President Obama this week officially changed the name of Mount McKinley in Alaska to Denali. PHOTO COURTESY OF NPS

MDI town ‘abandoned’ McKinley 50 years ago



TREMONT – President Obama made headlines this week when he officially changed the name of North America’s highest peak from Mount McKinley to Denali. Little did he know, however, residents of a tiny fishing village on Mount Desert Island started the trend of dumping the name of America’s 25th president nearly 50 years ago.

Early in the 20th century, people asking Tremont residents directions to the village of Bass Harbor might have drawn the quintessential Down East response: “You can’t get there from here.” The village was listed on maps, in documents, and even in old postcards, as McKinley.

The name McKinley became official during the town’s early effort to establish an additional post office on the eastern shore of the harbor in the late 1890s.

President William McKinley FILE PHOTO

President William McKinley
FILE PHOTO

According to W. Stanley Reed and other local historians, postal officials in the nation’s capital acceded to the request and asked what folks would like to call their new post office. Reportedly, no one had thought that far ahead. “Go ahead and name it after the president for all we care,” someone reportedly told the postmaster general.

William McKinley was in office, and the name stuck. He was assassinated in September of 1901.

In 1965, Reed, other residents and members of the chamber of commerce in Tremont circulated a petition to change the name of the village back to Bass Harbor.

Making that change wasn’t easy. Reed and his group had to take their case far afield — all the way to Washington, D.C., to be exact.

In July of 1966, then-Congressman William Hathaway notified town officials and Reed’s group that the name change to Bass Harbor had been approved. That triumph was announced under a photograph on the front page of that week’s Bar Harbor Times, although a subsequent issue included a short, terse announcement from then McKinley postmaster Charlotte Robbins, who said no matter what the congressman said, it wasn’t official until she said so. Fortunately she agreed.

The name Bass Harbor was officially restored to the post office, and by extension the entire village, on Aug. 1, 1966.

Earl Brechlin

Earl Brechlin

Editor at Mount Desert Islander
Former Islander editor Earl Brechlin first discovered Mount Desert Island 35 years ago and never left. The author of seven guide and casual history books, he is a Registered Maine Guide and has served as president of the Maine and New England Press Associations. He and his wife live in Bar Harbor.
Earl Brechlin

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