Town History

Town History

Despite being a small town on a small island off the coast of Maine, Bar Harbor certainly has made its mark on history. Read more about the history of Bar Harbor here!

An old aerial photo of Bar Harbor, then known as Eden. The buildings are more spaced out, compared to today's congestion.

A Place of Eden

Originally incorporated as the Town of Eden, the original document signed by Samuel Adams in 1796 and a warrant calling the first town meeting are part of the museum’s collection. The town’s name was changed to Bar Harbor in 1918.

Bar Harbor’s fascinating history as a summer resort began long before Champlain’s visit in 1604. Passamaquoddy and Penobscot tribes inhabited the island year-round. In the 1850’s, painters such as Frederic E. Church, Thomas Cole, Fitz Hugh Lane, William Hart, and Thomas Birch popularized the area through their exhibits of the island’s beautiful mountains and seascapes. The first Hotel on the island was built in Bar Harbor by Tobias Roberts, the Agamont House in 1855. Alpheus Hardy was the first summer resident to build a “cottage” called Birch Point in 1868. More and more hotels and cottages were built as “rusticators” as summer visitors and residents were called, came to the island by train and the Mount Desert Ferry to dock at Bar Harbor.

The land boom continued until the 1880’s when such notables as Joseph Pulitzer, William Proctor, Mary Cadwalader Jones, Frederick Vanderbilt, George Vanderbilt, and Evelyn Walsh McLean came and built magnificent “cottages”. Photographs of these and other summer “cottages” are on display in the museum.

It was at this time that Boston native George B. Dorr worked tirelessly with Charles W. Eliot and later with John D. Rockefeller Jr. to bring about the National Park, which was organized in 1916 as Sieur de Monts monument. The name was changed in 1919 to Lafayette National Park and in 1929 to Acadia National Park. George B. Dorr was the first Superintendent of the Park. A selection of Dorr’s letters and articles are on display in the museum.

from the ground up

The Gilded Age

Bar Harbor, with its wealthy and powerful summer visitors, had become a rival with Newport, Rhode Island as the place to be seen and to play in the 1880’s through the first part of the 20th century. President Taft could be seen playing golf at Kebo Golf Club in August 1910. The garden parties at the Pot & Kettle club were attended by ladies and gentlemen in the beautiful long dresses and attire of the time. Robin Hood Park – Morrell Park was the place for a great afternoon of horse racing. At the museum, all of these events and more are documented by pictures and artifacts.

What do the USS Saratoga, Kronprinzessin Cecile, USS Richard, Dirigible Shenandoah and the QEII have in common? These ships and dirigibles all visited Bar Harbor from 1881 to 1981. Some stops were planned, others were not. Historic photographs and artifacts in the museum document these visits.

One of America’s most celebrated landscape architects, Beatrix Farrand was renowned for the private estate gardens she designed for East Coast society as well as her work as a landscape consultant at some of the country’s most prestigious private universities and colleges, the National Cathedral, the White House, and the carriage roads of Acadia National Park. Farrand established a landscape study center at the Reef Point Estate that had been her parents’ home in Bar Harbor where students benefited from demonstration gardens, an herbarium, and an extensive reference library that she had assembled over many years. Objects and clothing belonging to Beatrix Farrand are on display in the museum.

A photo of President Taft at Kebo Golf Club, standing on the green in front of the Building of Arts.

From ritz to rubble

An extreme wide shot photo of the smoke from the infamous 1947 Fire that tore through the town.

The Fire of ’47

On Friday, October 17, 1947, at 4 p.m., the fire department received a call from Mrs. Gilbert, who lived near Dolliver’s dump on Crooked Road west of Hulls Cove. She reported smoke rising from a cranberry bog between her home and the dump. No one knows what started the fire. It could have been cranberry pickers smoking cigarettes in the bog. Or perhaps it was sunlight shining through a piece of broken glass in the dump that acted as an incendiary magnifying glass. Whatever the cause, once ignited, the fire smoldered underground. From this quiet beginning arose an inferno that burned nearly half of the eastern side of Mount Desert Island and made international news.

In its first three days, the fire burned a relatively small area, blackening only 169 acres. But on October 21, strong winds fanned the flames. The blaze spread rapidly and raged out of control, engulfing over 2,000 acres. The fire swept down Millionaires’ Row, an impressive collection of majestic summer cottages on the shore of Frenchman Bay. 67 of these seasonal estates were destroyed. The fire skirted the business district but razed 170 permanent homes and 5 large historic hotels in the area surrounding downtown Bar Harbor.

Bar Harbor residents not actively engaged in firefighting tried to find safety, fleeing first to the athletic field and later to the town pier. At one point all roads from the town were blocked by flames, so fishermen from nearby Winter Harbor, Gouldsboro, and Lamoine prepared to help with a mass exodus by boat. Still, the fire continued to burn. From Bar Harbor, the blaze raced down the coast almost to Otter Point, engulfing and destroying the Jackson Laboratory on its way. The fire blew itself out over the ocean in a massive fireball. But that wasn’t the end of the destruction. Almost 2,000 more acres burned before the fire was declared under control on October 27. The fire was not pronounced completely out until 4 p.m. on November 14, nearly one month after it began. There are artifacts and historical accounts of the Fire of ’47 on display in the museum.

end of an era

The Fire’s Effects

In all, some 17,188 acres burned. More than 10,000 acres were in Acadia National Park. Property damage exceeded $23 million dollars. Considering the magnitude of the fire, the loss of human life had been minimal.

Bar Harbor, too, was changed by the fire. Most of the permanent residents rebuilt their homes, but many of the grand summer cottages were not replaced. The estates on Millionaires’ Row have been replaced by motels that house the ever-increasing tourist population. But the fire alone cannot be blamed for ending the island’s once-grand “cottage era.” The opulent lifestyle had already been suffering from the effects of the newly invented income tax and the Depression. The destructive flames merely provided a final blow.

Two photos of Main Street to view current Bar Harbor on the left, and a black and white overlay on the right, of old Bar Harbor, to compare the passage of time on Main Street.