In a shop in Bar Harbor, on Mt. Desert Island in Maine, you can buy a postcard with a painting by Frederic Edwin Church. It’s partly thanks to this image that I can’t find a parking spot here.
In about 1845, Church wasn’t yet the household name he was to become; he was an “intern,” newly apprenticed to Thomas Cole, eminent founder of the Hudson River School of romanticized land- and seascape painting. Cole inspired Church with his work from Mt. Desert Island, and Church—he of the sensational sunsets—made a number of visits himself. Cole was known to have railed against the “apathy with which the beauties of external nature are regarded by the great mass, even of our refined community.” Between the two of them, they glorified nature’s pastoral and destructive beauty, and kicked off a frenzy for the rustic outdoors—by city people.
Many of these refined nature lovers flocked to Mt. Desert Island, finding crude accommodations with farmers and fisherman, and became known as “rusticators.” They made friends with their hosts, returning every summer to soak in the scenery and salty fresh air. By 1880, there was a bona fide tourist industry, with 30 hotels dotting the island. Today you can see the old photos all over the area: women sitting primly on rocks or lounging in canoes, buttoned up to the neck in mutton-sleeved, ankle-length dresses; bow-tied men in waistcoated suits standing atop hills or sitting on the beach. Rusticators formed village improvement societies, building hiking trails and walking paths connecting hamlets with nature’s beauties; some trails featured stairs to make it easier to access the wildness.
After the Civil War and especially in the “gay ‘90s”, American industry produced a privileged few who amassed great wealth. These folks—with names like Rockefeller, Vanderbilt, Morgan, and Astor—were not immune to the pull of nature, but they weren’t going to stay with the fishermen. They built grand estates, calling them “cottages” to suggest that they too were roughing it. Maybe they were being ironic. Opulence and elegant lawn parties replaced picnics on the rocks, buckboard rides, and hiking up the mountains.
But some were thinking ahead too. In 1901, anticipating the pitfalls of overdevelopment, Charles W. Eliot, Harvard’s president, formed a trusteeship to preserve some of the island’s most beautiful spots. They acquired 5,000 acres and donated it to the federal government. With additional gifts by private citizens like John D. Rockefeller Jr., who gave more than 11,000 acres, and George B. Dorr (the best people all seemed to sport middle initials in those days), congress designated it Acadia National Park in 1919.
John D. became concerned that the introduction of the automobile would ruin the unspoiled nature of the island. That irony isn’t lost on us, knowing he’s the son of the founder of Standard Oil. Between 1913 and 1940, he financed and directed the construction of a network of carriage roads for horse-drawn carriages and horse riders (and later hikers and bikers), so visitors could escape the automobiles.
The carriage roads form the connecting tissue of the park, winding through and around the mountains, valleys, lakes and forests of the island. Forty five miles of “broken-stone” paths and bridges were built with granite quarried on Mt. Desert Island. Many are lined with low blocks of stone that act as guard rails—they call them Rockefeller’s Teeth. For cycling visitors like us these are cool avenues through the birch, aspen, oak, and spruce, opening up to views of pure blue waters, lily pads and reeds in Christmas colors, and the occasional loon or Peregrine falcon. Hilly enough to get your heart rate up, yet not so steep that your average horse-drawn cart couldn’t make it. Just as memorable, there’s a restaurant at the foot of Jordan Pond that brings you fresh, warm popovers with homemade strawberry jam.
The Great Depression and World War II ended the island’s early century extravagance; then in 1947 a huge fire leveled many of the great estates. But the legacy of the rusticators lives on in multiple trusts and volunteer groups—Acadia is the first national park with an endowed trail system. And you have only to hike or bike the old carriage roads to appreciate the foresight of those who preserved this island with a degree of wildness, and the irony that they were rich city folks who loved a nature, but wanted it civilized.