December 7, 2023 in Maine

A Seaside Gem: The Colorful History of Bar Harbor, Maine

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Early History and Settlement

The history of Bar Harbor dates back thousands of years to when Native Americans first inhabited Mount Desert Island and the surrounding coastline. The Wabanaki people, including the Abenaki and Penobscot tribes, lived off the land and seas, fishing and hunting in the region. They named the island “Pemetic”, meaning “range of mountains” or “mountains seen at a distance.”

In the early 1600s, French explorer Samuel de Champlain mapped the Maine coastline and wrote of the Wabanaki people and the island’s mountains, forestry, and harbors. The French sent Jesuit missionaries to convert the Wabanaki to Christianity. Conflicts arose as more Europeans encroached on tribal lands.

The first permanent English settlement on Mount Desert Island was established in 1762 when Abraham Somes obtained a land grant. Somes and James Richardson divided up the eastern part of the island between families for farming, fishing and boat building. These early settlers named the area “Eden” after the biblical garden.

In the 1780s, Italian explorer John Carlo Barsotti visited Frenchman Bay and christened it “Bar Harbor” after the sand bar visible at low tide. The name stuck as more settlers arrived on the eastern side of Mount Desert Island. The population slowly grew, supporting itself through fishing, shipbuilding, logging and farming.

19th Century Growth

In the early 19th century, Bar Harbor began to grow from a small fishing village into a bustling coastal town. Its economy expanded through industries like fishing, shipbuilding, and tourism.

Fishing was a vital part of Bar Harbor’s early economy and access to the rich fishing grounds offshore brought prosperity to local fishermen. Cod was abundantly caught and became a lucrative export for Bar Harbor. Fresh fish like mackerel, herring, and halibut were also hauled in to feed the growing population.

In addition to fishing, shipbuilding emerged as an important industry. The first shipyard opened in Bar Harbor in 1804 and over the years the town became known for building fast and sturdy ships. Local pine, spruce, and hemlock trees provided timber for construction. Shipbuilding peaked in the mid-1800s, with schooners, brigs, and barkentines crafted by skilled Bar Harbor builders.

Tourism also began to grow in Bar Harbor during the 1800s. Mount Desert Island’s rugged natural beauty attracted artists, writers, scientists and outdoor enthusiasts. Hotels and boarding houses opened to cater to these seasonal visitors. Excursion ships brought tourists from Boston and New York. By mid-century, Bar Harbor was becoming a popular seaside destination.

The Gilded Age

In the late 19th century, Bar Harbor experienced rapid growth as a summer colony for America’s elite. The island’s cool summer weather and dramatic scenery attracted wealthy industrialists and business tycoons, who built sprawling mansions called “cottages” along the island’s rocky shores.

Some of the most prominent families to build summer homes in Bar Harbor included the Rockefellers, Vanderbilts, Fords, Astors, and Morgans. In total, over 30 mansions were constructed during this period, although sadly most were lost in the Mount Desert Island fire of 1947. The grandeur of estates like those built by the Rockefellers and Vanderbilts lent Bar Harbor the nickname “Newport of the North.”

This influx of wealthy out-of-towners spurred expansion of rail lines to Mount Desert Island. Regular passenger and freight train service allowed the elite families and their entourages of servants to access Bar Harbor each summer. The trains also facilitated shipping construction materials and other supplies to build and maintain the extravagant cottages.

During Bar Harbor’s Gilded Age, the town became synonymous with luxury and leisure for America’s super-rich. Grand hotels, shops, and entertainment venues catered to the summer crowd. Yet at the end of each season, the wealthy visitors would depart on their private rail cars, leaving the year-round residents behind. This created an economic divide that shaped the town for decades to come.

Mount Desert Island Fire

In 1947, a catastrophic wildfire swept across Mount Desert Island, destroying many of the grand mansions and cottages that had been built during Bar Harbor’s Gilded Age heyday. Started by a discarded cigarette on October 17th, the fire rapidly spread through the island’s forests and town due to strong winds, dry conditions, and flammable spruce trees.

