Excerpt from “This New England: Mount Desert Island, Maine,” Yankee Magazine, August 1981.
When Samuel De Champlain named Mount Desert Island, he did so because he was so struck by the barren, deserted summits of the stretch of mountains that give the island its soft, rounded profile. Though the mountains’ summits remain deserted, the island has not been so, almost since Champlain’s visit in 1604. In 1980, nearly four million people visited this largest of Maine’s islands.
The island is 16 miles long and 12 miles wide and today it includes no less than 15 towns. It has a year-round population of 8,000, which bulges to nearly three times that number in the summer.
If it were anywhere else in Maine, and especially if it were not an island, chances are it would not have the attraction that it does. The roadsides that blaze with lupine are not peculiar to Mount Desert, nor is the bony soil nor the ironclad shoreline nor the mist nor the shores notched with coves discreet enough for even the clumsiest smuggler. The pink granite, the low-bush blueberries, the gently sloping mountains and inland lakes — all can be found many other places in Maine.
Cadillac Mountain, which rises to the quite conservative height of 1,530 feet — out West it would simply be thought of as a hill — would never be distinguished at all. But it is the highest mountain on the otherwise flat Atlantic coast and, as such, it has been hailed as “majestic,” “awesome,” even “towering.” Sitting where it does at the edge of the sea, Cadillac Mountain (which shares its namesake with the car) is the first place on the eastern seaboard where the sun can be seen as it rises.
Mount Desert Island is a long way from anywhere and it isn’t on the way to anywhere. You won’t chance by it on your way to Portland the way you do Kennebunk or Old Orchard Beach. If you’re going to Mount Desert Island, it’s a destination in itself.
This may have been one of the many attractions for the early vacationers, known then as “rusticators.” In the days of steamboats and schooners, Thomas Cole, a leader in the Hudson River School, instigated an influx of artists hungry for fresh landscapes. The very rich who viewed these paintings wanted not only to own the canvases but the actual landscapes as well. They came to get away, to lapse back into a simpler life. By the turn of the century, names like Rockefeller, Ford, Vanderbilt, and Carnegie were as common on the island as dories. They built enormous “cottages” -– some had bedrooms enough to accommodate 40 servants, garages with 15 bays.
Their power increased along with their love for the island. To preserve its natural beauty from further development, many of the wealthy landowners donated blocks of land to a common trust. It was in turn given to the government and in 1916 it became the beginnings of Acadia National Park. Today, the park’s ragged boundaries, a surveyor’s nightmare, weave haphazardly across the island. It now makes up nearly half the island, sprawling over 30,000 of the total 69,000 acres.
In 1947 a raging fire that started at the town dump and was fanned by gale-force winds consumed much of the island’s forests and many of the summer mansions that had given the island its exclusive reputation. Many of the homes were never rebuilt. But in so many ways it still epitomizes a resort for the very rich: immense stone houses concealed behind high cedar fences and wrought iron gates; private drives and signs that politely suggest that you not venture further; and elaborate yachts moored in the harbors.
But many sections of the island also epitomize Maine and its fishing villages: cabins with lobster traps stacked like cordwood in the back yard; lilacs grown up like trees in front of the windows of squat farmhouses whose fields stretch down to the harbor; gardens, sometimes the whole yard tilled up, planted with cold-weather crops — turnips, broccoli, cauliflower, peas — whose roots must surely touch salt water; cliffs like cathedral walls and trees that grow out of rocks.
The last time I was on Mount Desert Island, I got up at 3:30 a.m. and made my way through the darkness to the top of Cadillac Mountain: I wanted to be the first to see the sun rise at 4:07 a.m. and I was relieved to find that I was alone when I reached the top. The darkness eased into light but I never saw the sun, sheathed as it was in fog.
At that moment, I knew that the island was weighted with thousands of visitors, most of them asleep in their tidy guest cottages or trim hotel rooms — image enough to make mockery of Champlain’s perception of these mountains as barren and deserted. Yet through the dimness of the mist, there wasn’t a hotel, a cottage, or a person in sight — all I could see were the breakers that looked like lace collars around the ledges below.