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Park History: Acadia National Park


The Bass Harbor Light is an iconic image of Acadia National Park. Photo by Liquid Image via flickr.

Spend any time in Acadia National Park during the summer and early fall and you'll understand why the "rusticators" descended on Mount Desert Island just off the coast of Maine in the mid-1800s.

Some, such as members of the Hudson River School of artists, came to capture the twin settings of surf and forested mountains. Others, such as 37-year-old Charles Eliot, then the president of Harvard University, sailed yachts up into the waters surrounding Mount Desert Island. President Chester Arthur visited in 1882 (a year before he trekked out West to Yellowstone National Park) along with the secretary of the Navy.

And, of course, the Rockefellers and Morgans and other blue bloods later descended on the island for its enjoyable summers.

Many of those who traveled to the island were very wealthy. They built 80- and 100-room “cottages” in which to pass their summers, notes the National Park Service. Some cottagers socialized at tennis matches, lawn parties, and horse shows. Others, like the rusticators before them, were lured by the natural beauty of the island and preferred hiking.


The appreciation many of these folks had for Mount Desert Island and its surrounding waters and outlying islands led to its preservation. They cut trails through the woods and around the ponds and installed iron rungs and built stone steps in some of the cliffsides to make exploration easier. And, of course, John D. Rockefeller Jr. built the carriage roads that remain today with their elegant stone bridges and are wonderful to explore on bike.

Some of those efforts led to creation of Acadia National Park, although it wasn't always called that.

Though the affluent of the turn of the century came here to frolic, they had much to do with preserving the landscape that we know today. It was from this social strata that George B. Dorr, a tireless spokesman for conservation, devoted 43 years of his life, energy, and family fortune to preserving the Acadian landscape. In 1901, disturbed by the growing development of the Bar Harbor area and the dangers he foresaw in the newly invented gasoline powered portable sawmill, George Dorr and others established 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 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 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 changed to Acadia.


While Lafayette National Park was established in February 26, 1919, the name change to Acadia occurred on this date, January 19, back in 1929.

While the wealthy still have their mansions on the island, these days Acadia also is embraced by families looking for a mix of woods and sea coast and couples searching for a romantic getaway. Indeed, I find the park offers a little something for every taste. There are wonderful restaurants, such as Cafe This Way and Eden, cottages that draw families year after year, romantic getaways if you know where to look, and forested campgrounds a short walk from the surf.

True, the ocean is decidedly cold here, perhaps too cold for an enjoyable swim, but the kayaking can't be beat, and there are some ponds on Mount Desert Island that are more conducive to swimming.

Kids never grow weary of Acadia. They can search for sea creatures in its tidal pools, go on a boat cruise and listen while a ranger discusses the natural and cultural history of the area, or learn about lobsters at an oceanarium. On rainy days, which are bound to happen, they can even make their own pottery.

Though it's not within the park's boundaries, the Wendell Gilley Museum of Bird Carving is not far off and shouldn't be missed by young or old. There you can admire the late Mr. Gilley's efforts, watch a master carver at work, or take a course in carving yourself.

Parents and couples find enjoyment both in the solitude of Mount Desert Island's forests and shorelines as well as in the art galleries, restaurants, and shops of Bar Harbor, Southwest Harbor, Northeast Harbor, Bass Harbor, and Somesville, among others.

Yes, Acadia is one of those national parks that seems to offer a little something for everyone.


I have been going to Acadia every June for the past 15 years. Some people think I would grow bored of it, but I enjoy it more and more with each year. I couldn't imagine NOT going.

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