Mount Desert Island

Regarding the pronunciation of its name, some locals stress the second syllable, in the French fashion, while many others pronounce it like Mojave DESERT. French explorer Samuel de Champlain's observation that the summits of the island's mountains were free of vegetation as seen from the sea led him to call the island "Île des Monts Déserts", or Island of the bare mountains.

A Frenchman, Samuel de Champlain, made the first important contribution to the historical record of Mount Desert Island. He led the expedition that landed on Mount Desert on September 5, 1604 and wrote in his journal, “The mountain summits are all bare and rocky..... I name it Isles des Monts Desert.” Champlain’s visit to Acadia 16 years before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock destined this land to become known as New France before it became New England. In 1613, French Jesuits, welcomed by Indians, established the first French mission in America on what is now Fernald Point, near the entrance to Somes Sound. They had just begun to build a fort, plant their corn, and baptize the natives when an English ship, commanded by Captain Samuel Argall of Virginia, destroyed their mission.

The English raid at Fernald Point doomed Jesuit ambitions on Mount Desert Island, leaving the territories east of the Penobscot River in a state of limbo, lying between the French, firmly entrenched to the north, and the English, whose settlements in Massachusetts and southward were becoming increasingly numerous. No one wished to settle in this contested territory and for the next 150 years, Mount Desert Island’s importance was primarily its use as a landmark for seamen, as for example when John Winthrop, first governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony, sketched the island’s mountains on his voyage to the New World.

There was a brief period when it seemed Mount Desert would again become a center of French activity. In 1688, Antoine Laumet, an ambitious young man who had immigrated to New France and bestowed upon himself the title Sieur de la Mothe Cadillac, asked for and received 100,000 acres of land along the Maine coast, including all of Mount Desert. Cadillac’s hopes of establishing a feudal estate in the New World, however, were short lived. Although he and his bride resided here for a time, they soon abandoned their enterprise. Cadillac later gained lasting recognition as the founder of Detroit. The island’s highest point, at 1530’ the highest point on the eastern seaboard of the United States, bears the name Cadillac Mountain, and is notable for the fact that its summit is the first point in the United States touched by the rays of the rising sun.

In 1759, after a century and a half of conflict, British troops triumphed in Quebec, ending French dominion in Acadia. With Indians scattered and the fleur-de-lis banished, lands along the Maine coast opened for English settlement. Governor Francis Bernard of Massachusetts obtained a royal land grant on Mount Desert Island. In 1760, Bernard attempted to secure his claim by offering free land to settlers. Abraham Somes and James Richardson accepted the offer and settled their families at what is now Somesville.

The onset of the Revolutionary War ended Bernard’s plans for Mount Desert Island. In its aftermath, Bernard, who had sided with the British government, lost his claim. Massachusetts, now free of British rule, granted the western half of Mount Desert Island to John Bernard, son of the governor, who, unlike his father, sided with the rebels. The eastern half of the island was granted to Marie Therese de Gregoire, granddaughter of Cadillac. Bernard and de Gregoire soon sold their landholdings to nonresident landlords.

Their real estate transactions probably made very little difference to the increasing number of settlers homesteading on Mount Desert Island. By 1820, when Maine separated from Massachusetts and became a separate state, farming and lumbering vied with fishing and shipbuilding as major occupations. Settlers converted hundreds of acres of trees into wood products ranging from schooners and barns to baby cribs and hand tools. Farmers harvested wheat, rye, corn, and potatoes. By 1850, the familiar sights of fishermen and sailors, fish racks and shipyards, revealed a way of life linked to the sea. Quarrying of granite, which could be cut from hills close to deep water anchorage for shipment to major cities on the east coast, was also a major industry.

It was artists and journalists who popularized this island to the world in the mid 19th century. Painters of the Hudson River School, including Thomas Cole and Frederic Church, glorified Mount Desert Island with their brushstrokes, inspiring patrons and friends to flock here. These were the “rusticators”. Undaunted by crude accommodations and simple food, they sought out local fishermen and farmers to put them up for a modest fee. Summer after summer, the rusticators returned to renew friendships with local islanders and, most of all, to savor the fresh salt air, beautiful scenery, and relaxed pace. By 1880, 30 hotels competed for vacationers’ dollars. Tourism was becoming a major industry. Catering to the rusticators and summer tourists visiting island towns, in particular Bar Harbor. Mount Desert Island, still remote from the cities of the East, became a retreat for prominent people of the time, as well, including The Rockefellers, Morgans, Fords, Vanderbilts, Carnegies, and Astors. These families transformed the landscape of Mount Desert Island with elegant estates, or “cottages.” Extravagent gatherings replaced buckboard rides, picnics, and day-long hikes of an earlier era. For over 40 years, the wealthy held sway at Mount Desert, but the Great Depression and World War II marked the end of such extravagance. The final blow came in 1947 when a fire of monumental proportions consumed many of the great estates.

In 1901, George B. Dorr, disturbed by the growing development of the Bar Harbor area and the dangers he foresaw in the newly invented gasoline powered portable sawmill, established along with others the Hancock County Trustees of Public Reservations. The corporation, whose sole purpose was to preserve land for the perpetual use of the public, acquired 6,000 acres by 1913. Dorr offered the land to the federal government, and in 1916, President Wilson announced the creation of Sieur de Monts National Monument. Dorr continued to acquire property and renewed his efforts to obtain full national park status for his beloved preserve. In 1919, President Woodrow Wilson signed the act establishing Lafayette National Park, the first national park east of the Mississippi. Dorr, whose labors constituted “the greatest of one-man shows in the history of land conservation” became the first park superintendent.

John D. Rockefeller Jr. gifted the park with much of its land area. Like many rusticators, Rockefeller, whose family fortune was derived from the petroleum industry, wanted to keep the island free of automobiles; but local governments allowed the entry of automobiles on the island’s roads. Rockefeller constructed approximately 50 miles of carriage roads around the eastern half of the island. These roads were closed to automobiles and included many scenic vistas and beautiful stone bridges. Approximately 40 miles of these roads are within Acadia National Park and open only to hikers, bicyclists, horseback riders, horse-drawn carriages and cross country skiers.

Today Acadia National Park and Mount Desert Island, along with the rest of downeast Maine, provide a beautiful retreat for visitors hoping to enjoy the pristine natural environment of the Park and the local fare of this popular resort destination.