Fire on the Island!
Knox County — This Wednesday, October 17, is the 65th anniversary of the terrible fire in 1947 on Mt. Desert Island and what would become Acadia National Park.
Weather patterns may seem strange today, but they were also weird in 1947. The spring rains we always look forward to, which bring forth the flora and fauna of our Maine summers, ended in June. No rain fell after that. Fields and forest became bone dry and were ripe for fire.
A woman called the Bangor Fire Department on October 17 and said she saw smoke coming from the cranberry bogs between her home and what would become Acadia National Park.
No one really knows what started the fire. It could have been cranberry bog workers who often smoked while they worked; or a dump fire gone wild; or any number of careless acts in such a dry area. One spark would be all that was needed.
The fire was contained to 169 acres for the first three days. Then on October 21 strong winds fanned the flames once again eventually engulfing 2,000 acres on the island. The map shows the area of damage.
In two weeks time the fire destroyed over 17,000 acres. 8,000 acres burned in Acadia National Park alone. Property damage exceeded $23 million by 1947 standards.
Fires occurred in other areas in Maine that summer. Over all, more than 200,000 acres burned. 851 permanent homes and 397 seasonal “cottages” were destroyed in “the year Maine burned.”
So what did this fire mean to the economy of that area and of Maine as a whole?
What once was a summer mecca and playground for the rich was no longer. The very rich who had summer homes on Mt. Desert Island included names like Rockefeller, Morgan, Vanderbilt, and Pulitzer. They had discovered the area in the last century and before income taxes and the great depression they built huge “cottages” on the island. These cottages could have as many as 100 rooms. That is a hotel by Maine standards at the time. They were hardly what we Maine people would call a cottage.
Whole families would come to these “cottages” for the summer. In the beginning when cars began to appear, they were not allowed on the island. For this and other reasons, the summer residents called themselves “rusticators” because they felt that they were living a rustic life. (I will write more about these “rusticators” at a later date.)
These wealthy summer people didn’t only live in the Mt. Desert and Bar Harbor area. There were other pockets of wealthy summer people up and down the coast.
In our own area we had the Samoset Resort where wealthy people came to spend the “summer season.”
My cousin, Gayle, who lives over on Cranberry Island was for many years assistant to Lady Astor, who summered in that area.
My great-grandmother, Rose Burns, was a laundress for some of them. She lived down on Dutch Neck. My Aunt Virginia tells me that she used to wash all those white linen clothes they used to wear then; hang them on the line to dry; and then iron them with one of those big heavy irons you had to heat up on the old wood stoves.
Virginia remembers calling these summer people, “summer complaints.” I also remember that phrase. They were so-called because they would come to Maine and complain about everything…the weather, their accommodations or any other number of things. However, as much as they complained, they always returned to Maine the next year. We must have been doing something right.
So what happened to our economy after the fire when all these wealthy people deserted the area, taking their money with them, never to come again? The result of the depression in the 30s and later on, the introduction of income taxes, didn’t make it possible for all these luxurious homes to be rebuilt. In 1947 cars became the main mode of transportation which allowed more leeway for summer people. They began to travel the country in the summer time, not staying for “the season” in just one place.
Maine took a backseat for a long time. Who would want to visit such a devastated area as Mt. Desert Island and all of the area that would become Acadia National Park?
Think about it. Darkened stumps and what remained of the trees standing silent and dark. Scorched earth. No birds, deer, moose, and other creatures. Silence and gloom. My father took us down to see the devastation shortly after the fire. What should have been a blaze of glorious fall colors in the month of October was nothing but deathly dark devastation. To my six-year-old eyes, it was like stepping into the pages of a fairy tale with no happy ending as told by the Brothers Grimm. It was the worst sight I ever saw in my life.
Maine’s summer economy suffered for many years. I remember the 50s as a time when summer people didn’t come to stay in Rockland. They were only passing through. Things have changed now. We are enjoying a summer visitor renaissance. Once again you will find the wealthy coming to stay for extended visits.
A brick mansion called “High Seas” is one of the last remaining summer cottages in the area of the fire. It sits on a point overlooking Frenchman Bay. You can see it from Schooner Head. Today the mansion is surrounded by National Park land and is owned by Jackson Laboratories, which does biological and cancer research.
You can still see areas where the fire was the worst. There are barren slopes and new growth forest along the coast. Sixty-five years. It takes a long time to grow a tree after all.
Thanks for listening.
Note: I will bring you more history of Acadia National Park and the summer people who lived there in the summer as well as famous summer people in other parts of our coastal areas at a later date. For more information on this subject go to