Bar Harbor's Gilded Century: Opulence to Ashes

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Maine's premier tourist destination, Bar Harbor has many historic buildings. The area was once a shipbuilding and farming hamlet that became a Gilded Age resort of the highest order-until a fire in 1947 destroyed many of its buildings. This pictorial history takes Bar Harbor from its origins to the fire. It also offers intriguing curiosities, including insights on the upstairs-downstairs aspects of resort life. The book's captions are packed with fascinating information.

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Introduction: A Century of Change

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When my daughter Christina, at age five, looked at a photograph of her great-grandmother at the same age bathing in an antique tub and asked, “But where are the faucets?” I realized the power of photographs to tell stories of the past. With the help of Earle Shettleworth, an architectural historian, I have assembled a collection of photographs that tell the story of how Bar Harbor (earlier called Eden) changed over a century.

There are many illustrated books on Bar Harbor, and most focus on one subject, such as the grandiose cottages or the Native Americans. With this volume, I’ve attempted to show a broader perspective of the town and the changes that occurred there from just before the Civil War to the post World War II years. Some of the changes experienced by the islanders during that century parallel those of the elite summer visitors, though on a different scale. Unlike other works, this book combines some familiar photos with many that have never been published, such as the portrait of Alpheus Hardy, the first cottager in Bar Harbor. When paired with the islanders’ own voices, from diaries and interviews, these historic images convey a sense of the people and their experiences.

 

The Island Settlers

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LIKE THE SUMMER SOJOURNERS who would follow in later years, William Lynam was attracted to Mount Desert Island for its abundant resources and beauty. The island offered plenty for making a living in nineteenth-century Maine: lumber for building ships, houses, boxes, and furniture; water to power the mills and navigate to other ports for trade; fertile soil to grow food; and fish for eating and selling. A blacksmith by trade, Lynam moved with his wife, Hannah Tracey, from Gouldsboro, Maine, to the island in 1831 and built this modest homestead at Schooner Head. Over time, this homestead would be described as “lonely” and “not specially picturesque” by famous artists who boarded there, but who nevertheless made it their temporary home during their sojourns on the island.

Photo courtesy of the Maine Historic Preservation Commission

LYNAM WAS a subsistence farmer like many of his fellow islanders, producing enough pork, lamb, dairy products, and vegetables to feed his wife and nine children. During the Civil War, islanders set up oil presses such as this one in which menhaden—also called pogies—were boiled and pressed to produce oil. For a few short years, the oil sold for $1.25 a gallon, five times its prewar price, before overfishing depleted the resource in this area. Women assisted in the process by “knitting” (netting) pogy nets, sometimes making thousands of knots over the course of many days to create a two-inch-mesh net, two hundred to five hundred feet long by eighteen feet deep.

 

Rusticators

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THE HUDSON RIVER SCHOOL painters who visited Mount Desert Island in the decades before the Civil War were the first to capture its natural beauty on canvas and share it with the public through art galleries and salons. One of the artists’ favorite vantage points was the dramatic view from Green Mountain (now called Cadillac), toward Otter Creek. Nowhere else on the East Coast can this combination of mountain and sea be found, and image makers wanted to capture it on canvas or in photographs.

Photo courtesy of the Maine Historic Preservation Commission

WHEN NOTED ARTISTS first visited the island, they were struck by the variety of scenic experiences available to them. The sweeping grandeur of Green Mountain’s vistas contrasted with more pastoral coastal scenes like this one at Hulls Cove. The quiet coves where shipbuilders had constructed coastal schooners, were now becoming havens for canoeists and boaters. Nineteenth-century Americans were beginning to learn that vacations were not just for the elite; they could also be valuable for the health of the middle class as well.

 

The Cottage Era

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ACCORDING TO LOCAL LORE, Chatham, Massachusetts, resident Alpheus Hardy heard of Mount Desert’s attractions from a traveling saleswoman who raved about the island’s “thirteen mountain peaks, wooded glens, walks, drives, rocks and caves, headlands and coves, known only to a few.”1 In 1865, seeking a restful sojourn for his sons who were returning from the war, Hardy brought his family and his ward, Montgomery Sears, to Eden. There, they purchased land from their host, Captain Stephen Higgins, for $300. Two years later, the couple hired the Doane contracting firm of Boston to build this simple, picturesque structure. Named Birch Point, it was finished in 1868, complete with a generous veranda and sturdy benches from which to view the bay and watch the comings and goings in the harbor.

Photo courtesy of the Maine Historic Preservation Commission

FRUSTRATED THAT HIS HEALTH would not allow him to study for the ministry, Alpheus Hardy had decided to make money for godly works through the merchant marine trade. He built swift coasting schooners in the 1840s and sent them worldwide for trade, producing a fortune for good works and leading to the creation of Alpheus Hardy & Co. Both he and his wife, Susan (née Holmes), were active supporters of educational institutions and religious enterprises. At his death in August 1887, the Sandwich Observer extolled, “His name was a tower of strength to every enterprise, and [he] was always an earnest religious worker,” traits carried on by his four sons, Alpheus H., Edward, Charles, and Arthur.

