MOUNT DESERT — Near the west end of the causeway across Otter Creek Cove, there are three granite arches that allow water to flow between the inner cove to the north and the open ocean to the south.
But that isn’t sufficient for the proper circulation and exchange of water or to keep the inner cove from silting up, according to some fishermen and other residents of Otter Creek. They say the inner cove is practically an ecological dead zone, and they want something done about.
A few of them expressed their concerns last week at a meeting of the Aid Society of Otter Creek.
“All that silt gets in there and doesn’t get a chance to run in and run out,” said Vincent Abbott. “If you go down there at low tide, you see maybe one or two seagulls, as opposed to 15 years ago, when I watched eagles flying around there.”
John Macauley, president of the Aid Society and chairman of the Mount Desert Board of Selectmen, said the problem has been building for decades because of insufficient circulation in the inner cove.
“Unless there’s circulation, it’s probably not going to get better,” he said.
Acadia National Park owns nearly all the land around Otter Creek Cove, and its Park Loop Road runs across the causeway, which was built in 1939. A sandbar that extended much of the way across the cove was built up to create the causeway, and a short bridge with the granite arches was added to reach the western shore.
Otter Creek fisherman Stevie Smith has written to Steve Katona, chairman of the Acadia National Park Advisory Commission, requesting that he ask the National Park Service to help clean up the inner cove.
“By building a retaining wall and causeway … they effectively stopped all flushing activity of the open sea to the south,” he wrote. “We believe that the park has failed its stewardship of this pristine area by dumping chlorine-treated and raw sewerage in conjunction with the town of Mount Desert for several decades… .”
Smith noted that that practice was discontinued several years ago.
“Now, this once beautiful, pure ecosystem full of abundant life is essentially dead,” he wrote.
Becky Cole-Will, Acadia’s chief of resource management, attended the Aid Society meeting last week.
“Obviously, there is a problem,” she said, but added that she didn’t know if there was a good solution.
“We’re not going to move the causeway,” she said. “One thing I can do is put in a request for some technical assistance from the park service’s coastal hydrology program to bring somebody here to take a look at the causeway and at the issues to see if there is some kind of mitigation that could be done.”
Otter Creek resident Izaak Giberson said he hoped the park could “come up with a solution to the problem … and help us make it a more wonderful place than it already is.”
George Davis, vice president of the Aid Society, said that if something isn’t done, the Otter Creek inner cove eventually will be like The Tarn, the once-open pond at the base of Dorr Mountain that is now full of vegetation.
“When this silts up that much, there will be grasses and things growing in the inner cove, there’s no doubt about it, within 50 years,” he said.
Cole-Will said that was unlikely because of climate change and the resulting rise in sea levels.
Why a causeway?
John D. Rockefeller Jr. paid for the extension of the Ocean Drive section of the Park Loop Road to Otter Creek Cove and was instrumental in the design and construction of the causeway.
“Recognizing the scenic value of the cove and desirous of presenting park motorists with the best possible views, [Rockefeller] … acquired the land necessary to construct a new crossing …” wrote National Park Service (NPS) historians in a 1995 report on the history of the causeway.
The causeway replaced a wooden “pivoting swing bridge” that carried a county road over the cove before falling into disrepair in the mid-1920s.
Starting in 1925, Rockefeller commissioned a series of engineering studies to determine the best way to route the Loop Road across the cove. One option was to construct a causeway with a dam and spillway.
In 1930, Rockefeller brought famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead Jr. into the project. According to the NPS history, Rockefeller told Olmstead he was interested in “the concept of impounding the cove to allow for swimming.”
Olmstead was said to believe that the water impounded behind the dam “would be warm enough during the summer to permit comfortable bathing, while a … sand beach could be developed against the outer wall of the raised bar, adding to the pleasure of the bathing pool on the other side.”
Olmstead wrote in a 1930 memo, “I would recommend without hesitation the construction of a solid fill causeway across the inner bar for the road crossing with the incidental formation of a sheltered and sun-warmed tidal bathing pool behind it.”
However, that idea ultimately was abandoned. The NPS historians wrote: “It is very likely the Park Service would have objected to the concept of an artificial swimming basin as inappropriate for a national park … .”
Although Rockefeller funded construction of the Ocean Drive and Otter Cliffs sections of the Park Loop Road, he ultimately decided not to pay for a bridge or causeway across Otter Creek Cove.
For that, the NPS turned to the Bureau of Public Roads, an agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Olmstead served as liaison between the Bureau of Public Roads’ design engineers and Rockefeller, who still owned the land on the west side of the cove.
In 1935, construction of the causeway was approved by the U.S. War Department, which had to certify that water navigation clearances were adequate. A War Department official was quoted as saying that navigation in the cove “is negligible and is confined to rowboats and small power boats. A masonry arch provides openings with clearings adequate to accommodate such craft.”
In 1937, the NPS received $500,000 in federal funds for construction of the causeway and the adjacent Blackwoods section of the Park Loop Road. Rockefeller then gave the land he owned on the Blackwoods side of the cove to Acadia.
Construction of the Park Loop Road causeway across Otter Creek Cove began in 1938 and was completed the following year.
Rockefeller said in a letter to Olmstead shortly after the road opened that the causeway “looks as if it has always been there, so naturally is it related to the surrounding country.”