Thursday, January 18, 2007

Bar Harbor History

Abenaki Native Americans called the island Pemetic, meaning "sloping land." Here they fished, hunted and gathered berries. In 1604, French explorer Samuel de Champlain is believed to have run aground at Otter Point, where he met members of the tribe. He would name the island Isles des Monts Deserts, meaning "island of barren mountains" -- now called Mount Desert Island, the largest in Maine.

First settled in 1763 by Israel Higgens and John Thomas, the community was incorporated in 1796 as Eden, after Sir Richard Eden, an English statesman. Early industries included fishing, lumbering and shipbuilding. With the best soil on Mount Desert Island, it also developed agriculture. In the 1840s, its rugged maritime scenery attracted the Hudson River School and Luminism artists Thomas Cole, Frederick Church, William Hart and Fitz Hugh Lane. Inspired by their paintings, journalists, sportsmen and "rusticators" followed. Agamont House, the first hotel in Eden, was established in 1855 by Tobias Roberts. Birch Point, the first summer estate, was built in 1868 by Alpheus Hardy.

By 1880, there were 30 hotels, with tourists arriving by train and ferry to the Gilded Age resort that would rival Newport, Rhode Island. The rich and famous tried to outdo each other with entertaining and estates, often hiring Beatrix Farrand to design landscaping. A glimpse of their posh lifestyles was available from Shore Path, a walkway skirting waterfront lawns. Yachting, garden parties at the Pot & Kettle Club, and carriage rides up Cadillac Mountain were popular diversions. Others enjoyed horse-racing at Robin Hood Park-Morrell Park. President William Howard Taft played golf in 1910 at the Kebo Valley Golf Club. On March 3, 1918, Eden was changed to Bar Harbor, after Bar Island which protects the harbor. The name would become synonymous with elite wealth. It was the birthplace of vice-president Nelson Rockefeller.

In 1947, however, Maine experienced a severe drought. Sparks at a cranberry bog in Hull's Cove ignited a wildfire which would intensify over 10 days. Nearly half the eastern side of Mount Desert Island burned, including 67 palatial summer houses on Millionaires' Row. Five historic grand hotels were destroyed, in addition to 170 permanent homes. Over 10,000 acres (40 km²) of Acadia National Park were destroyed. Fortunately, the town's business district was spared, including Mount Desert Street, where several former summer homes within a National Historic District operate as inns.

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