Cruise ships visits may be inevitable

By Robert Pyle

In response to a proposal from American Cruise Lines to bring small cruise ships to Northeast Harbor and to land visitors by tender at the municipal wharf for half-day visits, the selectmen of Mount Desert voted unanimously at a recent meeting not to permit cruise ship tenders to land at municipal docks. As the Great Harbor and its entrance passages are federal waters, this is as far as the town’s authority reaches.

Public discussion of the proposal was long and spirited, with many local store owners favoring the proposal, while commercial fishermen and seasonal residents opposed it.

Cruise ship visits to Northeast Harbor should be opposed except in exigent circumstances because they convey a threat to the character of the community and the way of life here. Even so, such visits may be inevitable, as cruise ship companies may find places to land other than town-owned facilities.

The evolution of coastal resorts follows a pattern. Northeast Harbor follows the pattern exemplified in Bar Harbor’s development history, but lags about 40 years behind. This evolution leads gradually from cohesive community to seasonal resort. The stages are as follows.

A cohesive community developed here in the early 1800s with the establishment of fishing-farming communities and 17 homesteads by 1875.

Seasonal residents arrived and constructed relatively modest seasonal cottages began in early 1880s. They were the Curtis, Doane and Eliot cottages.

The establishment of seasonal hotels came next, and Northeast Harbor ultimately had seven wooden hotels, though not all at once. These were The Asticou Inn, Roberts House, Harbourside Inn, Holmes House, Clifton House, Rock End Hotel and Indian Head.

Seasonal institutions that at that time were closed to the local, year-round population were created. Examples include The Northeast Harbor Swimming and Tennis Clubs, the golf course and the Northeast Harbor Fleet.

Easy land transportation by automobile led to the gradual decline of maritime transport, such as by Eastern Steamship Lines. The automobile also led to shorter seasonal resident visits and easy shopping further away.

By tacit agreement, a land ownership “doughnut hole” was created, as seasonal residents got the shoreline (the doughnut) and year-round residents kept the interior (the hole).

Acquisition of the doughnut hole by seasonal residents began in about 1973 when a summer resident bought and converted a house on Rock End Road.

Real estate values soared, further displacing moderate-income residents in the doughnut hole. When my wife and I bought the Catholic rectory in 1974, there were no seasonal homes on Summit Road or any of its side roads. Today, the majority of these houses are seasonal.

The town experienced the loss of locally based providers of goods and services. Local businesses could not compete with those further away. When I moved here as a teenager, I made a record of 81 business and service providers from Asticou to Sargeant Drive. Today, 52 of these are gone, including two physicians, two dentists, the movie theater, the pharmacy, a lawyer, three grocers, the barber shop, three hair dressers, three automobile garages, etc.

“Modest” summer residences were replaced with showplace summer homes.

Transient visitors are drawn to the town. This is best exemplified by the recent plethora of large roadside way-finding signs directing visitors to local resources.

The 12th stage of the evolution of Northeast Harbor likely will be visits by smaller cruise ships able to navigate the Great Harbor with or without access to municipal landing facilities.

Though cruise ships are not welcome, if Northeast Harbor can no longer rely on year-round and seasonal residents for its prosperity, the desire to survive and thrive by other means will prevail, and cruise ships will come. The fragile community of businesses and services here needs new support from the rest of the community, or

Northeast Harbor will continue to follow the pattern of Bar Harbor, as well as its own historical pattern.

Robert Pyle has lived in Northeast Harbor since 1963. He was director of the Northeast Harbor Library for nearly 40 years and is something of a local historian.

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