Acadia: A gift to the people, by the people

George Bucknam Dorr, often called the "Father of Acadia," admires the view from a lookout on a hiking trail. PHOTO COURTESY OF ANP

George Bucknam Dorr, often called the “Father of Acadia,” admires the view from a lookout on a hiking trail.

July 8, 2016, marks Acadia National Park’s 100th birthday.

But unlike parks in the West that were carved out of existing federal lands, Acadia was given to the nation tract by tract, acre by acre, by many different people over time. Initially, gifts of land came from wealthy summer residents who had a desire both to preserve Mount Desert Island’s natural beauty and to ensure public access. By 1916, the Hancock County Trustees of Public Reservations, an early land trust, had acquired more than 6,000 acres, many of which were deeded to the government.

The park has grown nearly every year since. It now, including conservation easements, totals some 44,000 acres. And gifts continue to this day.

While George Bucknam Dorr is considered the “Father of Acadia,” there are others who figure just as prominently in championing the cause.

Dorr was the one who purchased lands and lobbied influential friends to help in establishing Acadia in 1916, yet Acadia’s roots go back to the 1880s – a time when a strong conservation ethic was developing. By 1880, the island was one of the most popular summer retreats in the United States. Those who came here to escape cities wanted to protect the island’s fresh air and natural beauty.

“Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity.” ― John Muir

Watching the sunset from the summit of Cadillac Mountain is a popular pastime but visitors can avoid the crowds by watching from other equally-beautiful locations. PHOTO BY EARL BRECHLIN

Watching the sunset from the summit of Cadillac Mountain is a popular pastime but visitors can avoid the crowds by watching from other equally-beautiful locations.

Charles W. Eliot

The 1880s also were a time when people enjoyed exploring and researching natural history. Charles Eliot, son of Harvard president Charles W. Eliot and a summer resident of Northeast Harbor, persuaded some of his undergraduate friends to come to Mount Desert Island and explore the island’s geology, flora and fauna. They camped on Somes Sound and called themselves the Champlain Society after Samuel de Champlain, who first came upon the island in 1604. These explorations over many summers fostered a strong land ethic in Charles Eliot.

Following Eliot’s death in 1897 at the age of 38, his father, spurred by his son’s writings about land preservation and as a way of honoring his memory, invited a number of people, including Dorr, to a meeting in Seal Harbor. Dorr brought along with him his neighbors – George Vanderbilt and John S. Kennedy, a New York banker.

As Dorr notes in “The Story of Acadia National Park,” Eliot’s purpose was to create a land trust. The Hancock County Trustees of Public Reservations (HCTPR) was established in 1901 with President Eliot as chair, Dorr as vice-chair, George Stebbins of Seal Harbor as treasurer and the Bar Harbor firm of Deasy and Lynam as counsel.

Officially incorporated as a tax-free organization by the Maine Legislature in 1903, the trust’s charter states its purpose: “to acquire, by devise, gift, or purchase, and to own, arrange, hold, maintain or improve for public use lands in Hancock County, Maine, which by reason of scenic beauty, historical interest, sanitary advantage or other like reasons may become available for such purpose.”

Because Eliot spent most of the year in Cambridge, Dorr became the point-person both for acquiring land and for maintaining contacts with local people on Mount Desert Island as well as its wealthy summer residents. Dorr was uniquely qualified for the position. He was a well-connected Harvard graduate, had travelled extensively throughout Europe and came from a wealthy Boston family who purchased land on Compass Harbor in 1868 and built Old Farm there in 1878. It is the home Dorr eventually lived in year-round and to which he invited various government officials and member of Congress.

As a wealthy bachelor, Dorr could travel to Augusta, New York or Washington on a moment’s notice and could rush back to Bar Harbor to exercise a land option or secure a purchase.

Acquisition begins

Following incorporation, the trustees received two gifts – a hilltop overlooking Jordan Pond and land on a bold cliff along Cooksey Drive in Seal Harbor. It was not until 1908 that another gift was received. Mrs. Charles Homans of Boston and Bar Harbor and a longtime friend of the Dorrs donated the Bowl and Beehive lands on Champlain Mountain. A donation from Kennedy enabled the trustees to purchase 100 acres on the summit of Green (now Cadillac) Mountain. Seven Seal Harbor residents bought 3,600 acres on Green and Pemetic Mountains while some in Northeast Harbor raised $7,000 to purchase Sargent Mountain. Over time, the trustees received 129 gifts varying from an acre by a brook to large tracts of wild lands – lands that totaled more than 6,000 acres.

