|Area||108 sq mi (280 km2)|
|Highest elevation||1,528 ft (465.7 m)|
|Highest point||Cadillac Mountain|
|Largest settlement||Bar Harbor (pop. 5,235 people in 2010)|
|Pop. density||96.8 /sq mi (37.37 /km2)|
|Ethnic groups||mainly Caucasian|
Mount Desert Island (MDI) in Hancock County, Maine, is the largest island off the coast of Maine. With an area of 108 square miles (280 km2) it is the 6th-largest island in the contiguous United States, and it is the second-largest island on the Eastern seaboard, behind Long Island and ahead of Martha's Vineyard. According to the 2010 census, the island has a year-round population of 10,615, and it is estimated that two and a half million tourists a year visit Acadia National Park on the island. The island is home to numerous well known summer colonies such as Northeast Harbor and Bar Harbor.
Some residents stress the second syllable ( dih-ZURT) in the French fashion, while others pronounce it like the English common noun desert ( DEZ-?rt). French explorer Samuel de Champlain's observation that the summits of the island's mountains were free of vegetation as seen from the sea led him to call the island L'île des Monts Déserts (Island of Bare Mountains).
According to Acadia National Park movies shown to the public in the park's visitor center, the name means "isle of the lonely mountains" because the mountain tops appear alone to approaching seafarers before any other land.
There are four towns on Mount Desert Island:
Deep shell heaps indicate American Indian encampments dating back 6,000 years in Acadia National Park, but prehistoric data is scanty. The first written descriptions of Maine coast Indians, recorded 100 years after European trade contacts began, describe American Indians who lived off the land by hunting, fishing, collecting shellfish, and gathering plants and berries. The Wabanaki Indians knew Mount Desert Island as Pemetic, "the sloping land". They built bark-covered conical shelters, and traveled in exquisitely designed birch bark canoes. Historical notes record that the Wabanaki wintered in interior forests and spent their summers near the coast. Archeological evidence suggests the opposite pattern; in order to avoid harsh inland winters and to take advantage of salmon runs upstream, American Indians wintered on the coast and summered inland.
The first meeting between the people of Pemetic and the Europeans is a matter of conjecture, but it was a Frenchman, Samuel de Champlain, who made the first important contribution to the historical record of Mount Desert Island. Champlain led an expedition from the St. Croix Settlement. He was tasked with exploring the coast in a patache with twelve sailors and two American Indian guides. They were in search of a mythical walled and wealthy American Indian city named Norumbega. On September 6, 1604 the expedition crossed Frenchman Bay and sailed towards Otter Creek, where smoke could be seen rising from an American Indian encampment. During high tide the ship hit a ledge off Otter Cliff and while repairing a hole two American Indians boarded the ship as guides.
It is not clear whether Champlain sailed around the Island or was informed by the guides, but on that day, he wrote in his journal, "Le sommet de la plus part d'icelles est desgarny d'arbres parceque ce ne sont que roches. Je l'ay nommée l'Isle des Monts-déserts", which translates to "The mountain summits are all bare and rocky. I name it Isles des Monts Desert."
In 1613, French Jesuits, welcomed by Indians, established the first French mission in America--Saint Sauveur Mission--on what is now Fernald Point, near the entrance to Somes Sound. Saint Sauveur Mountain, overlooking the point, still bears the name of the mission.
The French missionaries began to build a fort, plant their corn, and baptize the natives. Two months later, on 2 July 1613, Captain Samuel Argall of the Colony of Virginia arrived on board the Treasurer and destroyed their mission. Three of the missionaries were killed and three were wounded. The rest of the company, some twenty in all, were taken prisoner. Argall took many of the prisoners to Jamestown. He eventually returned to Saint-Sauveur and cut down the cross the Jesuits had planted, replacing it with a Protestant version. He then set fire to the few buildings that were there. He then went on to burn the remaining French buildings on Saint Croix Island and Port Royal, Nova Scotia.
The English raid at Fernald Point signaled the dispute over the boundary between the French colony of Acadia to the north and the English colony of New England to the south. There is evidence that Claude de La Tour immediately challenged the English action by re-establishing a fur-trading post in the nearby village of Castine in the wake of Argall's raid.
There was a brief period when it seemed Mount Desert would again become a center of French activity. In 1688, Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac, an ambitious young man who had immigrated to New France and bestowed upon himself the title sieur de Cadillac, asked for and received 100,000 acres (400 km2) of land along the Maine coast, including all of Mount Desert. Cadillac's hopes of establishing a feudal estate in the New World, however, were short-lived. Although he and his bride resided here for a time, they soon abandoned their enterprise. Cadillac later gained lasting recognition as the founder of Detroit. The island's highest point, at 1,528 feet (466 m) the highest point on the eastern seaboard of the United States, bears the name Cadillac Mountain, and is notable for the fact that its summit is among the first points in the United States touched by the rays of the rising sun.
