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Mount Desert Island: Shaped by Nature

The Champlain Society

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Champlain Society Camp Pemetic, Mount Desert Island, 1881
Champlain Society Camp Pemetic, Mount Desert Island, 1881

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Mount Desert Island Historical Society

Significance of the Champlain Society

While they took part in these popular social conventions, the Champlain Society was however, unique in several ways.

First, their time on the island (beginning in 1880) was relatively early in the history of Mount Desert’s development as a tourist destination. Much of the tourist infrastructure was not yet in place; visitors still boarded in private homes and arrived by water. Travel around the island was by water or rickety “buckboard” carriages on rough, bumpy, steep buckboard roads. Village life centered around Somesville and Southwest Harbor.

It is true that after two or three years, as the young men grew older, their scientific spirit struggled to continue amid the distractions of the social scene, and the members began to treat their time on the island less as a studious endeavor and more as a vacation (and indeed those sections of the logbooks are perhaps the most entertaining). However, this should not detract from what the Society accomplished scientifically.

Second, as scientists using Mount Desert as a study ground (for at that time, any one could “practice” science and contribute to scientific enterprise), the Champlain Society members were unique because they were the first ones who stayed on the island for weeks at a time and returned regularly. Others were in the area collecting plants and insects and marine invertebrates and inspecting geology in the late nineteenth century, but the Champlain Society’s engagement with the island was different.

Champlain Society Camp Pemetic, Mount Desert Island, 1881
Champlain Society Camp Pemetic, Mount Desert Island, 1881

Item Contributed by
Mount Desert Island Historical Society

Champlain Society member, secretary, and Botany Department chair Edward Lothrup Rand published Flora of Mount Desert with John C. Redfield in 1894, an impressive record for any protected area and one that has been revisited by scientists in the twenty-first century. The book contains a report on geology by William Morris Davis, which includes the work done by Champlain Society members and this passage:

“Seldom are geological facts more plainly presented. Seldom have pleasanter days been spent than those recalled while writing out this sketch. We have coasted in good company and under good pilotage along the rocky shore, landing for our geological discoveries even as old Champlain may have landed for his geography, and returning to our vessel at night. We have clambered up pathless glens to rugged summits; and we carried rations for only half a day, we felt nevertheless the spirit of explorers in unknown lands, and our adventures were recounted around camp-fires in the evening.”

Charles Eliot opened his own landscape architecture business and became a pioneer in that field.

Finally, the Champlain Society is significant because the sense of place they acquired during their time on the island had a lasting impression not only on the society members themselves, but on the place itself. Their dedication, investment, and knowledge led to a love for Mount Desert, and a desire to protect it. After just one summer of work, the young men of the Champlain Society had seen enough to know that the island was at risk. They expressed concern for the land in their logbooks, their letters, and their published articles.

“…is it possible to protect the natural beauty of the island in any way? …A company of interested parties could buy at a small cost the parts of the Island less desirable for building purposes. To these they could add from time to time such of the more desirable lots as they could obtain control of either by purchase of by arrangement with the proprietor. This tract of land should then be placed in the charge of a forester and his assistants; the lakes and streams should be stocked with valuable fish; the increase of animals and birds encouraged; the growth of trees, shrubs, plants, ferns and mosses cared for. This park should be free to all on condition that no rules of the Association were violated… I hope, however, that we may have the pleasure before long of listening to a paper on this subject by one of its earnest advocates, ‘Captain’ Charles Eliot.”
-- W.H. Dunbar and E.L. Rand, First Annual Report of the Botanical Department 1880 , pp. 55-57, Gray Herbarium Archives, Harvard University

“The scenery of Mount Desert is so beautiful and remarkable that no pains should be spared to save it from injury—to the end that many generations may receive all possible benefit and enjoyment from the sight of it.”
-- C. Eliot, unpublished journal, 1883-1884, Loeb Library Special Collections, Graduate School of Design, Harvard University

“The United States have but this one short stretch of Atlantic sea-coast where a pleasant summer climate and real picturesqueness of scenery are to be found together. Can nothing be done to preserve for the use and enjoyment of the great unorganized body of the common people some fine parts, at least, of this sea-side wilderness of Maine?”
-- Charles Eliot, Garden & Forest , February 19, 1890, pp. 86-87

Visitors at Champlain Society Camp, Mount Desert Island, 1880
Visitors at Champlain Society Camp, Mount Desert Island, 1880

Item Contributed by
Mount Desert Island Historical Society

Charles Eliot died of spinal meningitis in 1897 at the age of 37. It was a devastating loss. His father, in reviewing his late son’s papers, Garden & Forest articles, and Champlain Society logbooks, read anew the calls to protect Mount Desert. Building on the model that his son created when he founded The Trustees of Reservations in Massachusetts, Charles William Eliot worked with George Dorr to form the Hancock County Trustees of Reservations in 1901. It was this organization which acquired the first landholdings that eventually became Acadia National Park.