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A place of inspiration

History is alive in Bar Harbor and Acadia National Park

Mount Desert Island, where the town of Bar Harbor is located, is one of the largest islands on the US Atlantic seaboard, measuring 28 miles across east to west, with a total area of 108 square miles. Cadillac Mountain is the highest coastal point on the East Coast of the United States, at 1,532 feet, and notable for being the first point in the US touched by the rays of the rising sun. On March 3, 1918, the former town of Eden was renamed Bar Harbor, after Bar Island which protects the harbor.

Prehistoric records are scanty, but encampments dating back 6000 years are evidenced by deep shell heaps in the area in and around Bar Harbor. The native American Abenakis (aka Wabanaki) were early visitors, probably dating to 1500. They called the island Pemetic, which means “sloping land,” traveling from the mainland in exquisite birch bark canoes to fish, hunt and gather berries and plants. French explorer Samuel de Champlain met members of the tribe at Otter Point when he ran aground in September, 1604. He dubbed the island “Isles des Monts Deserts” meaning “island of the bare mountains”, where the current name Mount Desert Island originated.

The first French Jesuit mission and colony in America was established on Mount Desert Island in 1613; the first permanent English settlement began in 1762. The town of Bar Harbor was first incorporated as the town of Eden, after Sir Richard Eden, an English statesman, in a 1796 document signed by Samuel Adams.

By 1820, when Maine separated from Massachusetts, fishing, shipbuilding, farming and lumbering were the major occupations. Life was linked to the sean, and settlers used hundreds of acres of tress to build schooners, as well as barn, furniture, and tools. Farm grew wheat, rye, corn, and potatoes. Granite was quarried from the hills close to deep water where it could be loaded for shipment to major cities on the east coast.

In the mid-1840s, the founding artist of the Hudson River School, Thomas Cole, and his student Frederic Church traveled to Mount Desert Island, with fellow artist Henry Cheever Pratt. The inspiring scenery and successful body of artwork lead Cole to revisit Maine during the next decade, with other artists including Fitz Hugh Lane, William Hart and Thomas Birch. The work of these artists was well received in major cities, and people wanted to see the places depicted in the paintings themselves. The “rusticators,” as the first visitors were called, boarded with the locals initially. During the 1850s, the number of visitors began to increase. The numbers had increased so much that it was about this time that Church wondered why “some shrewd Bostonian” had not yet recognized the resort potential of Bar Harbor.

Southwest Harbor, on the other side of the island, had the first area steamboat wharves and the hotels, but visitors wanted to visit Bar Harbor. Local businessman Tobias Roberts built the first hotel, Agamont House, in 1855, and the first wharf. The hotel was a white wooden structure, somewhat cude to bear the name “hotel”, but early visitors were drawn to the area’s rusticity.

With only a slight interruption by the Civil War, more and more hotels and cottages were built as “rusticators” came to the island by train and the Mount Desert Ferry to dock at Bar Harbor. Alpheus Hardy was the first summer resident to build a “cottage” called Birch Point in 1868. Theater troupes were visiting and concerts were becoming more frequent. After the Civil War, building boomed. The “Gilded Age” in American history refers to the post-Civil War and post-Reconstruction Era from 1865 to 1901, which saw unprecedented economic, territorial, industrial, and population expansion. David Rodick built the Rodick House in 1866 on the site which is Main Street at Rodick Place. In 1875 he expanded his small lodging facility to accommodate 275 guests, Bar Harbor’s largest hotel at that time, with reservations being made up to two years in advance. By 1870 there were sixteen hotels in Bar Harbor. By 1880, 30 hotels competed for visitors. Tourism was becoming a major industry.

In 1881 Rodick decided expanded again, building a six-story hotel with 400 rooms, with not one private bathroom, a huge dining room, and a 500 foot long, 25 foot-deep “piazza” along the front and one side of the building. The dining room could serve 1000 guests. It quickly became one of the most famous society hotels in the country. The hotel era dominated the resort for about two decades, until America’s rich and famous took over the landscape.

