Mt. Desert Island is the second largest island on the eastern seaboard of the United States and the largest among Maine’s coastal islands. Part of what is known as “Downeast Maine” Mt. Desert island portrays the picturesque quaintness of lobster buoys and fishing villages and is home to Acadia National Park. Bygone eras of wealth and prosperity are also evident in the backroads of larger villages, Bar Harbor, Northeast Harbor and Southwest Harbor. Some of the lesser-known hamlets like Seal Cove, Tremont, Otter Creek, and Seal Harbor also contain hidden gems of the past.
Summer residences blanket the island even today. One can meander the obscure Cooksey drive and witness the reason for Mt. Desert’s inflated tax base. The tradition began in the 1840s not long after renowned painters Thomas Cole and Frederick Church visited the area for additional settings. They had portrayed the Catskill and Adirondack Mountains of New York in idyllic pathos such that city dwellers of means wandered in that direction and permanently affected the life of that countryside.
The same happened in this once-remote region of Maine. Stories abound of how and why the transformation took place. Some say the transition to a tourism economy was fortunate. From Wabanaki transient habitation through squatters eking a living from the seacoast, lumbermen, and farmers inland, to further economic ventures, resources began to be depleted at a rate beyond what the surroundings could recover. It was during this last era people from away made this scenic discovery. They began to visit, come back, then make a habit of summers on the island.
Islanders have made the change. It took not two generations from the Civil War to foresee the impending metamorphosis. Today service industry components are thoroughly entrenched in the region and are readily available for summer visitors. Whether for a season or just a day (if you venture there, probably a day is not enough!) the local families have adjusted their livelihoods and professions to accommodate any duration of stay.
The wealth invested on Mt. Desert Island remains tucked away. Unless a boating tour provides a waterfront view, most of the mansions of today are cloistered behind hills and forests, away from a tourist’s eye. Ages ago, some mansions were flaunted along the main thoroughfares of the island. Called ‘cottages,’ since the owners didn’t live there year-round, these facilities “modestly” hosted banquets, sporting events, and even plays for the owner’s inner circle of acquaintances. Thankfully today, the island’s scenic inspiration remains accessible to everyone through the efforts of local benefactors and Acadia National Park.
Storms, raging fires, outsider interest, and the perpetual tides of population have shifted the landscape across three centuries, but not the local’s resilience. Mainers and Islanders, in particular, are dedicated to their homeland. They relish its beauty and understand how its magnetism draws people from every walk of life. They’ll be ready for all the company, no matter who shows up. Welcome to Mt. Desert Island!
Bill Caldwell. “Indian Baskets to Steamer Trunks… The Development of Mount Desert Island”. In Acadia Weekly. August 3-9, 2003.
B.F. DeCosta. Rambles on Mount Desert: With sketches of Travel on the new-England Coast from Isles of Shoals to Grand Menan. A.D.F. Randolf & Co. 1871.
Dorr, George B.. The Story of Acadia National Park. 3rd ed. Bar Harbor, ME: Acadia Publishing Co., 1997.
Bunny McBride and Harald E.L. Prins. Indians in Eden: Wabanakis and Rusticators on Maine’s Mt. Desert Island 1840s – 1920s. DownEast Books. 2009.
Morrison, Samuel Eliot. The Story of Mount Desert Island. Boston: Little, Brown & Company, 1960.
Catherine Schmitt. Historic Acadia National Park: The Stories Behind One of America’s Great Treasures. Guilford, CT: Lyons Press, 2016
Philip G. Terrie. A New History of Nature and People in the Adirondacks. The Adirondack Museum/Syracuse University Press. 1997