Established as Sieur de Monts National Monument in 1916, the land that would become known as Acadia National Park was the federally protected area in the eastern United States. But the region had a long history of habitation before receiving this distinction.
The Wabanaki peoples have inhabited the region we now call Maine for 12,000 years. Shell heaps dating back more than 6,000 years indicate their prehistoric settlement of Acadia National Park, predominantly in the form of temporary trading posts. These seafaring hunter-gatherers navigated the waters of “Pemetek” — their name for Mount Desert Island — and coastal Maine in seaworthy birch bark canoes. Today, various Wabanaki tribes maintain a deep spiritual connection with the land of Acadia National Park, weaving handmade baskets from native sweetgrass and trekking up Cadillac Mountain during early morning hours to honor the first rays of the sun.
In 1604 French explorer Samuel de Champlain led the first European expedition to what he would name “Isles des Monts Desert,” 16 years prior to the Pilgrim landing at Plymouth Rock. Various skirmishes and conflicts over the next 150 years would see control of the region pass between the French and the British, but major European settlement in the area of Acadia National Park did not occur until after the Revolutionary War.
By the 1820s, farming, fishing, ship building and lumbering were the most prominent industries in the region, but this would give way to tourism by the turn of the century. Painters of the Hudson River school like Thomas Cole and Frederic Church found inspiration on Mount Desert Island, leading seasonal waves of “rusticators” — vacationers seeking simple accommodations and a relaxed pace of life — to Acadia’s farms and fishing villages.
Tourism boomed in the region by the 1880s, but not all travelers were satisfied with the region’s rustic accoutrements. Captains of industry from the Astors to the Vanderbilts erected country estates on the isle, introducing heretofore unknown opulence to its humble shores. While the carriage roads of the Rockefeller estate remain a popular tourist attraction to this day, few of these lavish, Gilded Age homes would survive a tremendous fire in 1947 that burned more than 17,000 acres of Mount Desert Island.
Once integral to maritime commerce, in the age of radar and GPS, the lighthouses of costal Maine nonetheless play an important role as bastions of down east cultural heritage. In fact, Acadia’s Bass Harbor Head lighthouse is one of the few in the state that has a full-time resident — it’s the private home of the commander of the local Coast Guard unit. The light may be automated, but the views across the harbor are a perennial bright spot.