In her book “Mr. Rockefeller’s Roads,” Ann Roberts Rockefeller called the collaboration between her grandfather and Acadia co-founder George B. Dorr “remarkable.” Each,” she wrote, “played a critical role in the development of Acadia National Park and the carriage roads, and neither could have succeeded alone. Dorr provided the political skills to complement Rockefeller’s money, mastery of detail, and road-building talents.”
As Rockefeller explained in a 1935 letter to Secretary of the Interior Harold L. Ickes, Acadia National Park in its beginnings consisted primarily of mountaintops. “Thus the park area at the outset was not accessible to any highway and was traversed only by foot,” wrote Rockefeller.
“Believing that it should ultimately extend to the ocean on one side and to Frenchman Bay on the other, and that access to it would be desirable, not only for pedestrians but, in carefully chosen areas, for lovers of horses as well as automobiles, I began years ago buying land on the island, having in mind to make possible the rounding out of the park’s boundaries and its extension and development … .”
But Rockefeller did more than simply purchase land. He began in 1913 to build a system of carriage roads that linked Seal Harbor and Northeast Harbor to Bar Harbor. When the carriage road system was completed in 1940, there were 57 miles of roads, 17 unique bridges and two gatehouses. With the exception of one bridge, all had been designed, built and landscaped at Rockefeller’s expense and with his involvement.
His commitment to providing more and better access did not end with the completion of the construction projects. Until his death in 1960, Rockefeller paid a crew to maintain the roads, most of which then, as today, were within the boundary of Acadia National Park.
During the construction of the carriage roads and bridges, Rockefeller reviewed all plans and instructed his engineers – Charles Simpson from 1916-1921 and Paul Simpson from 1921-1940 – to lay out roads with a consideration of the grade, the ease with which carriages could maneuver and the preservation of natural features.
Before the carriage road connecting Aunt Betty’s Pond and the Jordan-Sargent Mountain Road were constructed, Paul Simpson sent Rockefeller three alignment studies. He rejected one because it went too far north and another because it was “uninteresting.” He chose the route that had the most beauty and whose point of arrival and directness he liked.
To ensure that the visitor would enjoy not only the serenity of the park but also its vistas, Rockefeller hired landscape gardener Beatrix Farrand, a summer resident of Bar Harbor, to work with him opening and framing vistas – viewpoints that are currently being restored.
The carriage road system and the 17 bridges were not built without controversy, both on Mount Desert Island and in Washington. Some felt that constructing roads, and thus increasing public access, compromised the wilderness quality of the park. Others felt any construction irrevocably marred the landscape. Still others, forgetting that trees grow and die, contended that the only vistas should be those that are present naturally.
Following Rockefeller’s death, the carriage roads fell into disrepair – funding was limited, and the park had a relatively small maintenance staff. In 1991, then-Secretary of the Interior Manuel Luhan announced the first public-private partnership to restore the roads to their original condition. Friends of Acadia agreed to raise $4 million. The government pledged an additional $4 million.
Prior to the rehabilitation, Acadia brought in a park service engineer, Mike Williams, to oversee design studies and to conduct some of the engineering studies. “These studies will ensure that the roads are restored as authentically as possible and retain their historical and cultural significance,” said then-acting Superintendent Len Bobinchock.
Maintaining bridges is constant labor of love
In 2004, Acadia rehabilitated 14 of the stone masonry bridges on the carriage roads as well as one motor road bridge and nine smaller bridges. All the park’s bridges are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The $2.2 million project had its impetus in the early 90s, said former Chief of Maintenance Jim Vekasi. Mike Williams, the park service engineer assigned to the carriage road project, had the bridges studied to ensure that they could bear the weight of heavy construction vehicles. While the study showed the bridges were generally in good structural condition and could easily tolerate the weight of construction vehicles, it noted that 17 granite bridges on the carriage roads had experienced varying levels of deterioration.
To control costs and refine designs for bridges on both the carriage and motor roads, the park rehabilitated the Stanley Brook Bridge and the Otter Cove Causeway as prototypes.
Using entrance and campground fees, the park from 2004-2006 did limited masonry work on the Park Loop Road bridges and retaining walls; more extensive work on these bridges has been conducted in the last three years. In 2012, the park rehabilitated the bridge at the north end of Eagle Lake.
To ensure the integrity of the bridges and prevent future damage, the park, beginning in the year of its centennial, has hired a masonry crew to repoint and make minor repairs every five years. This work is being paid for by fee money. The park can retain 80 percent of the fees it collects to fund projects that improve the visitor experience.
– Anne Kozak