At the last moment, the wind shifted; the blaze retreated toward the forest. But as flames leapt from roof to roof, many of the mansions—some 60 in all—were destroyed. Blanchard's house, its roof shingled in asphalt rather than wooden shakes, was spared, although some of the towering pine trees in the garden bear scorch marks. "The fire flattened Bar Harbor," says Blanchard, who today leads efforts to preserve the remaining showplaces. "Town officials decided to shift the community's focus from elite to mass tourism, and encouraged the development of motels, inns and commerce. The old guard didn't like the hurly-burly and moved to Northeast Harbor." That community (pop. 527), still resolutely posh, lies 12 miles south.
During the summer, Bar Harbor's Main Street is thronged with vacationers served by boutiques and restaurants.Yet only a couple of blocks away, on the edge of the Atlantic, the town can seem as tranquil as old-timers remember it. A gravel path skirts the harbor along rocky beaches, where families wade in frigid waters at low tide, and continues past the few surviving mansions.
The only one permitting limited public access is the 31-room La Rochelle, completed in 1903 for George S. Bowdoin, a partner of J. P. Morgan. It was, according to the property's former caretaker, George Seavey, the first Bar Harbor residence with electricity; even its two doghouses reportedly boasted lights and running water. The gardens were designed by the distinguished landscape architect Beatrix Farrand (1872-1959), who also created Washington, D.C.'s Dumbarton Oaks. (Her garden at La Rochelle no longer exists.) The estate was sold in the 1940s to Tristram C. Colket. In 1973, the Colket family donated the property to a nondenominational Christian charity, the Maine Sea Coast Mission, now headquartered here.
In 1905, two Congregational clergymen from Mount Desert Island had organized the Sea Coast Mission to improve the health and spiritual well-being of lobstermen, farmers and their families living on a score of islands along the coast from Eastport to Kittery. Physicians and ministers, transported on a Mission vessel, visited islanders frequently. "We still take nurses out there," says Seavey. The Mission usually carries a minister on board to help lead services in island churches and chapels, or occasionally on the vessel itself.
Nowadays, most visitors reach the outer islands by ferry from Mount Desert Island. The Cranberry Isles—one to five miles to the south—are popular destinations, with boat service from Southwest Harbor to Great Cranberry Island and Islesford, both ideal for biking. Fewer tourists go to Long Island, eight miles out at sea and reachable by a Friday, round-trip passenger ferry operating April to November out of Mount Desert Island's Bass Harbor. Long Island is home to the tiny village of Frenchboro, famous as a traditional center of lobster fishing. Months earlier, I had happened across Hauling by Hand, Dean Lawrence Lunt's 1999 account of growing up there. "My view of island reality," he wrote, "is a heritage of endless labor, the sea, raw winter days, glorious summer mornings and crisp fall afternoons on the Atlantic Ocean."
There is but one overnight room available on the island; Frenchboro's tourists are day-trippers, most arriving by yacht or sailboat. On a cool July morning, I am the sole passenger aboard the ferry as it heads into a pea-soup fog. The only visible objects during the crossing are lobster buoys, bobbing a few feet off starboard and signaling lobster traps at the bottom of the Atlantic.
Dean Lunt greets me at the mist-shrouded Frenchboro dock on the northern end of the island; the 44-year-old author has offered to act as my guide. Owner of Islandport Press in Portland, a publisher of books specializing in Maine and its history, Dean is a descendant of the clan that first settled Frenchboro in the 1820s. Around 1900, it became an outpost for lobster fishing with nearly 200 inhabitants. By the early 1970s, however, the island's population had dwindled to fewer than 40, clustered on a deep, narrow inlet protected from all-too-frequent storms. At one point, Dean had been the only pupil in the one-room school. "T here were no phones [here] until I was 17 years old," says Lunt, as we drive in a pickup truck to his parents' home, less than a mile away.
In recent years, record harvests of lobster and a surging demand for the delicacy have brought near-prosperity here. The population has increased to about 70, including 14 students in what is now a two-room, white-clapboard schoolhouse offering instruction through the eighth grade. (Most youngsters then attend school on Mount Desert Island.) Just about everyone has access to satellite television and broadband Internet.
Many houses–wood-frame structures from the 1800s and early 1900s for the most part—appear to be under renovation, their tiny rose gardens fenced to discourage the deer that abound on this nine-square-mile, flounder-shaped island. Newly expanded houses encroach on family cemeteries clinging to steep slopes above the harbor. "Relatives going back to my great-great-great-grandfather are buried just over here," says Lunt, pointing to a grassy plot a few hundred yards from his parents' home. The white-marble tombstone of a Civil War veteran reads: "Hezekiah Lunt, private, July 2, 1833 to January 29, 1914."
When the sun burns away the fog, I follow Lunt down a narrow path and wooden stairway from his parents' house to the docks. Lobster boats unload their catches at the wharf, where they are weighed and purchased at $6.75 a pound by Dean's father, David, 70, proprietor of Lunt & Lunt Lobster Company, founded by the family in 1951. (Both of Dean's brothers, Daniel and David, are lobstermen.) There is no single explanation for record catches along Maine's coast during the past five years. Dean Lunt believes that a major reason is the overfishing and sharp decline of cod, a predator of lobster fry.