In 1604, French explorer Samuel du Champlain ran his ship aground on the rocks near present day Bar Harbor. While his ship was being repaired, he looked at the barren peaks of the mountains that rise up from the sea and declared the island des Monts Deserts, meaning "island of barren mountains.”
Considering that the bulk of the island is covered by forest and that Native Americans had hunted and fished here for generations, Champlain’s description was somewhat misleading. Nevertheless, it stuck and the island on which Bar Harbor sits is called Mount Desert Island to this day.
Nine years later, French Jesuits set up a mission on the island. However, this was a time of struggle between France and Great Britain for North America and the British also claimed the territory. Accordingly, the British-owned Virginia Company destroyed the mission.
In 1688, Antonie de la Mothe Cadillac received title to the island and briefly visited here. He is memorialized in the name of the 1,530 foot, Cadillac Mountain - - not only the tallest mountain on the island, but also the tallest mountain along the eastern coast of the United States.
France ceded the island to Britain in the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht. But France and Britain continued to fight over North America until France’s defeat in the Seven Years War (French and Indian War), which ended in 1763.
That same year the first British settlers came to the island. By 1796, there was sufficient settlement to justify incorporating a town and so the community became the Town of Eden. Some histories say that the name is a biblical reference while others say that the town was named after English statesman Richard Eden. (The name of the town was officially changed to Bar Harbor in 1918).
In the 1840s, American landscape painters Thomas Cole and Frederic Church visited Eden. The paintings that they did of the area kindled the imaginations of the American public and other artists, journalists, sportsmen and people who were interested in the beauty of natural America followed Cole and Church to Bar Harbor. In 1855, the town’s first hotel was built but by 1888, it had 30 hotels. People from America’s industrial cities were flocking to the town by train and by ferry in search of a “primitive” summer get-away.
The millionaires of the Gilded Age were also looking to leave the summer heat of the cities behind. Discovering Bar Harbor, people with names like Astor, Vanderbilt, Rockefeller, and Morgan built mansions (called “cottages”), chiefly along the Shore Path and in the West Street area. As a result, the character of the town changed from a fishing village to a playground for the super-rich.
These newcomers realized that too much evelopment
would spoil the area. Led by educators George B. Dorr and Charles W. Eliot, a group of citizens placed undeveloped land into a public land trust. Since this had the by-product of reducing the tax rolls, the state legislature attempted to break the trust. Eliot and Dorr then petitioned the federal government for protection and in 1916, the trust’s land was declared a national park - - the first one east of the Mississippi. Subsequently, John D. Rockefeller Jr. donated another 11,000 acres to the park (now called Acadia National Park).
The coming of the federal income tax, World War I, the Depression and World War II took a toll of Bar Harbor’s super-rich and the area went into decline. In October 1947, a fire began that would rage for ten days. Among other things, it destroyed most of the mansions and Bar Harbor’s days as the summer home of the super-rich came to an end.
Bar Harbor, however, re-invented itself during the last half of the 20th Century. Acadia National Park became one of the most popular parks in the American National Park system. Meanwhile, cruise ships began adding Bar Harbor as a port of call on their Canada/New England itineraries.
Cruise destination travel guide - - Bar Harbor - - Maine, USA - - History