At only 1,530 feet, Mount Desert Island's Cadillac Mountain, in Maine's Acadia National Park, lays a singular claim to fame: it is the highest point on the eastern coastline of the Americas, from Canada all the way south to Rio de Janeiro in Brazil. But for anyone standing on Cadillac's summit on a brilliant summer afternoon, it's the view, not the statistic, that dazzles. To the west, ponds and lakes glisten in dense forests. To the east, a green tapestry of pine and spruce trees stretches to the outskirts of Bar Harbor. Beyond that seacoast village, yachts and sailboats ply the icy Atlantic waters off the four Porcupine Islands in Frenchman Bay.
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At low tide, it's possible to cross the sandbar separating Bar Harbor from its closest offshore island. But now, in early afternoon, the tide is rising: whitecapped waves crash against a pink-granite coast. Each year, more than four million visitors converge on the summer playground known as the Acadia region of Maine, centered on 108-square-mile Mount Desert Island and the national park, and stretching from the Penobscot River on the west to the eastern border of Hancock County. "Acadia," or L'Acadie to the early French adventurers, likely derives from a corruption of Arcadia, the remote province in ancient Greece portrayed in legend as an earthly paradise.
Acadia has attracted warm-weather travelers for nearly 150 years. In the late 19th century, the barons of the Gilded Age, among them Rockefellers, Morgans and Vanderbilts, summered here. Initially, they were drawn to Mount Desert Island by their admiration for the works of several New York and Boston artists, including Thomas Cole and Frederic Church, who had come here in the mid-1800s to paint the isolated wilderness. Their patrons wanted to experience—as well as own—the scenery depicted in these works. "They were people with Newport ‘cottages' who wanted to get away from traditional summer resorts," says Marla O'Byrne, president of Friends of Acadia, a nonprofit organization created in 1986 to help protect and maintain the national park.
The wealthy vacationers soon built manors and gardens on a grand scale. Yet they also understood the need to protect the wilderness around them. Several decades earlier, Henry David Thoreau had warned in The Maine Woods that unchecked expansion of the lumber industry was stripping Maine of its splendid pine forests. Voicing a then radical notion, Thoreau claimed that the pine was "as immortal as I am, and perchance will go to as high a heaven, there to tower above me still." At first, few among the Newport set may have shared Thoreau's sensibilities. (Indeed, some had made their fortunes from lumber.) By the late 1800s, however, new technologies for processing timber were threatening even the summer refuge of the very rich. "The invention of the portable sawmill is what really scared them," says Sheridan Steele, superintendent of Acadia National Park since 2003.
Beginning in 1901, the Rockefellers and others bought up huge tracts of Mount Desert Island's forests, setting the land aside for eventual recreational use by the public. They lobbied Washington to declare this wilderness the first national park east of the Mississippi; Congress did so in 1919. The individual most responsible for the creation of the park was George B. Dorr (1853-1944). His friend, Harvard University president Charles W. Eliot, a summer resident of Mount Desert Island, called for an association of like-minded neighbors to protect the island's natural beauty. The Rockefellers, Morgans and other families responded generously. Mount Desert received its name from the French explorer Samuel de Champlain, who in 1604 described the Isle des Monts-Déserts ("island of bare-topped mountains").
John D. Rockefeller Jr. (1874-1960) donated huge tracts of land to the park. "Of course," adds his grandson David Rockefeller Jr. (who spends each August on Mount Desert Island), "his unique contribution was helping to design the carriage roads that thread through the park and make it so accessible to horseback riders, cyclists and pedestrians." Between 1913 and 1939, David's grandfather built 45 miles of horse-drawn- carriage trails and stone bridges on the 11,000 acres he owned before donating the land to the park. The trails forestalled the growing menace of automobiles, today confined to the Loop Road, a 20-mile, two-lane thoroughfare on the eastern side of the island.
Acadia National Park expanded piecemeal to 35,000 acres—the last major donation, of 3,000 acres, from the Bowditch family, was made in 1943. All but a few thousand acres lie on Mount Desert Island; the remaining parcels are scattered on smaller, nearby islands. Three miles southwest of Mount Cadillac, the cold, clear waters of Jordan Pond—actually a lake formed by glaciers 10,000 years ago—are flanked by Penobscot Mountain on the west and by a formation known as "the Bubbles," a pair of rounded mountains lying immediately to the northeast. A flat trail skirts Jordan's 3.6-mile shoreline. One of the original Rockefeller carriage trails, screened by pines, birches and maples, follows a ridge that rises 50 to 200 feet above the water. (Today, bicyclists pedal its dirt-and-gravel surface.)
Jordan Pond also serves as a starting point for treks to Penobscot Mountain or the Bubbles. Acadia Park's capacity to accommodate just about any visitor, whether a picnicker or a serious hiker, in so limited a space—while retaining its wilderness character—makes it uniquely successful. "You get the feeling you are in a much larger park," says superintendent Steele.
Since the late 1800s, when privileged vacationers first settled here, the town of Bar Harbor (pop. 4,820) has been Mount Desert Island's largest community. The original lavish residences reflected architectural styles ranging from Colonial Revival to Italianate. Guests often arrived by yacht, their hosts awaiting them at private docks and whisking them up to broad porches overlooking the harbor, where cocktails were served.
This charmed existence ended with the great fire of October 1947, which incinerated thousands of acres of forest in Acadia National Park and roared into Bar Harbor itself. "It divides the town's history into B.C. and A.D.," says year-round resident James Blanchard III, whose 20-room, white-columned Colonial Revival-style house dates from 1893. As the blaze approached, panicked inhabitants crowded on docks awaiting evacuation, or worse.