The Car Wars of MDI

Was it Ever About the Cars?

PUblished december 13, 2023 | written by emily cough | edited by bhhs staff
Photo of Western Union Telegram from Mrs. V. L. Anderson. It reads "The Selectmen of Eden, Bar Harbor, ME. Greatly opposed to introduction of automobiles onto island as fear it is most dangerous."

Cars have always been a contentious topic among the locals of the Island. Just one glance at the Facebook page, “Bar Harbor’s Famous Parking Show,” is enough to see the widespread dissatisfaction for the habits of drivers, particularly throughout the summer.

The narrow streets of this picturesque town have often been the cause of much chaos; construction sites that cause one-way streets, oblivious jaywalkers, and sudden U-turns in the midst of busy traffic only add to the problem.

Nevertheless, this is not the first instance where the residents here have expressed resentment towards automobiles; this same sentiment was present as early as the 1900s.

In comparison with the cars of the present day, 1900s vehicles seem antiquated and rather cumbersome; the aerodynamics of the designs were quite lacking, and safety features, like seatbelts, were nonexistent.

But despite the fact that 1900s automobiles were still in their infancy, the citizens of Eden were not discouraged from making their thoughts on the topic heard.

The scenery of Eden, which although was said to be named after notable British statesman Sir Richard Eden and not for the biblical garden, was particularly breathtaking. The Hudson River School painters took note of this beauty by putting the land and seascapes to canvas. It was with their paintings they opened this idyllic world up to the rest of the world.

For visitors, it was constituted as a semi-remote and untouched paradise, accessible mainly by boats and ships and unaffected by any development. To them, the island provided a sanctuary for city-dwellers to escape the chaos of the urban jungles.

As the town and island advanced throughout the years, certain people desired to preserve the idyllic landscape, or at least, maintain its natural beauty in spite of development. This translated into the construction of cottages that adequately blended in with the landscape, maintaining what would become the National Park’s natural state, and relying on the use of horses and carriages as the primary mode of travel.

While some residents desired to maintain the area’s car-free landscape, others desired to keep up with the changing times, particularly when automobiles became a far more practical and affordable mode of transportation. The upkeep and expenses associated with horses made automobiles a significantly better option for many residents on the island.

As a result of the State of Maine passing a law that gave towns the authority to choose to allow or prohibit automobiles, letters portraying resident’s stances on the proposed vehicle allowance to the island were submitted en masse to the Selectmen of Bar Harbor.

Indicated through our archival records, a letter sent by Charles Eliot to Bishop Lawrence expressed his disfavor of vehicles being present on the island, stating that,

“During the past fortnight I have become interested in an effort to prevent the repeal of the present law about the admission of automobiles on this Island…The summer residents, whether owners of cottages, lessees, or hotel guests, are by an absolutely overwhelming majority opposed to the introduction of automobiles.”

Eliot proceeded to elaborate on the reason why he and the other hoteliers on “[their] side of the island” were against the introduction of automobiles, disclosing that a year prior they were in support of the idea. To justify their standpoint, he cited a lack of evidence that the allowance of automobiles would benefit the island’s economy, stating,

“automobiles have not saved Newport from great reductions of real estate values…The propinquity of Boston and the coming of rich people from the Middle West, the North Shore still succeeds in keeping up the prices of shore lots; but sensible people who have long since lived there are very much disposed to get away” (Eliot).

A further influx of objections from seasonal visitors was evident through telegrams and letters to voice their complaints. Their reasoning behind denying the allowance of automobiles was diverse, ranging from concerns about the island’s natural beauty to worries that tourists wouldn’t be able to handle the vehicles properly.

Mrs. V. L. Anderson “greatly opposed the introduction of automobiles onto the island as fear it is most dangerous” (Anderson).

Mrs. Susan A. Robbins agreed, stating, “Bar Harbor, I believe, is the only place in America, possibly the only place in the world where automobiles cannot come” (Robbins).

Ernest G. Grob believed that it would “ruin the Hotel business in Bar Harbor, same as it has done all over. And it will kill the town in a few years” (Grob).

Dr. Robert Abbe believed they’re a “peace-disturbing modern innovation…[that] bring a poor quality of transient visitor” (Abbe).

In contrast to those who were against the introduction of automobiles to the island, the opinions of those who were either in favor of allowing cars, or at the very least, held a more understanding perspective towards the subject, were also presented. Some residents believed that automobiles could provide a degree of convenience that horses and carriages could not.

In an unsigned response letter to Eliot just two days later (presumably Bishop Lawrence), they speak to that matter, writing,

“if a majority of [Bar Harbor people] think it wise and profitable to shut out automobiles, well and good. But if a majority want to admit automobiles, it is right or fair to those of us who are here ten or twelve weeks to try to so influence this legislation as to prevent it? Why, because we want quiet roads in the summer should the citizens of Bar Harbor and their friends and trade people on the main land be deprived all the year round of the use of a vehicle upon which many of us depend on our pleasure and the conduct of business?”

