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Mount Desert Island: Shaped by Nature

Depression, War, and Fire

Belmont Hotel, Bar Harbor, ca. 1910
Belmont Hotel, Bar Harbor, ca. 1910

Item Contributed by
Jesup Memorial Library

The Bar Harbor summer colony reached its peak after the First World War. But the growing income tax began to cut into its excesses, and the 1929 stock market crash accelerated its decline.

It was really World War II that ended the Depression. The United States entered the war in 1941, and many island men and women left to join the war effort. Three boatyards on the island built vessels for the war. The largest producer was the Hinckley Company, which built 535, about 40 percent of all those built in Maine for the war effort.

Belmont Hotel after the Fire of 1947
Belmont Hotel after the Fire of 1947

Item Contributed by
Bar Harbor Historical Society

After the war, islanders looked forward to restarting their lives. But all too soon they would face another challenge. On Friday, October 17, 1947, after a dangerously dry summer, a fire broke out in a cranberry bog outside Hulls Cove. Though the fire was slow moving at first, the winds whipped up and it exploded out of control. A cold front brought a wind shift, and gales drove the fire toward Bar Harbor, where it burned almost the whole village. It quickly swept through 67 summer estates, five large hotels and 170 year-round homes. It surrounded the village, cutting off all roads. The fire burned out of control for ten days, consuming 10,000 acres. A large section of Bar Harbor was gone. Some things would never come back. Bar Harbor's estates were gone and its standing as the country’s social capital was over. Half of the eastern side of the island was in ashes.

But within a few years, new buildings sprang up on the foundations of the old, though this time they were hotels and motels and small inns, built in time to ride a wave of economic prosperity and the rise of the American car culture. In the 1950s, middle class families got in their cars and drove to “Vacationland.”