After two local people failed to establish a commercial spring in the area of the Great and Little Meadows (Tarn), Dorr inquired about the price of the land and thought the price tag of $5,000 was too high. Because there did not seem to be a rush, rather than purchasing the land, Dorr entered into an agreement that gave him the right of first refusal. A few years later and without notifying Dorr, the owner gave him until noon one day to exercise his option – a group of townspeople had acquired the funds to purchase the land.

But thanks to attorney Harry Lynam, who informed Dorr of this move, Lynam exercised Dorr’s option just minutes before noon. In the “Story of Acadia,” Dorr wrote “… the spring was mine, and became, as it proved, one of the foundation stones on which the Park was built.” This area Dorr named Sieur de Monts Spring.

Village improvement

Beginning around 1880, village improvement groups in Bar Harbor, Northeast Harbor and Seal Harbor, along with path makers, began a series of initiatives to conserve important landmarks in island towns and to take steps to ensure not only adequate water and sewer but also access to the various summits on Mount Desert Island.

A founding member of the Bar Harbor Village Improvement Association (VIA), Dorr in the late 1800s purchased numerous tracts of land around Champlain Mountain and Beaver Dam Pool, along Schooner Head Road, Cromwell Brook and Great Meadow – all areas near or leading to Sieur de Monts Spring.

Along with Bar Harbor VIA members, Dorr built or oversaw construction of a number of biking and walking paths. The 2006 cultural landscape study (“Paths”) details not only paths leading from the villages of Bar Harbor, Seal Harbor and Northeast Harbor but also paths or trails up the island’s mountains.

A vintage postcard shows people on a wilderness "tramp" on Huguenot Head in what was then called Lafayette National Park. IMAGE FROM COLLECTION OF EARL BRECHLIN

A vintage postcard shows people on a wilderness “tramp” on Huguenot Head in what was then called Lafayette National Park.

In addition to Dorr purchasing lands, many wealthy summer residents did so as well, and many of these were deeded to HCTPR and then in 1916 and subsequent years to the federal government.

In January 1913, Dorr was at his home in Boston when Lynam called him to tell him that some Bar Harbor residents had introduced a bill into the state legislature to revoke HCTPR’s charter. Dorr took the night train to Augusta; once there, he went immediately to the Augusta House where members gathered. “As it chanced, my friend, the Hon. John A. Peters of Ellsworth, was Speaker of the House that year … . I told him what had brought me down and he took the matter up at once with interest, realizing its importance. He made me at home in his rooms at the hotel, where his friends and members of the House came to talk the business of the session over.”

Dorr and Peters talked with members who “might have influence in the matter” and argued so convincingly that when the bill came before the House committee, Dorr had the support of members, including the representative from Bar Harbor who said he did not favor the bill but had introduced it at the request of some constituents.

This incident as well as the earlier incident regarding the purchase of the 10-acre tract at Sieur de Monts made Dorr and others increasingly aware that the lands HCTPR were acquiring needed federal protection.

Dorr in Washington

In the following three years, Dorr drew on his many personal connections. He went to Washington shortly after Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration and stayed at the home of Gifford Pinchot, chief of the Forest Service under Theodore Roosevelt. The Pinchots gave a reception for incoming members of Wilson’s cabinet, and Dorr met Wilson “under pleasantest conditions.”

In spring 1914, Dorr returned to Washington with deeds and maps showing the lands the trustees wanted the government to accept. There was no National Park Service, but there was a Public Lands Commission. Dorr brought along Edward Howe Forbush, the well-known Massachusetts state ornithologist, to make a case for the importance of these lands for sea and land birds.

The executive secretary of the Public Land Commission was no other than Frank Bond, another well-known ornithologist. Forbush was also an old friend of T.S. Palmer of the Department of Agriculture, a savvy legislative contact who felt it was an inopportune time to ask for park status when Congress was considering bills to establish the National Park Service.

Rather, Palmer suggested that Dorr pursue federal recognition under the National Monuments Act – a designation which does not require Congressional approval and which only needs the approval of the cabinet member proposing the designation. In this case, it was Secretary of the Interior Franklin Lane, whom Dorr “had met so pleasantly the year before.”

Despite Lane’s support, it took Dorr two years and considerable political involvement to have the Sieur de Monts National Monument approved.

