History Highlights of Mt. Desert Island
Bar Harbor Inn and Spa, Bar Harbor Maine
Mar 12, 2020 at 8:00 AM in Things to Do by
Huge piles of seashells found throughout the island indicate that Native Americans inhabited Mt. Desert Island throughout the ages. The first recorded reports of Maine Indians living here, however, date back to the early 1700s, about a hundred years after the first European explorers arrived in the area. Known as Wabanaki Indians, these peoples lived off the land and water by hunting, fishing, gathering shellfish, plants and berries. They summered on the coast and wintered inland where they could hit the salmon runs upstream and find shelter from Maine’s harsh winter storms.
French explorer Samuel de Champlain is believed to have been the first European to have contact with the natives. On September 6, 1604, he and his crew crossed what is today known as Frenchman Bay and sailed up to the island. Within less than ten years later, French Jesuits established the first French mission in America without incident with the natives. Conflict occurred later with an English raid, spurred on by the dispute of the boundary between the French colony of Acadia to the north and the English colony of New England to the south. After about 150 years of conflict, the British finally took Quebec, a triumphant victory which eventually led to the demise of French domination of Acadia. More divisions ensued–this time between the British and the Colonists–during the Revolutionary War until all landholdings were eventually sold off and Maine became its own state–separate from Massachusetts–in 1820.
This, of course, is just a bird’s-eye view of Mt. Desert Island’s complex history. You can learn more–notably that of the significance of the Wabanaki–at the Abbe Museum in Bar Harbor. From spring through fall, you can visit the Abbe’s historic trailside museum at Sieur de Monts Spring in Acadia National Park. Step back in time to learn about how these indigenous people lived here from the early part of the twentieth century onward.
Early nineteenth-century industry at Mt. Desert Island revolved around farming, lumbering and shipbuilding. By 1850, the focus shifted more to the sea and fishermen; sailors, small fishing villages and shipyards became more commonplace. The quarrying of granite also dominated the scene, since not only did the island have this hard rock in ample supply but with such proximity to the sea, it was easy to ship it out.
As in many places in America, particularly on the east coast, outsiders began to discover Mt. Desert Island and appreciate its raw natural beauty by the mid 1800s. Artists and writers first came and subsequently revealed this glorious land to the rest of the world through their works. Renowned painters such as Frederic Church and Thomas Cole from the Hudson River School captured the wild land and seascapes on their canvases, inspiring people to come and experience this magnificent destination firsthand.
By the 1880s, wealthy industrialists from the big cities of the east came to visit and soon modest lodgings gave way to grander “cottages.” (People still refer to the island’s impressive houses and compounds as cottages today.) In no time at all, the Rockefellers, Vanderbilts, Astors, Fords and other illustrious families made their mark. Life in this down-home rustic land became exceedingly gentrified practically overnight.
Many of the great estates burned in a huge fire in 1947, an event that especially transformed the look of the little village of Bar Harbor. Filled with all kinds of restaurants, shops and bars, the Bar Harbor of today stands out as a lively destination for one and all. Take a look at your Discovery Map to locate many of the establishments and have fun finding others on your own.
In addition to Bar Harbor, Mt. Desert Island (also known as MDI) is peppered with all kinds of quaint towns, including Bass Harbor, Southwest Harbor and Northeast Harbor, to name a few. You can also count a bevy of lighthouses across the island as well as historical societies. There’s no end to the opportunities you can enjoy tracing the rich history of this fascinating island.
Best of all, sometimes the history of Mt. Desert Island is most delightfully experienced within its many historic hotels, restaurants and pubs. Whether you’re planning to stay or just stopping in for a drink or tea and popovers (as in the case of the Asticou Inn), a visit to at least one of the island’s historic properties is a must. Other favorites include Bar Harbor Inn & Spa, Balance Rock Inn, Bar Harbor Cottages & Suites and Claremont Hotel. Dine at Xanthus at the Claremont for one of the best fine dining experiences with a view on the island. The iconic Jordan Pond House within Acadia National Park also supplies stupendous vistas (of the pond and surrounding mountains). They serve popovers, too. (It must be a Maine thing!) Go ahead and slather them with butter and jam–you can always just hike it off.
Abel’s Lobster Pound, a family-run MDI institution since 1939, serves up delicious coastal feasts at their modest Somes Sound location. You can enjoy a shore dinner both inside or out and yes, the views are as pleasing as what you find on your plate. For a different serving of history, go to the Friar’s Pub at the Black Friar Inn in Bar Harbor. You can breakfast and dine here, sip on some brews or reserve a stay. If you love warm, cozy interiors trimmed in old wood paneling, floral prints and interesting collectibles, you’ll love this local’s favorite. Much of the embellishments have been procured from Mt. Desert Island residences of the finest standing and the end result is Old World charm par excellence.