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Arts & Culture

Maine History

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In the fall of 1604, explorer Samuel de Champlain and his crew arrived from Europe to make landfall on the terrain that would eventually become Acadia National Park. De Champlain, who mapped the area and named it “Isle de Monts Desert,” recalled that the “summits are all bare and rocky. The slopes are covered with pines, firs and birches.” Though much has changed over the 400-plus years that followed, odds are good de Champlain would still recognize the rolling, tree-covered terrain and rocky shoreline today.

Compared to the original inhabitants of the area, however, de Champlain was a relative latecomer. The Wabanaki people and their ancestors trace their Maine roots back more than ten thousand years. For the area’s earliest inhabitants, Mount Desert Island was well known for its plentiful hunting and fishing.

While hunting and fishing are still important to residents and visitors alike, present day Mount Desert Island is even better known as a place for recreation, relaxation and unmatched natural beauty. That transformation began in the early 20th century, when Woodrow Wilson first gave federal status to the land now known as Acadia, establishing it as Sieur de Monts National Monument on July 8, 1916.

Less than three years later, on February 26, 1919, the area was re-designated and renamed as Lafayette National Park. Then, on January 19, 1929, the park was again renamed Acadia National Park – and like its appeal, the name has endured.

While the U.S. government focused on the establishment and protection of the park – John D. Rockefeller, Jr., a wealthy Mount Desert Island landowner, had plans of his own. From 1915 to 1933, Rockefeller dedicated his efforts and resources to the development of his vast island estate, and the establishment of the carriage paths. Originally intended as a diversion for guests and dignitaries, Rockefeller developed more than 50 miles of trails to provide carriage and horseback access to the island’s remote beauty. He spared no expense, and constructed 17 arched granite bridges to achieve his vision.

In 1930, Rockefeller commissioned Beatrix Farrand to design planting and landscape plans for the carriage paths. The results show Rockefeller’s and Farrand’s remarkable foresight – still evident today in the beautiful, well-maintained trails. Details – like the hand-cut granite coping stones that protect travelers from steep roadside embankments – still stand as testament to their long-term vision.

In the fall of 1947, wildfires consumed more than 10,000 acres of the park. The fires, which burned for days, were finally brought under control by U.S. military forces, National Park employees and local residents. Despite the short-term devastation, the fires ultimately enhanced the Park’s long-term beauty and diversity – and called the Rockefellers back into action. Through their generosity and dedication, reconstruction began as soon as the fires ran their course.

Now, more than sixty years later, Acadia consistently ranks among the most-visited national parks in the U.S.