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Mount Desert Island, in Hancock Countymarker, Mainemarker, is the largest island off the coast of Mainemarker. With an area of 108 square miles (280 km²) it is the 6th largest island in the continental United States. Though it is often claimed to be the third largest island on the eastern seaboard of the United States, it is actually second behind only Long Islandmarker (and ahead of Martha's Vineyardmarker). The island has a permanent population of approximately 10,000, although it is estimated that two and a half million tourists a year visit Acadia National Parkmarker on the island. The island is home to numerous well-known summer colonies such as Northeast Harbormarker and Bar Harbor. Current notable summer residents include David Rockefeller, Martha Stewart, Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins.

Origin of the name

Some natives stress the second syllable (de-ZERT), in the French fashion, although many others pronounce it in a fashion similar to the English name of a landscape devoid of vegetation (DEH-zert). French explorer Samuel de Champlain's observation that the summits of the island's mountains were free of vegetation as seen from the sea led him to call the island "Île des Monts Déserts", or Island of the bare mountains.

Towns and villages

There are four towns on Mount Desert Island:


Schooner Head in c.

From NPS history

Deep shell heaps indicate American Indian encampments dating back 6,000 years in Acadia National Park, but prehistoric records are scanty. The first written descriptions of Maine coast Indians, recorded 100 years after European trade contacts began, describe American Indians who lived off the land by hunting, fishing, collecting shellfish, and gathering plants and berries. The Wabanaki Indian knew Mount Desert Island as Pemetic, "the sloping land." They built bark-covered conical shelters, and traveled in exquisitely designed birch bark canoes. Historical notes record that the Wabanaki wintered in interior forests and spent their summers near the coast. Archeological evidence suggests the opposite pattern; in order to avoid harsh inland winters and to take advantage of salmon runs upstream, American Indians wintered on the coast and summered inland.

The first meeting between the people of Pemetic and the Europeans is a matter of conjecture. But it was a Frenchman, Samuel de Champlain, who made the first important contribution to the historical record of Mount Desert Island. He led the expedition that landed on Mount Desert on September 5, 1604 and wrote in his journal, "The mountain summits are all bare and rocky..... I name it Isles des Monts Desert." Champlain's visit to Acadia 16 years before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rockmarker destined this land to become known as New France before it became New Englandmarker.

In 1613, French Jesuits, welcomed by Indians, established the first French mission in America on what is now Fernald Point, near the entrance to Somes Soundmarker. They had just begun to build a fort, plant their corn, and baptize the natives when an English ship, commanded by Captain Samuel Argall of Virginia, destroyed their mission.

The English raid at Fernald Point doomed Jesuit ambitions on Mount Desert Island, leaving the territories east of the Penobscot River in a state of limbo, lying between the French, firmly entrenched to the north, and the English, whose settlements in Massachusettsmarker and southward were becoming increasingly numerous. No one wished to settle in this contested territory and for the next 150 years, Mount Desert Island's importance was primarily its use as a landmark for seamen, as for example when John Winthrop, first governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony, sketched the island's mountains on his voyage to the New World.

There was a brief period when it seemed Mount Desert would again become a center of French activity. In 1688, Antoine Laumet, an ambitious young man who had immigrated to New France and bestowed upon himself the title Sieur de la Mothe Cadillac, asked for and received 100,000 acres (400 km²) of land along the Maine coast, including all of Mount Desert. Cadillac's hopes of establishing a feudal estate in the New World, however, were short lived. Although he and his bride resided here for a time, they soon abandoned their enterprise. Cadillac later gained lasting recognition as the founder of Detroitmarker. The island's highest point, at 466 meters (1530') the highest point on the eastern seaboard of the United Statesmarker, bears the name Cadillac Mountainmarker, and is notable for the fact that its summit is the first point in the United States touched by the rays of the rising sun.

Seal Harbor in c.
In 1759, after a century and a half of conflict, British troops triumphed in Quebecmarker, ending French dominion in Acadia. With Indians scattered and the fleur-de-lis banished, lands along the Maine coast opened for English settlement. Governor Francis Bernard of Massachusetts obtained a royal land grant on Mount Desert Island. In 1760, Bernard attempted to secure his claim by offering free land to settlers. Abraham Somes and James Richardson accepted the offer and settled their families at what is now Somesville.

The onset of the Revolutionary War ended Bernard's plans for Mount Desert Island. In its aftermath, Bernard, who had sided with the British government, lost his claim. Massachusetts, now free of British rule, granted the western half of Mount Desert Island to John Bernard, son of the governor, who, unlike his father, sided with the rebels. The eastern half of the island was granted to Marie Therese de Gregoire, granddaughter of Cadillac. Bernard and de Gregoire soon sold their landholdings to nonresident landlords.

Their real estate transactions probably made very little difference to the increasing number of settlers homesteading on Mount Desert Island. By 1820, when Maine separated from Massachusetts and became a separate state, farming and lumbering vied with fishing and shipbuilding as major occupations. Settlers converted hundreds of acres of trees into wood products ranging from schooners and barns to baby cribs and hand tools. Farmers harvested wheat, rye, corn, and potatoes. By 1850, the familiar sights of fishermen and sailors, fish racks and shipyards, revealed a way of life linked to the sea. Quarrying of granite, which could be cut from hills close to deep water anchorage for shipment to major cities on the east coast, was also a major industry.