The writer even adds that he “cannot afford to keep horses as well as automobiles. The expense of hiring teams is such that I and my family are cut off from much driving. Each summer it is costing me over $500 as well as the pleasure not to have automobiles on the Island” (Anonymous 1912).

Other residents also had similar beliefs, although their sentiments began to highlight a larger issue at play: the influence of the summer residents and their effects on the locals.

In W. H. Sherman’s scathing speech addressed to the Maine House of Representatives, he alleges that the movement to bar cars on the Island had more nefarious intentions, stating that the opposition

“was started by just half a dozen men. They were so rich and so powerful that they could carry weight. They frightened people into signing these petitions: people did not dare oppose them. These same people have been the mischief makers of Bar Harbor. They have never been of any service to us. I have one of the largest stores in Bar. Harbor and I want to say to you that my store would have to go out of business and everybody else would have to go out of business if we depended upon the people who signed the automobile petition” (“EXTRACTS FROM SPEECHES MADE BY W. H. SHERMAN, ON THE FLOOR OF THE MAINE HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES” 1913).

Similarly, in an unsigned letter addressed to O. F. Fellows, the writer expresses the same sentiments as Sherman, noting that

“there is no reason why the aristocracy of Bar Harbor should have any special privilege or immunity. The use of motor vehicles upon the highways of Mount Desert Island is well within the purpose of the dedication of those highways, and to exclude them at the whim of a few people, who really do not belong here, but are foreign residents, would seem to be the height of absurdity” (Anonymous 1909).

Bar Harbor attorney Elliot Benson remarks that

“a very large class of resident people of Bar Harbor…are tired of being told what we must do…We are not impressed with the argument to the extent that we want this place [to] gradually sink into a quiet retreat for millionaires and their particular friends. We welcome them and anyone who wishes to come, but it should be understood that the town of Eden and Mount Desert Island must remain open to everyone who wishes to visit our shores” (Benson).

As more letters poured in, it seemed the pro-car movement was less about what cars can offer to them, but rather whether or not the seasonal visitors should dictate what happens in the town year round. The summer residents wished to maintain the idyllic, quiet lifestyle, while the local population believed the summer residents had taken up too much residency in not only day-to- day life, but in their legislature as well.

As such, Herman L. Savage, brother of architect Fred Savage, proposed a compromise to meet the needs and wishes of all parties. He believed that people “should be able to ride from No. East to Bar Harbor and Southwest Harbor…[in] one road from Mt. Desert bridge to Somerville. I believe that this would not take more than 25% of all our roads.”

Photo of Herman L. Savage's rendering of potential roads to be used for automobiles.
Herman L. Savage’s Proposition

Though his feelings were still made quite known, writing,

“It is much better for the opposers to give us a little of the roads now than to lose them all later. The cottagers and non-residents there are able financially, and are determined to have everything they want, and now they want the roads” (Savage).

It’s unclear whether the true admission of vehicles from the local population was more about the uses, practicality, affordability, and accessibility they could provide, such as transportation throughout the island or more about opposing the overwhelming majority of summer visitors, who were only here for a few short months out of the year.

Either way, the positions of both parties were made exceptionally known by our weighted collection of letters here at the Historical Society, and we’re ever-reminded of the quote often attributed to Mark Twain that “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.”

“Bar Harbor’s Famous Parking Show” group is more quiet in the winter now that the summer visitors and residents have left, but parking offenders are still captured on the page, many of which have Maine plates.

So, was it ever about the cars? Or was it the visitors that drove them? Some food for thought.

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Reference List

Abbe, Dr. Robert, papers. February 24, 1908. Bar Harbor, ME: Bar Harbor Historical Society collection.  

Anderson, V. L., telegram. Bar Harbor, ME: Bar Harbor Historical Society collection.

Anonymous, papers. February 8, 1909. Bar Harbor, ME: Bar Harbor Historical Society collection. 

Anonymous, papers. September 7, 1912. Bar Harbor, ME: Bar Harbor Historical Society collection. 

Benson, Elliot, papers. March 17, 1908. Bar Harbor, ME: Bar Harbor Historical Society collection.

Eliot, Charles, papers. September 5, 1912. Bar Harbor, ME: Bar Harbor Historical Society collection.

“EXTRACTS FROM SPEECHES MADE BY W. H. SHERMAN, ON THE FLOOR OF THE MAINE HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES.” 1913. March 7, and March 13, 1913. United States of America, March. Bar Harbor, ME: Bar Harbor Historical Society collection.

Grob, Ernest G., papers. February 28, 1908. Bar Harbor, ME: Bar Harbor Historical Society collection.

Robbins, Susan A, papers. February 24, 1908. Bar Harbor, ME: Bar Harbor Historical Society collection.

Savage, Herman L., papers. January 14, 1909. Bar Harbor, ME: Bar Harbor Historical Society collection.