Over 17,000 acres were consumed by the Mount Desert Island Fire, with flames raging completely out of control. Despite efforts from firefighters, the inferno roared through Bar Harbor, laying waste to the lavish summer homes of the island’s wealthy elite. In just a few hours, dozens of Gilded Age mansions were reduced to smoldering rubble. Luxury estates commissioned by the Rockefellers, Astors, Vanderbilts, and Morgans went up in smoke.

The fire marked the end of Bar Harbor’s extravagant era, with many families abandoning plans to rebuild their palatial cottages. While a few historic mansions were later reconstructed, most of the ruins were cleared away in the aftermath. The depleted forests also took decades to regenerate. However, the fire opened new opportunities for tourism and redevelopment in Bar Harbor, paving the way for its future as a popular seaside vacation destination.

Tourism and Redevelopment

After the devastating fire of 1947, Bar Harbor worked hard to rebuild its tourism industry and economy. The fire had burned 17,000 acres of Mount Desert Island and destroyed many historic hotels, cottages, and mansions in Bar Harbor.

With two-thirds of the homes in Bar Harbor also destroyed, tourism shut down almost completely in the years immediately after the fire. But Bar Harbor residents were determined to bring visitors back. They focused on rebuilding lodgings, restaurants, shops, and attractions.

New motels were constructed to replace the grand Victorian hotels that had burned down. Recognizing the rise of automobile tourism, Bar Harbor built infrastructure to support motorists, like parking lots and gas stations. The downtown was reconstructed with one-story retail buildings in the newly popular Cape Cod style.

Bar Harbor also capitalized on its natural assets. The scenic vistas of Acadia National Park brought nature lovers back in droves throughout the 1950s. Whale watching, sailing, hiking, and other outdoor activities grew in popularity.

By the early 1960s, the tourism industry in Bar Harbor had bounced back successfully. With the charm of its coastal location and the draw of Acadia National Park, Bar Harbor once again became a beloved New England vacation destination. The redevelopment and revival of tourism transformed the town and secured its economic future.

Art and Culture

Bar Harbor is home to a thriving arts scene and cultural institutions that draw visitors from around the world. The natural beauty of Mount Desert Island has long inspired artists, leading to the development of several influential artists colonies in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Some of the most well-known artists and colonies were located in and around Bar Harbor. The Worcester Art Museum established an outpost called Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum that collected works by local artists. Sculptor George Frederick Watts founded an art colony that drew painters Thomas Wilmer Dewing and Benjamin Curtis Porter. Several female artists also gathered during the summer months to paint en plein air, including Ellen Robbins, Mary Cassatt, and Martha Walter.

This artistic heritage continues today through organizations like the Abbe Museum and College of the Atlantic’s Blum Gallery. The Bar Harbor Historical Society and Jesup Memorial Library host exhibits, lectures, and workshops related to art and culture. Several galleries, studios, and museums are located throughout Bar Harbor as well. From poetry readings to musical performances, the town celebrates its longstanding connection to the arts. The natural beauty that initially drew artists to the area continues to inspire creative expression today.

Fishing and Lobstering

The waters surrounding Mount Desert Island have long provided an abundance of seafood that has sustained and defined Bar Harbor for centuries.

Native Americans were the first to fish and harvest shellfish in the area. Early European settlers then developed a bustling fishing and lobstering industry that continues today.

In the 1800s, fishing and lobstering emerged as leading industries in Bar Harbor as rail transport enabled seafood to be shipped inland. Fresh fish and lobster were sent by rail to points throughout New England and beyond.

Lobstering in particular came to dominate the local economy. Traps were developed in the mid-1800s that allowed lobsters to be caught in large numbers. Lobstering generated crucial income for many local families and was a way of life for generations.

