Acadia's Affluent OriginsBy Frank Swanson
With more than 2.5 million visitors every year, Acadia National Park consistently ranks within the top 10 of America's most visited national parks, but its origins as a tourist destination were far more exclusive. Back in the 19th and early 20th centuries, Mount Desert Island was a summer playground for well-heeled captains of industry. These genteel vacationers followed an earlier wave of “rusticators,” artists and writers eager to escape from the East Coast's increasingly clamorous cities to the island's peaceful wilds. Among these were Hudson River School painters Frederic Church and Thomas Cole, who captured the island's beauty on canvas and thus advertised (perhaps unintentionally) their idyllic hideaway to the rest of the country.
A who's who of the era's wealthiest Americans flocked to Mount Desert Island, and like the rusticators before them, they came to enjoy the forest trails, scenic mountain overlooks and rocky, surf-splashed coast. Unlike the rusticators, these new visitors weren't satisfied with the basic food and accommodations available on the island, so they built lavish estates, some with more than 100 rooms, that they called “cottages.” By the 1880s the island had a Millionaires' Row that rivaled Newport, Rhode Island, in opulence, and boasted summer residents that included such prominent names as Astor, Carnegie, Ford, Morgan, Rockefeller and Vanderbilt.
Their influence wasn't limited to over-the-top mansions and glamorous garden parties. Many were actively involved in improving access to and protecting the island's natural splendor. John D. Rockefeller Jr. spent decades developing the park's charming carriage road system and at times even supervised construction. When the rapid growth of Bar Harbor , then called Eden, and the expansion of lumbering operations threatened to destroy their island's pristine wilderness, Charles W. Eliot, president of Harvard University, and George B. Dorr, a Boston textile heir, organized a group to privately buy up land for conservation.
Using his influence and powerful connections, Dorr successfully lobbied President Woodrow Wilson to create a federally protected park with land the trustees donated, which by 1913 was more than 6,000 acres. In 1919 Wilson signed the act establishing Lafayette National Park, the first national park east of the Mississippi. In 1929 the name was changed to Acadia National Park, and today it preserves more than 47,000 acres. Dorr became the park's first superintendent.
While Acadia expanded and thrived, the fortunes of the men who'd help create it didn't fare so well due to the implementation of a federal income tax and the Great Depression. Even George Dorr, lauded as the “Father of Acadia,” emptied his once deep pockets in acquiring land for the park and died virtually penniless. By the 1940s the island's era of Gilded Age extravagance was a distant memory, and many of the beautiful homes on Millionaires' Row were abandoned and had fallen into ruin. In 1947 a wildfire driven by gale force winds raced through Millionaires' Row, destroying 67 of the elaborate cottages and burning 10,000 acres in the park.
Despite all the years and reversals, you can find traces of Acadia's lavish past everywhere in Bar Harbor and elsewhere on the island. Several historic mansions have been reborn as bed and breakfast inns, among them Balance Rock Inn . But perhaps the greatest legacy left behind by those moneyed cottagers of yesteryear is Acadia National Park itself.
Acadia National Park, ME
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