Private vs. public lands

Charles W. Eliot

Charles W. Eliot

Yellowstone National Park, which was established in 1872, and other parks and monuments in the West were carved out of federally owned and contiguous lands. Dorr and the trustees were offering the government lands that had been privately purchased and were not contiguous. And there was an additional factor: monuments fell under the jurisdiction of the agency that managed the lands where the monument was located. No federal agency managed the lands on Mount Desert Island, although Secretary Lane supported the designation.

Initially, Dorr was pleased by Wilson’s interest in the monument but became concerned when two months had elapsed and the president had taken no action. Dorr began to find out why.

As Ronald Epp points out in “Creating Acadia National Park, the Biography of George Bucknam Dorr,” his biography of Dorr, “Secretary of Agriculture David F. Houston had sent a memo to Wilson opposing the new monument – ostensibly because of the expense … . Dorr met with Secretary Houston and assured him that he would manage the proposed national monument at the lowest federal salary – a dollar a month! Dorr, the Boston Brahmin, was too politically astute not to recognize the territorial issue at the heart of the matter.”

In addition to offering his services for $1 a month, Dorr also sought President Eliot’s support, for Houston had been a colleague of Eliot at Harvard.

Sieur de Monts Spring National Monument

President Wilson signed a proclamation on July 8, 1916, designating Sieur de Monts Spring a national monument. At the time, the trustees turned over more than 6,000 acres to the federal government, but the land at Sieur de Monts Spring was not donated until 1935.

In 1916, Dorr formed the Wild Gardens of Acadia Corporation – a corporation that had many roles: It held land not only at Sieur de Monts Spring but elsewhere on the island.

“The purpose of the Wild Garden Corporation,” wrote Dorr, “is to provide sanctuaries for the plant and animal life – the flora and fauna of the Acadia region – and to make these sanctuaries useful not only in conservation but as an opportunity for study, a source of pleasure and inspiration.”

John D. Rockefeller Jr.

In his quest to augment park lands, Dorr worked closely with John D. Rockefeller Jr., who in 1910 purchased 150 acres on Barr Hill in Seal Harbor; the property included a 99-room cottage, The Eyrie. Rockefeller’s father had built carriage roads at his home in Ohio and at Kykuit, an estate in the Hudson Valley. Rockefeller Jr. had learned road construction from his father and wanted to build carriage roads around The Eyrie. Initially, he built roads on land he owned in Seal Harbor – roads around Barr Hill and along the east and west sides of Little Long Pond. The Seal Harbor Roads and Path Committee not only appreciated the carriage roads but also Rockefeller’s membership on the committee and his support of a fund for constructing and maintaining paths.

But Rockefeller envisioned a more extensive carriage road system. Dorr and Eliot recognized the value these roads would have. Because some would cross land owned by HCTPR, Rockefeller sought and gained the approval of the trustees with a caveat: They would be constructed and maintained at Rockefeller’s expense, and he would have no legal rights.

Over 27 years, Rockefeller developed a 57-mile carriage road system – a project that not only provided the public with easier access to interior regions of Acadia but gave testament to Rockefeller’s ethic that private money should be used to foster conservation and public enjoyment.

Lafayette National Park

In 1919, Sieur de Monts National Monument became Lafayette National Park, the first national park in the East, and with the new designation, its size doubled, for the trustees added 5,000 acres. The name Lafayette was chosen in recognition of the alliance and friendship between France and the United States.

Acadia National Park

Ten years later, Dorr was involved in negotiations to acquire the Schoodic Peninsula. The trustees purchased one-third of the property, while the remaining two-thirds were donated by the daughters of John Moore. Dorr encountered two obstacles: The daughters, who were living in England, objected to the French name, and the original articles of incorporation did not allow the park to acquire land outside of Mount Desert Island.

When Dorr discussed these obstacles with Arlo Cammerer, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee for the Department of the Interior – who with his wife was Dorr’s house guest in 1928 – Cammerer said he did not see any obstacles. He instructed Dorr to have his representative introduce legislation allowing the park to acquire land beyond MDI and to change the name to Acadia National Park.

The Schoodic lands became increasingly important as Dorr skillfully negotiated with the Navy to move its radio station from Otter Cliffs to Schoodic. Rockefeller had offered to build the Loop Road but only if the unsightly Navy radio station was removed. Because of a provision in the deed transfer, the Schoodic lands would revert to the park should the Navy close the base. And they did in 2002. These lands now house the Schoodic Education and Research Center.