Today, lobstering remains a vital part of Bar Harbor’s culture and economy. Along with tourism, lobstering helps drive the town’s prosperity. Lobstermen head out early each morning to haul traps and carry on a tradition stretching back centuries. The annual harvest provides lobsters that are shipped around the world.

From Native American times through today, the sea has provided sustenance, livelihoods and an integral connection to the ocean for people in Bar Harbor. The timeless occupation of fishing and lobstering continues to shape the community and its history.

Bar Harbor Today

Bar Harbor today is a bustling coastal town and world-famous summer resort. More than 5 million people visit Acadia National Park each year, with many staying in Bar Harbor. Tourism remains the lifeblood of the local economy.

The downtown streets are lined with souvenir shops, restaurants, ice cream parlors, art galleries, and outfitters that cater to visitors. Popular attractions include narrated lobster boat tours, whale watching cruises, sea kayaking, and the Shore Path coastal trail.

Bar Harbor is also known for its lively arts scene. The town hosts music and film festivals, as well as lectures, theater productions, and concerts. Several museums showcase the area’s cultural heritage. Studios, galleries, and craft fairs display creations by local artists and artisans.

While some grand “cottages” from the Gilded Age still stand, many Victorian mansions have been converted into quaint inns and bed and breakfasts. The oceanfront is dotted with majestic sailboats.

Though tourism dominates, fishing remains integral to Bar Harbor’s local culture and identity. Lobster boats still haul in fresh catches daily. The town celebrates its maritime traditions at the annual Fisherman’s Festival.

With its scenic harbor setting and proximity to Acadia National Park, Bar Harbor offers both small-town charm and abundant natural beauty. It continues to captivate residents and visitors alike with its alluring coastal Maine lifestyle.

Notable People

Bar Harbor has been a popular summer vacation destination for the wealthy and famous for over a century. Here are some of the notable people who have had ties to this scenic Maine town:

  • The Rockefeller Family – Several generations of the prominent Rockefeller family spent summers in Bar Harbor, building elaborate estates like Rockefellers’ Eyrie mansion. They contributed greatly to the town’s Gilded Age affluence.
  • J.P. Morgan – The influential financier J.P. Morgan was among the tycoons who had a summer “cottage” built in Bar Harbor during its growth as an elite resort area in the late 1800s.
  • Edsel Ford – Henry Ford’s son and Ford Motor Company president Edsel Ford commissioned a sprawling Bar Harbor waterfront estate in the 1920s that remains in the family today.
  • Cornelius Vanderbilt – Railroad magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt II constructed a mega-mansion called Breakwater in Bar Harbor in 1893. It had over 70 rooms across five stories.
  • Doris Duke – Tobacco heiress Doris Duke had a summer home built in Bar Harbor in the 1930s. She was a philanthropist who supported wildlife conservation and arts/cultural causes.
  • John D. Rockefeller Jr. – The noted businessman and philanthropist John D. Rockefeller Jr. oversaw the Bar Harbor estates for the Rockefeller clan and donated over 10,000 acres for Acadia National Park.
  • Martha Stewart – Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart owns several properties in Bar Harbor and nearby Mount Desert Island. She vacations and hosts events here regularly.

Further Reading

Books

  • The Story of Bar Harbor, Maine by Thomas Albert. The definitive history of Bar Harbor from its early settlement through the Gilded Age.
  • Islanders and Summer People: Bar Harbor Life Before the Fire by Ann Sky. Focuses on early development and society in Bar Harbor before the 1947 fire.
  • Bar Harbor Days by Mrs. John Howard Hill. A charming memoir of summers in Bar Harbor during the Gilded Age.

Sites

  • Jesup Memorial Library: The Jesup Library has an extensive local history collection and resources on Bar Harbor.
  • Bar Harbor Historical Society: Dedicated to collecting and preserving the history of Bar Harbor. The site has information on exhibits, collections, and local history.
  • National Park Service – Acadia: The NPS site has sections on the history and culture of Acadia National Park and Mount Desert Island.



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