Beginning in 1868, wealthy, powerful, and influential summer visitors from Boston, New York, and Philadelphia – the Astors, Rockefellers, Vanderbilts, Carnegies, and Morgans – and notables such as Joseph Pulitzer, William Proctor, Mary Cadwalader Jones, and Evelyn Walsh McLean came to Bar Harbor and built their Bar Harbor residences. Magnificent “cottages,” as they were called, were more often 50-room mansions, complete with servants’ quarters, stables, and guest houses. Luxury, refinement, and ostentatious gatherings replaced the “rustic” pleasures and activities of earlier visitors. The rich and famous tried to outdo each other with entertaining and estates, and Bar Harbor became a rival with Newport, Rhode Island. Bar Harbor mushroomed into a playground for the very rich and a world-renowned tourist destination. President William Howard Taft played golf at Kebo Golf Club in August, 1910, and horse racing took place at Robin Hood Park – Morrell Park.

Many of the wealthy summer residents formed “Village Improvement Societies” which constructed hiking trails and walking paths connecting the Island’s villages to its interior mountains. Disturbed by the growing development of the Bar Harbor area and the dangers of the newly invented portable gas sawmill, Bostonian George B. Dorr worked with Harvard president Charles W. Elliot to create a national park on Mount Desert Island. A public land trust was created in 1901 to preserve Maine’s natural beauty for future generations, acquiring 6000 acres by 1913. Dorr offered the land to the Federal government and in 1916 President Woodrow Wilson announces the creation of as Sieur de Monts National Monument, with Dorr as its superintendent. Dorr continued to acquire property and work to gain full national park status. In 1919, President Wilson established Lafayette National Park, the first national park east of the Mississippi, and in 1929 the name was changed to Acadia National Park. John D. Rockefeller, Jr., whose family fortune came from the petroleum industry, donated 11,000 acres to the park. He had wanted to keep the island free of automobiles, but lost out to the local governments. In response, Rockefeller designed and constructed approximately 50 miles of carriage roads, closed to automobiles, around the eastern half of Mount Desert Island, with many scenic vistas and beautiful stone bridges. Much of this road system is within Acadia Nation Park and today is open only to hikers, bicyclists, horseback riders, horse-drawn carriages and cross country skiers.

For over 4 decades, the wealthy made Mount Desert Island their summer playground. But the Great Depression and World War II marked the end of such extravagance. A final blow to the island’s prosperity came in with the Great Fire of 1947.

In summer of 1947, Maine experienced a severe drought. On October 17, a fire in a cranberry bog near Salisbury Cove ignited a wildfire which intensified consumed 169 acres in the next 3 days. Islanders felt spared, but on October 21st the fire intensified, fanned by wind gusts and gales. It spread in every direction, and then headed into Bar Harbor. In 3 hours, a 3-mile wide swath of flames traveled six miles into downtown. Nearly half the eastern side of Mount Desert Island burned, including 67 of 222 palatial summer houses. Five historic grand hotels were destroyed, in addition to 170 of 667 year round homes. Over 10,000 acres of Acadia National Park were destroyed. Fortunately, the town’s business district was spared, including Mount Desert Street, where several former summer homes within a historic district listed on the National Register of Historic Places can be seen today. The fire ended an era, however, and many of the summer people did not return.

The Great Fire changed Bar Harbor forever, but the town itself survived. Many of the mansions of the Gilded Age were beautifully preserved, renovated, and are now private homes and luxury inns, such as Balance Rock. Today, Bar Harbor is a destination for tourists from all over the world. Cruise ships are in the harbor every day. Today’s visitors can see many signs of the bygone era, in a place which has become accessible to “everyday folks” who visit to see Maine’s incredibly beautiful island paradise. History is alive in Bar Harbor. Agamont Park overlooks the town pier and the harbor, commemorating the site of the town’s first hotel. A historic walk starting at the Village Green will take you past elegant mansions, majestic churches, and refurbished municipal buildings. The Shore Path is smooth gravel walkway winding along the Atlantic shore, past gorgeous sprawling homes and inns. There are a number of places to stop and take in the views, while you imagine Victorian ladies strolled the same paths with their dashing gentlemen companions. At low tide, a walk across the shell-covered sand bar from Bridge Street to Bar Island will give you an oceanside view of West Street’s Millionaire’s Row.