History of Mount Desert Island in Acadia National Park, Maine

Acadia National Park in Maine is located on Mount Desert Island (MDI).  MDI is the 6th largest island in the contiguous United States and the largest island off the coat of Maine at 108 square miles.  It is one of the more popular tourist attractions in the Downeast area, with over 2 million tourists visiting the island annually.  It sits in Frenchman Bay, and has beautiful scenery and a deep history.

MDI was known as Pemetic or ‘sloping land’ by the Wabanaki Indians that hunted, fished, and gathered plants off of the island.  It is believed the Wabanaki spent their summers on MDI and nearby islands, and spent their winters inland where they could capture salmon upstream in the winter.  They traveled by birch bark canoes between the islands and the mainland.

The first European explorer to arrive at MDI was Samuel de Champlain in 1604.  Champlain named the island ”île des Monts Déserts” due to the lack of vegetation on the mountain tops.  Nine years later, French Jesuits and missionaries came and built a fort, and began to convert locals.  It remained part of French Acadia from the time it was claimed by Champlain until 1713; by 1759 the English had complete control and was governed by the Royal Governor of Massachusetts.

In 1919, MDI became part of the first national park in the United States and was named Acadia National Park.  The park itself has entrance fees, but the remainder of the park-like island is free to access.  Despite the perception of MDI being a vacation only location, the 2010 census recorded 10,424 year round residents.  Many famous people have summer or vacation homes on the island.

MDI is divided by Somes Sounds, which is a long narrow fjord.  On the western half of the island is Tremont and West Tremont, and home to Bernard, Beech, Western, and Flying mountains.  The eastern half is where the bridge that connects the island to roads leading to Ellsworth on the mainland enters, and is home to the towns of Bar Harbor and Seal Harbor.  Champlain, Penobscot, Pemetic, Dorr, and the more famous, Cadillac, mountains are on the eastern side.  Cadillac Mountain is claimed to be the earliest sunrise location in the United States.  The Blue Nose Ferry that provides service to Canada departs out of the eastern side.  It is also home to the Acadia National Park Visitors Center and and the Island’s only lighthouse, Bass Harbor Head Lighthouse. 

For the outdoors person, there are beautiful views and vistas from the mountains, bays, and ponds.  MDI was carved by glaciers, and most recently by the Laurentide Ice Sheet.  MDI is made predominantly of three types of granite, and has volcanic and magmatic debris viewable to visitors.  Thunder Hole and the Lucerene Granite precariously perched on Mount Bubble are two favorite attractions left by the ice age.  Due to a fire in 1947, many of coniferous trees in the eastern half of the island were destroyed, and it now holds aspen, birth alder and maple trees on the east, and to the west is mainly coniferous trees.  Gray seals, North American beavers, raccoons, and deer can be seen by visitors.  Canada Warblers, Northern Waterthrush, American Woodcock, Back-backed Woodpeckers, Peregrine Falcon, and Wood Thrush fly through the sky for those who enjoy birding with binocluars.  There are numerous places to hike (mountains and trails), fish (fresh and saltwater), and swim for visitors to enjoy. 

One of the most popular attractions on MDI, is the Carriage Road System created by John D. Rockefeller Jr. and his family, located inside Acadia National Park.  The forty-five miles of roads were first constructed in 1913, and were meant to only be used by horses.  Large blocks of granite from the island are used as coping stones, signposts, and 16 stone-faced bridges were built to help highlight natural wonders on that part of the island.  Much of Rockefellers work remains, and it has sense been updated and maintained by a joint partnership between Friends of Acadia and the National Parks Service. 

Visitors to MDI can stay on the island.  MDI is home to a number of mom and pop hotels, inns and bed and breakfasts.  Camping accommodations are also available through the National Parks Service and Seawall Campground.  Many visitors decide to stay off MDI across the bridge in one of the nearby towns or cities.

Mount Desert Island’s millions of visitors each year get to take a step back in time and see a life outside of the commercialized cities.  Visitors get to experience nature, and experience history and pre-history all on one island, while communing with nature.  A trip over the Thompson Island Bridge or a Ferry Ride from Swan Island or the Blue Nose awaits to bring the curious visitor to Mount Desert Island in Acadia, Maine.