ACADIA NAT’L PARK — Starting in 1937, in the midst of the Great Depression, young men in the “work relief” program known as the Civilian Conservation Corps built Seawall Campground in Acadia National Park, including granite fire pits, or hearths, at the 105 campsites.
Over the past three winters, the park’s stone masons, Mike Fitzpatrick and Ryan Meddaugh, have restored the fire pits.
“Just about every one needed something done to it,” Fitzpatrick said. “The mortar was failing or the fire bricks were cracked.”
The fire pits are simple structures. Each has two low arms and a taller back, with one stone stacked on top of another. The floor is made of brick.
The masons found that most of the damage was to the top stone at the back of the fire pit, which takes the brunt of the heat from a fire. In recent years, the rate of damage has accelerated.
“Evidently, people sometimes get a little carried away with their fires,” Fitzpatrick said. “They get some really big, roaring fires going and it kind of speeds up the process of damaging that stone.”
Gail Gladstone, Acadia’s cultural resource program manager, said the fire pits “were not designed for a raging fire; they were more like a hearth for cooking.”
During the warmer months, Acadia’ two masons spend most of their time assessing the stones and mortar of the park’s carriage road bridges and making needed repairs. That work has to stop with the arrival of cold weather; otherwise the mortar would freeze before it had a chance to cure properly.
That’s also true for the mortar that holds the fire pit stones together, but the masons were able to work on those on even the coldest days. They initially built a small hut around a fire pit and heaters inside, but later switched to pop-up ice fishing tents that were much easier to move from one campsite to the next.
Sometimes, if a stone was cracked, they could fill the crack with mortar and leave the stone in place.
“But some of them were so far gone, they were just in pieces, and we had to replace them,” Fitzpatrick said. “We have several granite pits in the park, and we would go around and try and find a suitable stone that we could cut into the right shape and then just replace that whole stone.”
But matching the color of the stone was a challenge. Even though there is granite everywhere on Mount Desert Island, the fire pits were originally constructed with granite from New Hampshire, and it was a slightly different shade of grey from the granite that is most commonly found here.
The design of Seawall Campground, including its fire pits, was based on what is known as “Dr. Meinecke’s system of campground development.”
In 1926, a plant pathologist named E.P. Meinecke was asked to help find ways to protect tree roots and other plant life in camping areas in Sequoia National Park.
In response to the problems he saw in Sequoia and other parks in the West, he came up with a concept of campground planning that has guided the design of campgrounds and picnic areas in national and state parks across the country.
“He wrote the manual,” Gladstone said. “He came to Acadia in the late 1920s or early 1930s and applied his manual to what we could develop here.”
The manual includes illustrations of his recommended design for a fire pit and an explanation of how to build it. Fitzpatrick and Meddaugh consulted the manual to make sure their restoration work conformed as closely as possible to Meinecke’s design.