletic, college educated, and attractive, which no doubt appealed to editors. Several stories described her in her ranger uniform. She was also born and raised in Yellowstone National Park, and when she became a ranger there, the “hometown girl does good” aspect appealed. These newspaper accounts were readily available to NPS employees, researchers, and the media, becoming a self-perpetuating story.

Sullivan’s story, however, is less “feel good,” and her personal history more tragic. She was 57 years old when she was hired in 1924. She probably didn’t wear the NPS uniform. As a married woman, she was addressed as “Mrs. Thomas Sullivan” and that's probably how park staff thought of her even when she was working each summer. She worked in a less visited (“unimportant”) part of the park and was hired because she didn't need additional housing. She worked only for a couple months each year (Lindsley’s permanent position was also subject to furlough, but the furloughs were shorter. Her college degree also meant that she was hired at a higher grade and therefore earned a higher salary). Arguably, Sullivan would have been seen as substitute by most, if not all, of Glacier’s staff and certainly not newsworthy. Rangers' wives frequently pitched in where needed. Sullivan was paid for some of her work. It's likely that she helped out in other unpaid ways throughout the year.

In 1924, the year she became a permanent ranger, Sullivan fell while visiting Butte, Montana and sustained permanent nerve damage and other injuries. Eventually she developed spinal arthritis, which would have painful and likely affected her ability to work, although it isn’t mentioned in her personnel records.

By 1936 she suffered from “morphinism” (an addiction to morphine) due to the pain. Her health declined over the next couple of years. She died March 27, 1938, at Kalispell, Montana, aged 76. Her cause of death was listed as “gradual starvation over a period of a month.”

Sullivan’s obituary, rediscovered in 2021 and which led to this research, simply noted that “at one time she was a lady park ranger at Polebridge.”

Sources: Montana, U.S., County Births and Deaths, 1830-2011 [database on-line]. Lehi, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2017. Montana, U.S., County Marriages, 1865-1987 [database on-line]. Lehi, UT. USA: Operations, Inc., 2017. 1920 United States Federal Census [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2010.

“Employment: General” files. Glacier National Park museum collection (GLAC 16346).

“Obituary: Mary J. Appell” (1938, March 31). The Daily Inter Lake (Kalispell, Montana), p. 2.

Personnel File: Mary J. Sullivan. NPS-OPF-2171-081-91867. National Archives and Records Administration, St. Louis. Copy received September 39, 2022.

Personnel File: Mary J. Sullivan. NPS-OPF-2172-081-91867. National Archives and Records Administration, St. Louis. Copy received September 39, 2022.

“Trips in Hole.” (1928, September 29). The Independent-Record (Helena, Montana), p. 6

Explore More!

To learn more about Women and the NPS Uniform, visit Dressing the Part: A Portfolio of Women’s History in the NPS.

Glacier National Park, Yellowstone National Park

Last updated: October 4, 2022