During much of the seventeenth century, nearby Castine was the most southern settlement of Acadia. (Bristol, Maine, was the most northern New England settlement.) No one settled in this contested territory, and for the next 150 years Mount Desert Island's importance was primarily its use as a landmark for seamen, as for example when John Winthrop, first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, sketched the island's mountains on his voyage to the New World.
During Queen Anne's War, in response to the French Raid on Deerfield, New Englander Major Benjamin Church raided the Acadian village of Castine before gathering at Mount Desert Island with other ships to continue with the Raid on St. Stephen, Raid on Grand Pré, the Raid on Piziquid, and the Raid on Chignecto.
In 1759, after a century and a half of conflict, British troops triumphed in Quebec, ending French dominion in Acadia. With Indians scattered and the fleur-de-lis banished, lands along the Maine coast opened for English settlement. Governor Francis Bernard of Massachusetts obtained a royal land grant on Mount Desert Island. In 1760, Bernard attempted to secure his claim by offering free land to settlers. Abraham Somes and James Richardson accepted the offer and settled their families at what is now Somesville.
The onset of the American Revolutionary War ended Bernard's plans for Mount Desert Island. In its aftermath, Bernard, who had sided with the British government, lost his claim. Massachusetts, now free of British rule, granted the western half of Mount Desert Island to John Bernard, son of the governor, who, unlike his father, sided with the rebels. The eastern half of the island was granted to Marie Therese de Gregoire, granddaughter of Cadillac. Bernard and de Gregoire soon sold their landholdings to nonresident landlords.
Their real estate transactions probably made very little difference to the increasing number of settlers homesteading on Mount Desert Island. By 1820, when Maine separated from Massachusetts and became a separate state, farming and lumbering vied with fishing and shipbuilding as major occupations. Settlers converted hundreds of acres of trees into wood products ranging from schooners and barns to baby cribs and hand tools. Farmers harvested wheat, rye, corn, and potatoes. By 1850, the familiar sights of fishermen and sailors, fish racks and shipyards, revealed a way of life linked to the sea. Quarrying of granite, which could be cut from hills close to deep water anchorage for shipment to major cities on the east coast, was also a major industry.
It was the outsiders, artists, and journalists, who revealed and popularized this island to the world in the mid 19th century. Painters of the Hudson River School, including Thomas Cole and Frederic Church, glorified Mount Desert Island with their brushstrokes, inspiring patrons and friends to flock here. These were the "rusticators". Undaunted by crude accommodations and simple food, they sought out local fishermen and farmers to put them up for a modest fee. Summer after summer, the rusticators returned to renew friendships with local islanders and, most of all, to savor the fresh salt air, beautiful scenery, and relaxed pace. Soon the villagers' cottages and fishermen's huts filled to overflowing, and by 1880, 30 hotels competed for vacationers' dollars. Tourism was becoming the major industry.
For a select handful of Americans, the 1880s and the "Gay Nineties" meant affluence on a scale without precedent. Mount Desert, still remote from the cities of the East, became a retreat for prominent people of the time. The Rockefellers, Morgans, Fords, Vanderbilts, Carnegies, and Astors, chose to spend their summers here. Not content with the simple lodgings then available, these families transformed the landscape of Mount Desert Island with elegant estates, called "cottages". The landscape architect Beatrix Farrand, at the Cadwalder Rawle - Rhinelander Jones family summer home Reef Point Estate, designed the gardens for many of these people. Projects included the Chinese inspired garden at "The Eyrie" for Abby Aldrich Rockefeller at Seal Harbor (1926-35), and the planting plans for subtle roads at Acadia National Park sponsored by John D. Rockefeller, Jr. (c.1930). Luxury, refinement, and ostentatious gatherings replaced buckboard rides, picnics, and day-long hikes of an earlier era. Some rusticators also formed "Village Improvement Societies" which constructed hiking trails and walking paths connecting the Island's villages to its interior mountains. For over 40 years, the wealthy held sway at Mount Desert, but the Great Depression and World War II marked the end of such extravagance. The final blow came in 1947 when a fire of monumental proportions consumed many of the great estates.