 

Refined Amusements

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THIS SIMPLE STRUCTURE with its natural pine columns doesn’t reveal the original purpose of the Oasis Club—to create a place where rusticating gentlemen could converse while imbibing alcohol, Maine’s then-forbidden drink. While visiting the state with the second-oldest Prohibition law, sojourners established Bar Harbor’s first club in 1874 on the corner of School and Mount Desert streets.

Seven years later, the membership had outgrown this humble building, both in number and in sophistication. They purchased Alfred Veazie’s cottage and renamed their organization the Mount Desert Reading Room. The organization flourished in this new location by the shore, growing to include 307 members. Outgrowing their quarters once again, they moved the former Veazie cottage to the corner of West and Bridge streets and hired Boston architect William R. Emerson to design a new clubhouse to match their national prestige.

Photograph courtesy of the Bar Harbor Historical Society

 

New Occupations

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THIS EARLY PHOTOGRAPH SHOWS the shore of Bar Harbor around 1878. At the left of the wharf are the cottages and stables of the Hardy and Veazie families. The Rockaway Hotel looms above the sailboats. Visitors could have a bath in the long low building on the shore. Along Main Street, then a narrow dirt road, stands the Agamont House on the right and the Newport Hotel on the left. With turrets pointing to the sky, the Grand Central Hotel vies with the mansard-topped towers of the Rodick House for the right to be named the tallest building in town, while at right, one can see the homes of the local villagers, shipbuilders, lumber-men, and fishermen. Ten years hence, this skyline would look radically different as the nation’s elite built summer houses and the locals built more hotels.

Photo courtesy of the Maine Historic Preservation Commission

AS THIS C. 1885 MAP SHOWS, the area now known as Bar Harbor was growing rapidly, with shops, houses, cottages, manufacturers, churches, mills, and other services clustered along the downtown streets. West Street consisted of only two blocks, with the posh West End Hotel dominating the landscape. Andover Seminary professor Austin Phelps’s cottage stood at the end, with worker housing built between it and the shore.

 

Local Pastimes

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WHEN THE SUMMER colony left for their winter homes, Bar Harbor’s permanent residents could relax and have the mountains, lakes, paths, and streams all to themselves. Island men frequently took this time to head to the forests and shores on fall hunting expeditions, sometimes traveling to camps on the mainland to hunt deer, moose, and small game, producing a winter feast for family and friends.

On a crisp fall day in October 1894, this group of villagers—(from left to right) William Sherman, Martin Pendleton, John Roberts, F. T. Young, W. B. Higgins, A. L. Higgins, and Charles Conners—left early in the morning to hunt sea ducks. They took a boat to Turtle Island, located between Schooner Head and Schoodic Point. Dressed in tall leather boots and warm sweaters, and armed with shotguns, these seven brought down 250 coots in just a few hours. Such an unusually successful trip warranted a photograph.

Photo courtesy of the Bar Harbor Historical Society

AROUND BAR HARBOR, ample opportunities could be found for a rewarding fishing expedition, as this family’s catch shows. Anglers could head to the Atlantic to wrestle with cod or sea bass, or they could hike down to Eagle Lake where plenty of speckled trout and salmon awaited the sportsman. With more than a dozen lakes and streams on the island, there was no shortage of fishing spots. After locals stocked Eagle Lake with more than 20,000 young salmon fry in 1886, fishermen were hooking salmon that tipped the scale at six pounds apiece. The sportsmen’s families turned the bounty into many delicious lunches and dinners. In a typical workman’s lunch of the day, one would find homecured stripped fish, some soda biscuits, and a jar of stewed tea.

 

Changing Times

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MINISTER AND WRITER Benjamin de Costa described a hike not far from this spot in 1871: “We were on top of . . . Dry [Dorr] Mountain, picking blueberries and seeking for the best way across the ravine which separated us from Green [Cadillac]. We finally decided to take the most shallow part of the ravine and push straight across. . . . at every step we were in danger of dislodging huge masses of rock that needed scarcely more than a finger’s touch to send them thundering below.”1

This group of hikers traversing the Cadillac Trail many years later could do so confidently because of the diligence and hard work of volunteer trail builders. Some, like Waldron Bates, took great pride in rearranging the terrain to allow the hiker a dramatic perspective. Hikers continue to benefit from the path maker’s thigh-strengthening handiwork and foresight.

Photo courtesy of Raymond Strout

SUMMER RESIDENTS created Village Improvement Associations in the 1890s to raise the sanitation and aesthetic standards of their adopted communities. Representing the four island VIA Path Committees were: (from left) Joseph Allen (Seal Harbor), Walter Buell (Southwest Harbor), Fred Weeks (Bar Harbor), Professor Grandgent (SWH), William Turner (Northeast Harbor), Thomas McIntire (SH), and George B. Dorr (BH). Their philosophy in creating new paths was to “open up new avenues of access to the beautiful hills and lakes, and to the grand outlooks, which make the island of Mount Desert one of the most picturesque spots on the face of the globe.”2

 

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