Acadia National Park, encompassing the highest rocky headlands along the U.S. Atlantic coast, has a long and interesting history. The Downeast Maine region has been inhabited by the native Wabanaki people, the collective name for the Maliseet, Micmac, Passamaquoddy and Penobscot tribes, for over 12,000 years. Generations ago, Wabanaki people traveled overland and in seaworthy birchbark canoes to the land that is now known as Acadia National Park. They would hunt, fish, gather berries, harvest clams and trade with other Wabanaki from their temporary camps near places like Somes Sound. Many called Mount Desert Island “Pemetic,” meaning “range of mountains.” The Wabanaki people lived quite peacefully in Maine until European colonizers attempted to displace and erase them, but the Wabanaki people resisted. Thanks to their efforts and resilience, they played an important part in shaping the history of their people and the future caretaking of this land. Today, the coastal Maine park protects 47,000 acres of forest, mountains, lakes and ocean and consistently ranks among the most-visited national parks in the U.S.
In the autumn of 1604, French explorer and colonizer Samuel de Champlain and his crew arrived from Europe to make landfall on the specific terrain that would eventually become Acadia National Park. De Champlain, who mapped the area and named it “Isle de Monts Desert,” recalled that the “summits are all bare and rocky. The slopes are covered with pines, firs and birches.” Though much has changed over the 400-plus years that followed, de Champlain if he were alive today would most likely still recognize the rolling, forested terrain and the rocky shoreline.
Long before hiking trails and carriage roads crossed this landscape, woodlands, farms and quarries were essential to life in and around what is now the park. In 1761, near present-day Somesville, English homesteaders Abraham and Hannah Somes and James and Rachel Richardson settled their families. In the 1800s, not far from this settlement, the Carroll family built a home. Settlers converted hundreds of acres of trees into wood products and agriculturists harvested wheat, rye, corn and potatoes. By 1820, farming and lumbering vied with fishing and shipbuilding as the major industries.
In addition to lumber and soil, the land in this region provided residents with a seemingly endless supply of granite. Very early settlements on the island required small quarrying operations for foundations, piers and roads. There was also a huge demand for granite in bigger cities throughout the Atlantic coast, so it became a lucrative business to sell and ship local granite. Once Mount Desert Island became a hot spot for Gilded Era mansion building, the skills of granite quarriers and masons were devoted to cottage building, driveways and path construction. Park founder George Dorr even had his own quarrying business. On a trip to this part of Maine, you can not only still see the marks on the land of granite quarries and farms, but you can learn about the communities who continue to use their skillset to this day. On a different kind of historical note, no trip to Acadia National Park is complete without a visit to Jordan Pond House for its famous popovers, which it has served to guests since it opened in 1893.
Fast forward a century and Mount Desert Island became a popular summer home retreat for America’s wealthiest families. It became known as an elite and tranquil place for recreation, relaxation and unmatched natural beauty. In the early 20th century, Woodrow Wilson first gave federal status to the land now known as Acadia, establishing it as Sieur de Monts National Monument on July 8, 1916. Less than three years later, on February 26, 1919, the area was re-designated and renamed Lafayette National Park. Then, on January 19, 1929, the park was ultimately named Acadia National Park.
While the U.S. government was busy focusing on the logistical and legal establishment of the park, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., one of those wealthy aforementioned Mount Desert Island landowners, decided to dedicate his vast resources to the development of a private estate and the establishment of the carriage paths. Rockefeller developed more than 50 miles of trails to provide carriage and horseback access to the island’s remote beauty and constructed 17 arched granite bridges to help his dream become a reality.
In 1930, Rockefeller commissioned Beatrix Farrand to oversee his vision of beautifully landscaping the carriage paths. Intricate details that spared no expense, such as the hand-cut granite coping stones that protect travelers from steep roadside embankments, still stand today for visitors to the park to enjoy. In late 1947, wildfires devoured more than 10,000 acres of the Acadia National Park. The devastating fires were finally stifled by U.S. military forces, National Park employees and local residents. While there was definite destruction, it inspired the Rockefeller family to step up their generosity, dedication and commitment to the area even more. Reconstruction began as soon as the fires ran their course.
In Acadia National Park today, Wabanaki ecologists, archeologists and activists are working to reclaim and protect a place for Indigenous culture within the park. Though Acadia National Park lies in the Wabanaki homeland, the federal government had prohibited (for almost a century!) the Wabanaki people from harvesting sweetgrass within the boundaries of the park. In 2015, the National Park Service issued regulations for the gathering of certain plants or plant parts by federally recognized tribes. This opened a path for Indigenous communities to honor and preserve their cultural practices in their homelands. Tribal governments have also formed a relationship with Acadia National Park and the nearby Abbe Museum, a native-guided museum of Wabanaki art, history and culture. In partnership with the Smithsonian Institution, the museum holds the largest and best-documented collection of Maine Wabanaki basketry.
Understanding a bit of the long and varied history of Acadia National Park makes a visit to Downeast Maine even more interesting. Yes, the coastlines and the forests offer stunning natural beauty, but this gorgeous park deserves to be explored with an educated guide who can bring the history to life, giving room to honor the Indigenous, colonial and government efforts that all came together to create and protect this beloved destination.