Acadia grows

Until his death in 1944, Dorr labored to improve park lands and to extend Acadia’s holdings – efforts that depleted his extensive inheritance. Shortly after Dorr turned 80, he again went to Washington. The government had funds to purchase land that had no agricultural use and that people could no longer afford as a result of the Depression. With this funding, Dorr acquired 5,000 acres on the west side of the island. In addition, Dorr secured three Civilian Conservation Core (CCC) camps – two on MDI and one in Ellsworth – the latter camp worked primarily on Schoodic. The CCC groups worked under the supervision of technical staffs.

In Acadia, they built Blackwoods and Seawall Campgrounds, cleared brush and opened vistas, built gravel truck roads, connector trails, shelters, picnic areas and trails. These trails included the Ocean Path from Sand Beach to Otter Cliffs – a trail built in conjunction with the construction of the Loop Road.

In 1986, then Senator George Mitchell introduced a bill establishing a permanent boundary for Acadia. It includes a fixed list of parcels that can be added or deleted from the park. After nearly a decade of sometimes contentious negotiation, the bill was passed easing local concerns about an ever-expanding park.

The legislation also allows the federal government to accept conservation easements over a wide area of coastline in Hancock and Knox counties. The park has worked hand-in-hand with agencies such as Maine Coast Heritage Trust (MCHT) to make that happen.

Schoodic expansion

On Aug. 24, 2011, the National Park Service and the Schoodic Institute celebrated the grand opening of the Schoodic Education and Research Center (SERC), one of 20 research centers in the park service. Over nine years, the park converted the former 100-acre Navy base at Schoodic into a pedestrian friendly campus with a new state-of-the-art auditorium, a renovated dining facility at the former Schooner Club, classrooms and labs in the former medical center and overnight facilities for 200 in the former Navy apartments and bunkhouse.

As Jim Vekasi – former chief of maintenance and the person most responsible for securing much of the funding and overseeing the renovations – pointed out, converting the base into a campus required removing about one-third of the square footage in buildings and a substantial amount of pavement. Roads were turned into trails and walkways, parking was consolidated, buildings rehabilitated and brought up to code in terms of universal accessibility. Lighting on the campus not only is energy efficient but also complies with guidelines for ensuring that the night sky remains highly visible.

The cost of this project was approximately $18 million. In addition to Congressional appropriations and revenue from park user fees, the park received $9.3 million from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, funds which not only advanced the conversion of the navy base facilities but also aided the local economy.

The historic Rockefeller Hall, the new welcome center with additional office space and overnight facilities, was rehabilitated thanks to a $1 million challenge grant from Edith R. Dixon, a summer resident of Winter Harbor.

SERC programs provide research opportunities for youth, teachers and visitors and support many of Acadia’s field-based research initiatives. These opportunities and initiatives include a four-day, hands-on, field-based research program for middle school students, workshops for teachers that examine ways of integrating science-based research into the classroom and research opportunities for graduate and undergraduate students and faculty – research such as studying the effects of climate change, monitoring invasive species and assessing the effect and levels of mercury in soil, plants and animals.

These programs have been developed and funded in partnership with the nonprofit Schoodic Institute – an institute committed to teaching people of all ages how to make sense of data so that individuals can make more informed decisions and play a greater role in environmental stewardship.

One of the most recent gifts to Acadia – 3,200 acres of land on the Schoodic Peninsula – exemplifies the tradition of giving not only by those who purchase and gift lands but by those whose vision and initiative both add land to the park and protect the land from future development. When the former owners of the property wanted to develop it into an eco resort with a hotel and up to 1,000 homes, then-Superintendent Sheridan Steele, along with other conservation partners including Friends of Acadia (FOA) and MCHT sought out a private conservation foundation that worked in partnership with Lyme Timber. In addition to purchasing the land and placing conservation easements on it, the partners built a visitor center, an 8.5-mile bike path, 4 miles of new trails and over 100 campsites.

Although the exact mechanism by which the park can legally accept that gift has been questioned, there appears to be unanimity concerning its value as part of Acadia.

Continuing gifts

The tradition of preserving lands within Acadia’s boundary through gifts or acquisitions continues, said Acadia Superintendent Kevin Schneider. With funding from the Land and Water Conservation Fund – revenue from offshore oil fees – the park will purchase from its conservation partners, FOA and MCHT, land abutting the park at the south end of Seal Cove Pond, near Round Pond and Gilbert Farm. The HCTPR recently donated their last holding, a tract near Seawall.

