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Maine Recreation Haven: A Park as Rich as Rockefeller

Charles Hillinger's America

March 08, 1987|CHARLES HILLINGER | Times Staff Writer

ACADIA NATIONAL PARK, Maine — Carol Horner paused to take a breather near the 118-foot-long granite, Gothic-arched Eagle Lake Bridge after cross-country skiing on Aunt Betty's Trail here.

"I thank John D. Rockefeller Jr. every time I cross-country ski on his carriage roads," said Horner, a 43-year-old social worker from Bar Harbor.

Horner says she tries to cross-country ski on John D. Rockefeller Jr.'s personal carriage roads for at least an hour every day "to shake the cobwebs out of my mind, to get recharged in this winter wonderland."

Carriage roads crisscross Acadia National Park through woods, by ponds and lakes, paralleling bubbling brooks and rushing streams, spiraling up hills overlooking the Atlantic Ocean and Somes Sound, the only fiord (long, narrow, deep inlet from the sea flanked by steep cliffs) in the continental United States.

During the summer months, the 51-mile network is a favorite of hikers, joggers, horseback riders and passengers in horse-drawn carriages.

Come winter the carriage roads are alive with cross-country skiers, snowshoers and horse-drawn sleighs.

Jane Robbins, 23, a New York Pratt Institute of Design student, who drove to the park from her Manhattan home to cross-country ski on the carriage roads, said: "This is the best cross-country skiing on the East Coast."

Automobiles, motor bikes, snowmobiles and other mechanized vehicles are not allowed on the 16-foot-wide carriage roads, in compliance with Rockefeller's wishes.

The late John D. Rockefeller Jr., Acadia's biggest benefactor, donated 11,300 acres, a third of the park's total area. He is credited with developing the general plan for the park, the first national park east of the Mississippi, the only national park in New England and an island park principally located on Maine's Mount Desert Island.

French explorer Samuel de Champlain gave the island its name in 1604 when he wrote in his journal: "The mountain summits are all bare and rocky. I name it Isles des Monts Desert."

It was the introduction of the automobile on the 15-mile-long, 12-mile-wide island in 1915 that prompted Rockefeller to devote his time and at least $5 million to the development of the park.

Wealthy families like the Rockefellers, Carnegies and Vanderbilts had come to the island to erect palatial summer homes and escape the noise and frenzy of city life. They had come for peace and quiet and the loud, smoking internal-combustion machine did not fit in with their plans.

So, when cars were permitted on Mount Desert Island against their wishes, Rockefeller hired Frederick Law Olmstead, the architect responsible for New York's Central Park, to design a network of carriage roads that included 16 granite bridges, no two alike.

From 1915 to 1933 Rockefeller spent $2 million building the carriage roads and bridges from which his family and friends could enjoy the scenic wonders of the island in horse-drawn carriages without automobile traffic.

Rockefeller hired 200 stone workers to hand hew the intricately designed bridges and two Tudor Revival-style carriage-road gate houses. The gate houses today are residences for park employees.

Rockefeller spent his summers on the island and kept close tabs on the progress of his carriage roads, often spending entire days with the artisans doing the work. His interest in the carriage roads continued until he died in 1960.

Unlike most national parks appropriated from public domain, Acadia National Park is composed almost entirely of land donated by wealthy property owners on Mount Desert Island, men and women imbued with lofty ideas wanting to protect the scenic and ecological integrity of the area.

It was a group of turn-of-the-century conservationists, led by textile heir George Buchnam Dorr, that set up a corporation in 1901 to donate and preserve points of interest on the island in perpetuity for the public.

In 1916 the land set aside became a national monument and in 1919 it became a national park with Dorr its first superintendent. It was the first time a national park was composed entirely of land donated to the government.

When John D. Rockefeller joined the conservationists in 1915, park development went into high gear. In addition to constructing the carriage roads, he purchased huge tracts of land throughout the island, intending to donate it all to a national park.

Acadia National Park is a park of great granite cliffs, of hills that spill into the sea, the tallest being Cadillac Mountain at 1,530 feet, the highest point on the Atlantic Coast.

It is 40 square miles connected with a network of hiking trails that traverse every peak, valley and bay, a lush garden of wild flowers in the summer and snowy wilderness in winter.

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