Rock Inn in c.
It was the outsiders, artists and journalists, who revealed and popularized this island to the world in the mid 19th century. Painters of the Hudson River School, including Thomas Cole and Frederic Church, glorified Mount Desert Island with their brushstrokes, inspiring patrons and friends to flock here. These were the "rusticators". Undaunted by crude accommodations and simple food, they sought out local fishermen and farmers to put them up for a modest fee. Summer after summer, the rusticators returned to renew friendships with local islanders and, most of all, to savor the fresh salt air, beautiful scenery, and relaxed pace. Soon the villagers' cottages and fishermen's huts filled to overflowing, and by 1880, 30 hotels competed for vacationers' dollars. Tourism was becoming the major industry. Catering to the rusticators and summer tourists visiting island towns, in particular Bar Harbor, Penobscot, Passamaquoddy, and other Wabanaki Indians sold baskets, bark canoes, bead work, carved clubs, and other crafts, offered guide services, and put on 'Indian shows.' During the summer season, dozens of families from several tribes lived in canvas tents and wooden shacks in the "Indian encampment" on the shores of Frenchman Bay.

For a select handful of Americans, the 1880s and the "Gay Nineties" meant affluence on a scale without precedent. Mount Desert, still remote from the cities of the East, became a retreat for prominent people of the time. The Rockefellers, Morgan, Ford, Vanderbilts, Carnegies, and Astors, chose to spend their summers here. Not content with the simple lodgings then available, these families transformed the landscape of Mount Desert Island with elegant estates, euphemistically called "cottages." Luxury, refinement, and ostentatious gatherings replaced buckboard rides, picnics, and day-long hikes of an earlier era. Some rusticators also formed "Village Improvement Societies" which constructed hiking trails and walking paths connecting the Island's villages to its interior mountains. For over 40 years, the wealthy held sway at Mount Desert, but the Great Depression and World War II marked the end of such extravagance. The final blow came in 1947 when a fire of monumental proportions consumed many of the great estates.

Mountain Road in c.
In 1901, George B. Dorr, disturbed by the growing development of the Bar Harbor area and the dangers he foresaw in the newly invented gasoline powered portable sawmill, established along with others the Hancock County Trustees of Public Reservations. The corporation, whose sole purpose was to preserve land for the perpetual use of the public, acquired 6,000 acres (24 km²) by 1913. Dorr offered the land to the federal government, and in 1916, President Wilson announced the creation of Sieur de Monts National Monument. Dorr continued to acquire property and renewed his efforts to obtain full national park status for his beloved preserve. In 1919, President Woodrow Wilson signed the act establishing Lafayette National Park, the first national park east of the Mississippi. Dorr, whose labors constituted "the greatest of one-man shows in the history of land conservation" became the first park superintendent.
John D. Rockefeller Jr. gifted the park with much of its land area. Like many rusticators, Rockefeller, whose family fortune was derived from the petroleum industry, wanted to keep the island free of automobiles; but local governments allowed the entry of automobiles on the island's roads. Rockefeller constructed approximately 80 kilometers (50 miles) of carriage roads around the eastern half of the island. These roads were closed to automobiles and included many scenic vistas and beautiful stone bridges. Approximately 65 kilometers (40 miles) of these roads are within Acadia National Park and open only to hikers, bicyclists, horseback riders, horse-drawn carriages and cross country skiers.

In 1929, the park name changed to "Acadia".

In 1950, Marguerite Yourcenar and Grace Frick bought a house, "Petite Plaisance", in Somesville on the island. Yourcenar wrote a large part of her novel Memoires d'Hadrien on the island, and she died there in 1987. Their house is now a museum. Both ladies were cremated and their ashes are buried in the Brookside Cemetery in Somesville.

In 1969, College of the Atlanticmarker, the island's first and only institution of higher education, was established in Bar Harbor.


As mentioned above, quarrying of granite was historically an important industry. Mount Desert Island has three granite units, the Cadillac Mountain granite, the fine grained Somesville granite, and the medium grained Somesville granite. Surrounding DCg, is a zone of brecciated material, known as DSz (Devonian Shatter Zone).

See also


  1. Article Mount Desert Island on Encyclopædia Britannica on line
  2. Google search: tens of thousands of hits for "mount desert island third largest eastern seaboard"
  4. For a freely accessible digital text on Wabanaki culture and history, see "Asticou's Island Domain: Wabanaki Peoples at Mount Desert Island 1500-2000," by Harald E.L. Prins and Bunny McBride (National Park Service, 2007)
  5. George Rousseau, "Yourcenar", 2004.
  6. Wiebe, R.A.: "Silicic magma chambers as traps for basaltic magmas: the Cadillac Mountain Intrusive Complex, Mount Desert Island", Journal of Geology, 1994.


Image:ChurchFredericEdwinFogOff.jpg|Fog off Mount Desert (1850), by Frederic Edwin Church (1826-1900)Image:ChurchFredericEdwinNewportMountain.jpg|Newport Mountain, Mount Desert (1851), by Frederic Edwin Church (1826-1900)Image:LaneFitzHughEntranceOfSomesSound.jpg|Entrance of Somes Sound, Mount Desert, Maine (1855) by Fitz Hugh LaneImage:ChurchFredericEdwinBeaconOffMountDesert.jpg|Beacon, off Mount Desert Island (1851) by Frederic Edwin Church

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