In partnership with the Maine Memory Network Maine Memory Network

Mount Desert Island: Shaped by Nature

Building Community and Commerce

Salem Towne Map, Mount Desert Island, ca. 1808
Salem Towne Map, Mount Desert Island, ca. 1808
In 1808, Salem Towne Jr., Esq., was given the task of mapping the west side of Mount Desert Island, to settle conflicting claims to land ownership.
Item Contributed by
Mount Desert Island Historical Society

After the Revolutionary War, on February 17, 1789, the Town of Mount Desert was created. It included all of Mount Desert Island, as well as the Cranberries and Bartlett's and some smaller islands. Four years later, Eden split from the Town of Mount Desert. (It did not change its name to Bar Harbor until 1918.)

Island life was improving -- and its economy growing. A visitor in 1792 reported that in one day he saw five ships in Eden, one headed to London, another to Santo Domingo and three to Boston. This was barely 30 years after Somes's arrival.

By 1800 people were building schools and churches all over the island. Schooling had been a concern from the beginning, and had been the first issue brought up in the 1777 meeting of Mount Desert Plantation, before it was even a town.

At first, parents boarded the teachers, with each family's time based on how many children it had in school. Schools were kept open as long as funds allowed, usually about eight weeks in spring and eight in winter -- four months in all. Kids began at age six or seven, and it was common for someone to finish in his or her early 20s, since school was interrupted by work, including fishing. Many, of course, received only one or two years of schooling.

Village Store and Homes, Somesville, ca.  1905
Village Store and Homes, Somesville, ca. 1905

Item Contributed by
Mount Desert Island Historical Society

Church services were also first conducted in homes. Congregational and Baptist preachers came occasionally to hold services and to perform marriages, baptisms and funerals. But the first religious organization on the island was not formed until 1792, when 15 men and women met in Southwest Harbor to form the Congregational Church of Mount Desert. Finally, in 1800 islanders voted to build two meeting houses, the Congregational on the Bass Harbor Road in Southwest Harbor, and the Baptist, on Meeting House Hill in The Center, between Somesville and Seal Cove. For some time, these were the only churches on the island. In good weather, most church-goers to the eastward would row to Southwest for the Congregational Church. From the Cranberry Isles, that was seven miles. Baptists added an overland trek to their rowing.

This time also saw new settlements. John and Sarah Savage came to Asticou, at the head of Northeast Harbor, in 1798. He had left Scotland at 14 and had lost a thumb in the Battle of Bunker Hill. They built a cabin where the Asticou Inn now stands. Nearby Seal Harbor was settled six years later, when carpenter William Roberts built a log cabin close to the beach. John Clement, a cooper, brought his family five years later. Clement and Roberts did brisk business, with Roberts building pinkey boats for local fishing and Clement making fish barrels, washtubs and pails. Soon there was a log store at the Seal Harbor beach, and one on the Northeast Harbor shore.

Higgins Saw Mill, Somesville, 1890
Higgins Saw Mill, Somesville, 1890

Item Contributed by
Southwest Harbor Public Library

By statehood in 1820 islanders were thriving. They were building ships and more mills to support expanding industries, and they were building new roads. And the mail finally arrived. Before 1820 it came only as far as Ellsworth. But now it was delivered once a week to Mount Desert, that is, to Somesville. People from other villages took turns fetching it from there.

The island had no bridge until 1837, so at first the mail carrier had to ford the waters at the Narrows or ride Captain Thompson's ferry. Thompson charged 10 cents for someone on foot, 31 cents for a horse and carriage, and 3 cents apiece for sheep or pigs.

Shipbuilding had started, of course, with the first settlers, who needed to get to the fishing grounds and to trade. The first island ship we know of was the 105-ton Lively, built in 1772 in Somesville, probably by Abraham Somes, only a decade after he settled. Only 27 vessels are known to have been built on Mount Desert and nearby islands up to 1820. But in the next decade alone, 84 were built. By century's end the total was about 370. At its peak in the 1850s, shipping and shipbuilding was the island's biggest industry. As many as 10,000 vessels a year passed through Mount Desert waters.

Men in fishing dory, Southwest Harbor, 1890
Men in fishing dory, Southwest Harbor, 1890

Item Contributed by
Southwest Harbor Public Library

Oddly, with the growth of fishing in the early 19th century, commercial lobstering didn't reach Maine until about 1840. Lobsters had always been plentiful, but only now was it possible to get them to market. The difference was the development of the smack, a boat with an open well that circulated seawater, keeping the lobsters alive. Soon smack-men were sailing the coast, buying lobsters to carry to Boston and New York.

As the demand for lobsters grew, something else opened up the lobster market -- canning. The Underwood cannery opened in Southwest Harbor in 1850. Lobster was its main product. Though men did most of the heavy lifting at the factory, unloading the boats and hauling crates, the packers were mostly women and children, valued for their dexterity and small hands. The work was demanding, with no set hours. Workers rushed to the factory whenever the whistle blew. The conditions were dismal. As one writer described them, "The windows were jammed with dampness and years of dirt and grime and could not be opened to allow air to circulate. The women packers had to work all day in the factories and then look after the children and household chores when they went home. The work was dangerous and many children lost fingers on the cutting tables."