Maine winters are long. Spring is always eagerly anticipated and this was especially true in 1947. The gloominess of WWII still lingered and everyone looked forward to the return of nice weather. Disappointingly, it rained continually through April, May, and most of June. Finally, at the end of June, the sun came out, temperatures soared, and a glorious summer emerged. But weather patterns continued to be odd that year. Through the summer and into the fall, Maine received only 50% of its normal rainfall. Vegetation became bone dry. Water supplies dwindled. Still, most people did not worry - rain would come eventually. The island enjoyed one of the most beautiful Indian summers in memory. But the autumn rains never came and by mid-October, Mount Desert Island was experiencing the driest conditions ever recorded. The stage was set for a disastrous blaze.
On Friday, October 17, 1947,at 4 PM, the fire department received a call from Mrs. Gilbert, who lived near Dolliver's dump on Crooked Road west of Hulls Cove. She reported smoke rising from a cranberry bog between her home and the dump. No one knows what started the fire. It could have been cranberry pickers smoking cigarettes in the bog. Or perhaps it was sunlight shining through a piece of broken glass in the dump that acted like an incendiary magnifying glass. Whatever the cause, once ignited, the fire smoldered underground. From this quiet beginning arose an inferno that burned nearly half the eastern side of Mount Desert Island and made international news.
In its first three days, the fire burned a relatively small area, blackening only 169 acres. But on October 21, strong winds fanned the ßames and the blaze spread rapidly and raged out of control, engulÞng over 2,000 acres. Personnel from the Army Air Corps, Navy, Coast Guard, University of Maine forestry program, and Bangor Theological Seminary joined local fire fighting crews. National Park Service employees flew in from parks throughout the East and additional experts in the West were put on standby.
The pace of the blaze intensiÞed and nearly 2300 acres burned on October 22. The fire crossed Route 233 and continued along the western shore of Eagle Lake. On the morning of October 23, the wind shifted, pushing one finger of the fire toward Hulls Cove. Firefighters shifted their efforts in an attempt to squelch the threat to that community. But in the afternoon, the wind suddenly turned again and increased to gale proportions, as a dry cold front moved through, sending the inferno directly toward Bar Harbor. In less than three hours the wildfire traveled six miles, leaving behind a three mile wide path of destruction. The fire swept down Millionaires' Row, an impressive collection of majestic summer cottages on the shore of Frenchman Bay. Sixty-seven of these seasonal estates were destroyed. The fire skirted the business district, but razed 170 permanent homes and five large historic hotels in the area surrounding downtown Bar Harbor.
Bar Harbor residents not actively engaged in fire fighting tried to find safety, fleeing first to the athletic field and later to the town pier. At one point all roads from the town were blocked by flames, so fishermen from nearby Winter Harbor, Gouldsboro, and Lamoine prepared to help with a mass exodus by boat. At least 400 people left by sea. Finally, by 9 PM, bulldozers opened a pathway through the rubble on Route 3 and a caravan of 700 cars carrying 2000 people began the slow trip to safety in Ellsworth. According to eyewitness reports, it was a terrifying drive - cars were pelted by sparks and ßames flickered overhead. But the motorcade was orderly and successful, an uplifting end to a day that saw close to 11,000 additional acres blackened.
Still, the fire continued to burn. From Bar Harbor, the blaze raced down the coast almost to Otter Point, engulÞng and destroying the Jackson Laboratory on its way. The fire blew itself out over the ocean in a massive fireball. But that wasnÕt the end of the destruction. Almost 2000 more acres burned before the fire was declared under control on October 27. Organic soil and vegetation on the forest floor, along with matted tree roots infiltrating deeply around granite boulders, aided stubborn underground fires. Even weeks later, after rain and snow had fallen, fire still smoldered below ground. The fire was not pronounced completely out until 4 PM on November 14.