In partnership with the Maine Memory Network Maine Memory Network

Mount Desert Island: Shaped by Nature

The Champlain Society

by Catherine Schmitt

Creation of the Champlain Society

The origins of conservation on Mount Desert Island can be traced to a clear, cold night in March 1880, when Harvard student Charles Eliot gathered six of his friends together in 34 Grays Hall in Cambridge to discuss a camping expedition to Maine. With his father, Harvard President Charles William Eliot, in Europe, young Charles had use of the family yacht (the Sunshine) and camping gear. The Eliot family had been spending summers in the region since Charles was a young boy. The place was important to him, and he wanted to share the experience with his classmates. Charles was most certainly encouraged by his father, who believed in learning from nature, in the health benefits of outdoor pursuits, and in science education.

A crew consisting of “Captain” Charles Eliot, his younger brother Samuel A. Eliot, Marshall P. Slade, George B. Dunbar, William H. Dunbar, Henry M. Spelman, hired cook William Breyant, and hired boatman Orrin Donnell (of Sullivan, Maine), sailed Downeast from Boston. On July 4 they established “Camp Pemetic” on Wasgatt Cove in Northeast Harbor, just south of where Hadlock Brook empties into Somes Sound. They mowed the grass, and pitched their six canvas tents: a parlor tent, kitchen, pantry, three medium-sized sleeping tents, and one small tent. They made a flagpole, and raised the red, white and blue colors of their club, called the Champlain Society after Samuel de Champlain.

This was not just a vacation, however. Each member of the group would do some work in natural history or science during their time on the island. A bit of science and a reasonable financial contribution seemed a small price to pay to spend the summer amid the spectacular landscape scenery of Mount Desert.

An additional fifteen students and one professor—William Morris Davis—would join them over the course of the summer, arriving via steamship ferry. They each had scientific “specialties,” such as marine invertebrates, meteorology, ichthyology, botany, ornithology, and geology.

They spent their days sailing and rowing across Somes Sound and around the islands, swimming in Lower Hadlock Pond, climbing and tramping across the bare summits and through the forest, all the while collecting and observing natural history. Henry Spelman and Charles Townsend of the Ornithology Department collected birds (by shooting them, as was the common practice at the time). Edward L. Rand headed up the Botanical Department. Samuel Eliot documented the meteorology, and Charles Eliot focused on geology. Photographer Marshall Slade documented their activities.

In their words and actions, the members of the Champlain Society were representative of their era. In the late nineteenth century, science was not as specialized nor as exclusive as it is today. Naturalists mingled with artists and writers; the distinctions between “professional” and “amateur” were fuzzy at best. Pressing plants and other types of natural history collecting, as well as sharing findings from collecting excursions, remained popular among Victorian-era middle and upper classes.

The Champlain Society’s scientific encounters with nature were tinged with rusticism, romance, and poetry, inspired by the view of the sublime in nature promoted by the landscape painters of the Hudson River School and writings of John Ruskin. Magazine and newspaper reporters described the places one could go to experience dramatic scenery, and a developing market of tourist brochures and guidebooks provided instructions to “rusticators” on what to do once they got there. In the case of Mount Desert, the visitor’s itinerary was not that different than it is today: hike to the summit of Cadillac Mountain, view the sheer cliffs of the the island’s eastern shore, and visit the villages of Bar Harbor, Southwest Harbor, and Somesville.

The Logbooks

The Champlain Society logbooks, today held by the Mount Desert Island Historical Society and the Gray Herbarium at Harvard University, contain detailed accounts of the expeditions, as well as their collection of rocks, plants, birds, and marine life, weather observations, and social activities. In the evening they played a card game called whist, read novels, analyzed flowers and prepared animal specimens (e.g., stuffed birds), and took notes. They sang songs, wrote poems, lit firecrackers, pranked one another, and entertained the locals. They played baseball and tug of war, and held regattas in Somes Sound. Back in Cambridge during the school year, they got together for meetings, dinners, and to present their scientific work.

The Champlain Society would return to Mount Desert (moving their camp near Asticou at the head of Northeast Harbor in 1882) every summer through 1889, although membership and the extent of scientific work varied over the years. Charles Eliot remained ever their Captain, even as he began to spend more time at his family’s new summer home in Northeast Harbor (which Charles encouraged his father to build), apprentice in the landscape architecture firm of Frederick Law Olmsted, travel through Europe, and open his own landscape architecture business.

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 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

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.