In partnership with the Maine Memory Network Maine Memory Network

Mount Desert Island: Shaped by Nature


Steamship "Mount Desert," leaving Southwest Harbor, ca. 1900In the 19th and early 20th centuries, steamship was the preferred means of travel to Mount Desert Island.Item Contributed by
Mount Desert Island Historical Society

It was the arrival of these rusticators, as they called themselves, that would bring the biggest change to island life. Steamboat service made tourism possible. For that thank two brothers. Henry and Seth Clark were in the shipping business and operated a shipyard on Clark Point in Southwest Harbor. In 1853 they built the steamship wharf at the point and talked the Eastern Steamship Company into establishing service. Soon the steamer Rockland was stopping in Southwest Harbor on its way to Machias. This was its only Mount Desert stop, and the village would become the first on the island to develop as a summer retreat. In 1857 the Rockland's Captain, Charles Deering, added Bar Harbor to his stops. The next year he opened the Deering House, Bar Harbor's second hotel. And so that small cluster of houses started its transformation, too. Eventually the steamer added stops in Northeast and Seal Harbors. And a train stop was created at Mount Desert Ferry, in Frenchman Bay, from which a steamer ran to Bar Harbor.

The island had already been getting visitors before the steamship service, mostly artists drawn by its dramatic landscape. And these artists' paintings convinced wealthy east-coast businessmen and their families that the island was worth the journey. In August 1855, the painter Frederick Church, who had already come to the island several times, accompanied the Charles Tracy family for a stay in Somesville, serving as their guide. Tracy, a New York lawyer, brought his family and their friends, 27 in all, for a whole month. Though other prominent visitors had visited the island before them, this was really the first such large group to stay such a long time. They were truly "summering" in Maine.

Lumber Mill at the Mill Pond, Somesville, ca. 1905
Lumber Mill at the Mill Pond, Somesville, ca. 1905Item Contributed by
Mount Desert Island Historical Society

Somesville was by now the economic and cultural center of the island. It had a small store, a blacksmith, a shoemaker, a tanning yard, a woolen factory, at least four mills, two shipyards, a schoolhouse, and a church. Somesville also had the island's first public house. Somes Tavern had been opened in 1831 by Abraham Somes's grandson Daniel. He had served liquor there, though some in the family objected. By 1855, Daniel Jr. had renamed it Mount Desert House and expanded it to allow boarders.

Bar Harbor had become a first-rate resort, bustling with stores and liveries and carpenter shops to support those hotels and their tourists. Local carpenters and shipbuilders and local families built and owned the new hotels and the supporting businesses. Though some were becoming quite rich from the summer trade, their way of life did not necessarily change. In the 1880s, the Rodick family still lived on Rodick's Island, now Bar Island, where they raised sheep and spun and wove their own wool. This was the family that owned the largest summer hotel in America. The reason they did this, as one writer noted, was because this family, "like most families in Eden, had always made good use of what lay to hand. Mr. and Mrs. Rodick knew how to do these things, and did them. They would have thought themselves foolish not to." It seems islanders did not let success go to their heads.

The Rockaway Hotel, Bar Harbor, ca. 1910
The Rockaway Hotel, Bar Harbor, ca. 1910Item Contributed by
Mount Desert Island Historical Society

Rusticators had started arriving soon after steamer service was established. In 1855 Bar Harbor postmaster Tobias Roberts opened Agamont House at the foot of Main Street, where he also built the village's first wharf. About this time David Rodick converted two cottages for summer use. By 1870 the village was getting four steamboats a day. A year later it had telegraph service. There were now 11 hotels, mostly along Main Street. And Rodick, despite ridicule for his optimism, expanded his two cottages into a hotel extending from Cottage Street half way to the town green.

By 1879 Bar Harbor had 30 hotels, a national reputation and telephone service linking four hotels, a livery stable, Bee's Store, and the local doctor. Soon an electric light company was set up that could handle 5,000 lamps. By 1882 Rodick House, now the largest summer hotel in America, could hold 600 guests, served 750 at meals and drew as many as 3,000 to its twice-a-week dances. Its porch was 500 feet long and 25 feet deep. The hotel was famous across the country for its lobby, known as the "Fish Pond," were young ladies lingered, "fishing" for husbands.

Building of Arts, Bar Harbor, ca. 1910
Building of Arts, Bar Harbor, ca. 1910Item Contributed by
Jesup Memorial Library

The hotel scene did start to fade. Rich summer visitors wanted more than just rooms. They wanted their own cottages. And these cottages were not rustic bungalows. They were 60-room mansions with clipped lawns and formal gardens, estates reflecting their owners' wealth and rank. Soon the shoreline and hillsides were filled with estates belonging to bankers, industrialists, and railroad men. The Boston Symphony was playing regularly by the Bar Harbor Club pool, and traveling theater companies were visiting the village. Bar Harbor had its own horse track and a golf course where, in 1910, President William Howard Taft would play. The little village had become the social capitol of the United States.

Asticou Inn employees, Northeast Harbor, ca. 1910
Asticou Inn employees, Northeast Harbor, ca. 1910Item Contributed by
Mount Desert Island Historical Society

Bar Harbor was not alone in its development -- other villages were also growing. Southwest Harbor now had several hotels from Manset to Clark Point. The most famous was the Claremont, built by Deacon Clark's niece and her sea-captain husband a half mile from the family's wharf. It opened for business in 1884, 29 years after Clark hosted the Tracy Party. It was the largest hotel on the island outside of Bar Harbor, with 35 rooms on three upper floors and a series of public rooms and kitchens on the ground floor.

Two other villages successfully developed summer colonies -- Northeast and Seal harbors. In 1869 the Clement family in Seal Harbor rebuilt their old homestead into the Seaside Inn. At Asticou, Chase Savage, who in 1870 had begun taking summer boarders, built the Asticou Inn. Soon other hotels followed in Northeast Harbor. Squire Kimball, who owned its only store, began taking boarders at his expanded farmhouse. Eventually he tore down the original structures and built the Kimball House proper.