In honor of the park’s centennial, Elliotsville Plantation has worked with FOA and MCHT to acquire parcels that are within the park boundary and plans to donate 10 parcels this year. “It’s been wonderful opportunity for us to contribute to such a phenomenal park,” said Lucas St. Clair, president of Elliotsville Plantation, the Quimby family foundation.

“This gift continues Acadia’s longstanding tradition of philanthropy and stewardship,” said Schneider. “Roxanne Quimby exemplifies those whose land conservation ethic has spurred them to gift land to protect Acadia. We are immensely grateful to all of them, but the real beneficiaries are the nearly 3 million people who annually visit Acadia and are inspired by this iconic national park.”

Acadia National Park Timeline



Champlain Society

Charles Eliot, son of Harvard president and Northeast Harbor summer resident Charles W. Eliot, leads a group of undergraduates on annual summer encampments.




President Eliot convenes resourceful rusticators and key local leaders as the Hancock County Trustees of Public Reservations (HCTPR). George B. Dorr begins amassing key parcels of land.



July 8, 1916

National Monument

President Woodrow Wilson signs the proclamation.


Aug. 25, 1916

Park Service Created

President Wilson consummates the vision of President Theodore Roosevelt by signing the act to create the U.S. National Park Service.


1915 to 1941

Carriage Roads

From 1915 forward, John D. Rockefeller Jr. collaborates with Dorr to plan and develop a carriage road system.


Feb. 26, 1919

Lafayette National Park

Sieur de Monts National Monument becomes Lafayette National Park by an act of Congress.


1922 to 1958

Motor Roads

John D. Rockefeller Jr. and George B. Dorr envision what are now the Park Loop Road and the Cadillac Summit Road.


Jan. 19, 1929

Acadia Named.

A final name change designates this Maine coast mountain reserve as Acadia National Park.


1929 to 1935

Schoodic Acquisition

The Schoodic Peninsula across Frenchman Bay is protected from development and real estate speculation.


1933 to 1941

Conservation Corps

Two Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camps are established on MDI: one on McFarland Hill and one near the south end of Long Pond.


1934 to 1938

West Side Expansion

Acadia expands on the west side of MDI with the acquisition of mountains, lakeshores, the Big Heath and the seacoast from Seawall to Bass Harbor Head.


1936 to 1941


Seawall and Blackwoods campgrounds are developed.


1941 to 1945

World War II

A covert naval installation is created at Schoodic Point. There are also military installations at Seawall and a radar installation on the summit of Cadillac.



Isle au Haut

Some 13,000 acres on Isle au Haut are donated to become part of Acadia, thus conserving some of the wildest lands and most dramatic trails.



Great Fire

A modest wildfire begins on Oct. 16, spreading in a few surges during the next six days. On the afternoon of Oct. 23, winds up to 70 mph drive an uncontrollable blaze over most of the northeastern side of MDI, burning more than 17,000 acres, including 10,000 within Acadia.


1950s and 1960s

Visitation growth

A growing economy brings many more visitors to Acadia. A new Welcome Center is built in Hulls Cove.




The first conservation easement is conveyed to the park. Today, easements protect more than 12,000 acres.



Boundary Resolution

After more than two decades of vigorous discussion, the final boundaries of Acadia National Park are set by Congress in 1986.



Friends of Acadia Founded

A hardy group of Acadia-lovers founds Friends of Acadia (FOA). FOA grows to include more than 3,700 members.



Carriage Road Restoration

A significant public-private partnership is launched to restore the park’s carriage roads and endow their maintenance in perpetuity.



Island Explorer

The Island Explorer, a fare-free, seasonal, propane-powered bus system that runs through the park and its surrounding gateway communities, begins service.



Acadia Trails Forever

FOA and Acadia National Park establish Acadia Trails Forever to restore and maintain the park’s trail system. Ruth and Tris Colket donate $5 million.



Schoodic Section

Acadia assumes responsibility for the decommissioned Navy facility at Schoodic Point, creating the Schoodic Education and Research Center.




A yearlong, community-based observance celebrates the past and inspires the future.

Anne Kozak

Anne Kozak

Contributer at Mount Desert Islander
Anne teaches writing at the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor.
Anne Kozak

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