Bar Harbor History

Bar Harbor, Maine History
bar harbor rentals
Bar Harbor History
Mount Desert Island, Maine

Bar Harbor encompasses approximately 28,800 acres on the northeastern part of Mount Desert Island, located in Hancock County off the southern coast of Maine in the U.S. The municipality of Bar Harbor includes the villages of Hulls Cove, Salisbury Cove, and Town Hill with a year-round population of 4,820 (year 2000 census).

The earliest known visitors to the area were the coastal Abnaki Indians who referred to Mount Desert Island as “Pemetic” (sloping land). Their permanent villages were located on the mainland but they would regularly go to the island to fish and gather berries and shellfish. On one of those occasions in September of 1604 AD, the smoke from their campfire near Otter Cliff caught the attention of the famous French explorer Samuel de Champlain, who then decided to move in for a closer look. Unfortunately, the high tide concealed a rock formation called the “Spindle.” After striking it and damaging the ship's hull, Champlain was forced to seek protection in Otter Cove for months of repairs. He named the island “Isles des Monts Desert” for the bare-rock summits of the granite mountains.

The sloping land that the Abnaki Indians observed and described was formed as the result of ancient slow moving continental glaciers, 1-2 miles high in places, that sheared off the tops of the mountains leaving rounded bare granite summits. You will notice the “sloping” shape on the smaller Porcupine Islands off the shores of Bar Harbor. From the air or via accurate maps, you can also see the north-to-south gorges that were scooped out of the land, forming such notable geographical formations as Eagle Lake, Echo Lake or the 7 mile long Somes Sound, the only naturally occurring fjord on the Atlantic coast of North America.

Abraham Somes, a sailor/fisherman from Massachusetts, created the first recorded settlement (along with his family) on Mount Desert Island in 1761 at the northern shore of Somes Sound in what is now called Somesville. James Richardson soon followed with his family that same year. The town of Mount Desert was formed in 1789 encompassing all of Mount Desert Island as well as the Cranberry Isles, Beech Island, Robertson's Island, and Bartlett's Island. Israel Higgins and John Thomas were the first to permanently settle in what is now called Bar Harbor in the year 1763. Mount Desert broke into two towns in May 1795 and the northeast section was incorporated on February 23, 1796 as Eden, named after the English Statesman, Sir Richard Eden. The original 1796 document was signed by Samuel Adams and is on display at the Bar Harbor Historical Society. The name Eden was changed to Bar Harbor in 1918.

The rugged coastal landscape began attracting artists of the famous mid-nineteenth century Hudson River School, a group of American landscape artists with a shared passion and detail oriented painting style. A unique artistic movement, much later referred to as “Luminism,” emerged that emphasized the effects of light or “atmosphere” in a calm or tranquil landscape setting. Seascapes and landscapes of Bar Harbor and other parts of Mount Desert Island, painted by notable artists such as Frederic Church and Thomas Cole, created a media buzz of its day and stirred the desires of many new people to travel to the Maine coast to witness the beauty first hand. It is safe to say, being called "Eden," added to the anticipation of discovering a natural utopia. These visitors, referred to as “rusticators,” boarded at first with island locals. Soon, their numbers increased and created a market need for more and better lodging choices.

The first place on Mount Desert Island to have steamboat wharves and hotels was actually Southwest Harbor located at the southern entrance to Somes Sound. Even so, largely because of the interest stirred by the paintings and word of mouth, most visitors desired to travel the distance to Bar Harbor on the northeast side of the island. It became obvious to some that development had to take place in Bar Harbor so in 1855, the first hotel, Agamont House, and the first wharf were built. Even back then, Bar Harbor was a place of inspiration for many people. That tradition continues today.

After the Civil War, building in Bar Harbor really increased. The enormous “Rodick House” was built in 1875 by David Rodick to replace a smaller facility. It became the largest hotel at that time, able to accommodate 275 guests. By 1881, the facility was expanded again, this time it had 400 rooms! The dining section alone could serve up to 1,000 people. There was a huge 25 foot wide, 500 foot long porch across the hotel's front, extending along another side.

The building boom was such that, by 1880, there were 30 hotels in Bar Harbor. This caught the attention and concern of Boston native, George B. Dorr and Charles W. Elliot, followed later by John D. Rockefeller, Jr., who wanted to protect and preserve the land from over development. This was the beginning stages of the establishment of a National Park - first organized as Sieur de Monts monument in 1916, later changed to Lafayette National Park in 1919, then finalized as Acadia National Park in 1929.

There was a devastating 1947 fire that began on October 17 during a severe dry spell that had begun in July and lasted until then. On that day, around 4:00 PM, a woman called the Bar Harbor Fire Department to report seeing smoke coming from a local cranberry bog. No one knows how the fire started. But, it continued, unabated, for more than 10 days taking with it nearly half of the eastern side of Mount Desert Island including over 10,000 acres of Acadia National Park, 67 magnificent “summer” homes of the very wealthy, 170 permanent homes, and five historic grand hotels. In all, approximately 18,560 acres were burned. At one point during the fire, high winds intensified the burn so much that a wildfire was created that traveled six miles in only three hours. The fire was not officially declared out until 4:00 PM, on November 14 - twenty eight days after the initial call was received by the fire department! Even today, you can still see some of the original burnt trees in certain sections of the park.

Bar Harbor and the rest of the area made a wonderful recovery. Today, people from all over the world continue to visit Bar Harbor, Acadia National Park, and the rest of Mount Desert Island for the same inspiration that beckoned the nineteenth century artists, poets, writers, scientists, and other visitors.

History adds to Understanding