Somes' Hotel c. 1870, John D. Heywood
In 1901, George B. Dorr, disturbed by the growing development of the Bar Harbor area and the dangers he foresaw in the newly invented gasoline-powered portable sawmill, established along with others the Hancock County Trustees of Public Reservations. The corporation, whose sole purpose was to preserve land for the perpetual use of the public, acquired 6,000 acres (24 km2) by 1913. Dorr offered the land to the federal government, and in 1916, President Wilson announced the creation of Sieur de Monts National Monument. Dorr continued to acquire property and renewed his efforts to obtain full national park status for his beloved preserve. In 1919, President Woodrow Wilson signed the act establishing Lafayette National Park, the first national park east of the Mississippi. Dorr, whose labors constituted "the greatest of one-man shows in the history of land conservation", became the first park superintendent. In 1929, the park name was changed to Acadia National Park.
John D. Rockefeller Jr. endowed the park with much of its land area. Like many rusticators, Rockefeller, whose family fortune was derived from the petroleum industry, wanted to keep the island free of automobiles, but local governments allowed the entry of automobiles on the island's roads. Rockefeller constructed approximately 50 miles (80 km) of carriage roads around the eastern half of the island. These roads were closed to automobiles and included many scenic vistas and beautiful stone bridges. Approximately 40 miles (64 km) of these roads are within Acadia National Park and open only to hikers, bicyclists, horseback riders, horse-drawn carriages and cross country skiers.
In 1950, Marguerite Yourcenar and Grace Frick bought a house, "Petite Plaisance", in Northeast Harbor on the island. Yourcenar wrote a large part of her novel Memoires d'Hadrien on the island, and she died there in 1987. Their house is now a museum. Both ladies were cremated and their ashes are buried in the Brookside Cemetery in Somesville.
In 1969, College of the Atlantic, the island's first and only institution of higher education, was established in Bar Harbor.
In 1986, Friends of Acadia, the nonprofit organization that directs private philanthropy and volunteerism for the benefit of Acadia National Park, was founded.
Mount Desert Island is rich in geological history dating back to approximately 550 million years ago. The earliest formation on the island is the Ellsworth Schist Formation, which was a sea-floor mud deposit created during the Cambrian period by volcanic ash. During the Ordovician period the collision of Laurentia, Gondwanaland, and Avalonia, referred to as the Acadian orogeny, caused the formation to fold, thrust, and uplift above sea level, where later layers were eroded away and the schist was exposed. The Bar Harbor Formation, which is made up predominantly of sands and silts, and Cranberry Island Formation, made up from volcanic ash and magmatic debris, occurred under similar circumstances in the Silurian and Devonian periods, and were deposited on top of the Ellsworth Schist. However, due to less tectonic activity at that time, their deformation was less severe.
As mentioned above, quarrying of granite was historically an important industry. Due to orogenic activity during the Devonian, Mount Desert Island has three granite units, the Cadillac Mountain granite, the fine grained Somesville granite, and the medium grained Somesville granite. Surrounding these granites (labeled "DCg" on geologic maps) is a zone of brecciated material, known as DSz (Devonian Shatter Zone).
Most recently, Mount Desert Island was host to the Laurentide Ice Sheet as it extended and receded during the Pleistocene epoch. The glacier left a number of visible marks upon the landscape, such as Bubble Rock, a glacial erratic carried 19 miles (31 km) by the ice sheet from a Lucerne granite outcrop and deposited precariously on the side of South Bubble Mountain in Acadia National Park. Other such examples are the moraines deposited at the southern ends of many of the glacier-carved valleys on the Island such as the Jordan Pond valley, indicating the extent of the glacier; and the beach sediments in a regressional sequence beneath and around Jordan Pond, indicating the rebound of the continent after the glacier's recession approximately 25,000 years ago.
Excavations of old Indian sites in the Mount Desert Island region have yielded remains of the native mammals. Bones of wolf, North American beaver (Castor canadensis), deer, elk, gray seal (Halichoerus grypus), the Indian dog, and sea mink (Neovison macrodon) have been uncovered, as well as large numbers of raccoon, lynx, wolf, muskrat, and deer. Although beaver were trapped to extinction on the island, two pairs of beaver that were released in 1920 by George B. Dorr at the brook between Bubble Pond and Eagle Lake have repopulated it. A large fire in 1947 cleared the eastern half of the island of its coniferous trees and permitted the growth of aspen, birch, alder, maple and other deciduous trees which enabled the beaver to thrive.
View Across Frenchman's Bay from Mount Desert Island After a Squall (1845) by Thomas Cole
Fog off Mount Desert (1850), by Frederic Edwin Church
Entrance of Somes Sound, Mount Desert, Maine (1855) by Fitz Henry Lane
Mount Desert Island, Maine (1864) by Jervis McEntee
Mt. Desert, Maine (1866) by William Trost Richards