Maine has thousands of coastal islands, but the largest one has peaks so tall that they are said to catch the first rays of sunlight each morning. The earliest residents of this isolated island were the Wabanaki, or “the people of the dawn,” a Native American confederation of five nations.
The rocky, treeless summits of its mountains were the first thing that European mariners saw as they approached land. When French explorer Samuel de Champlain sailed by this striking silhouette in 1604, he referred to it as “Isle des Monts Deserts,” or Mount Desert Island. The bay in which he sailed became known as Frenchman Bay.
Mount Desert’s pink granite mountains, evergreen forests and freshwater lakes stayed a well-kept secret until the mid-19th century, when Hudson River School painters Thomas Cole and Frederic Church discovered its magnificent scenery. They were so enchanted by the gorgeous panoramic views of land, sea and sky that they returned again and again to paint them. “Here was an Acadian scene of the richest character,” one of Church’s traveling companions wrote.
Other artists followed. After seeing their paintings of Mount Desert, authors described the island’s attractiveness in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine and in a series of illustrated travel books edited by William Cullen Bryant called Picturesque America; or The Land We Live In. Then came the tourists, eager to see such beautiful scenery for themselves. Wealthy Easterners bought land on the island to build summer “cottages.” One of Bar Harbor’s most famous summer residents was Joseph Pulitzer, who hosted parties on his yacht, Liberty, and at his 26-bedroom island home, Chatwold. The home had the first heated swimming pool in Bar Harbor and a soundproof “Tower of Silence” to protect his sensitivity to the sound of a nearby foghorn.
All this transformed Bar Harbor, a small “clam-digging place” on Frenchman Bay, into a major coastal resort destination.
“Rusticators” needed places to socialize. One of the most exclusive clubs was the Mount Desert Reading Room, in which Pulitzer’s contemporaries gathered to read, play cards, and discuss current events. In 1887, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s nephew, William Ralph Emerson, designed a clubhouse with a library, drawing rooms, a billiard room, and a stylish dining room with a nearly 35-foot curved window offering 180-degree views of Frenchman Bay and Porcupine Island. Presidents Chester Arthur, William Henry Harrison and William Howard Taft were among the distinguished guests of the club, which continued until the 1920s. During World War II, the building was the U.S. Navy’s headquarters for coastal security services; the American Red Cross used it for disaster recovery after Mount Desert suffered a devastating fire in 1947. It was converted into a hotel in 1950, and operates as the Bar Harbor Inn today.
Less than a block from Bar Harbor’s Village Green, three very different attractions on Mt. Desert Street present other views of this community. St. Saviour’s Episcopal Parish is one. Named for Saint Sauveur, the French Jesuit mission that was established on the island in 1613, the church dates to 1878 and was enlarged in 1885. While the exterior is said to show the influence of the Richardsonian Romanesque style of Trinity Church on Boston’s Copley Square, the interior features over 40 stained-glass windows, 10 of which were created by Louis Comfort Tiffany in his iridescent favrile glass technique.
The Abbe Museum is another. Housed in Bar Harbor’s former YMCA building from the 1890s, the museum was founded in 1926 by Dr. Robert Abbe, a New York physician known for his pioneering use of radiation therapy, who summered in Bar Harbor. The museum displays Abbe’s collection of early Native American artifacts found in the Frenchman Bay area, such as birchbark dishes sewn with spruce and white cedar and embellished with dyed porcupine quills. It is known for its large, well-documented collection of baskets made by Maine Indians, particularly the Penobscot tribe who excelled in basketry, and “porcupine work,” an ornamental basket weave in which the strands were twisted into a point. Besides sponsoring archaeological research, the museum exhibits contemporary work, such as baskets made by the Passamaquoddy people.
Across the street is the Jesup Memorial Library, built for the community in 1910 by Mrs. Morris K. Jesup in memory of her late husband, both of whom were longtime summer residents of Bar Harbor. Beginning as a small collection first organized by summer residents in 1875, the library has grown into a full-fledged community resource and gathering place.
Walk along the Shorepath and discover some of Bar Harbor’s local history through its 29 “Museum in the Streets” panels. Illustrated with archival imagery, these historical panels are developed with local historical societies to create self-paced walking tours that promote historic preservation and relay local lore about landmarks around town. For example, the Breakwater Estate was designed by a local architect for a grandson of John Jacob Astor in 1903.
For more on Mount Desert Island and Bar Harbor, read Inventing Acadia: Artists and Tourists at Mount Desert, by Pamela J. Belanger; A History of the Bar Harbor Inn, by Vincent C. Messer; and The Handicrafts of the Modern Indians of Maine, by Fannie Hardy Eckstorm.