BlogThe Bar Harbor of the Past
Typically, when anyone plans a trip to Maine, Bar Harbor ranks high on their list of places to visit. Home of Maine’s only national park, Acadia, a variety of quaint little shops and restaurants, and sailboat tours, Bar Harbor is a tourist’s dream. Its incredible natural beauty and a variety of places to explore make it perfect for a vacation. Rich in history and Maine culture, it’s no wonder the population of the town skyrockets in the summer.
A Huge Tourist Destination
Beginning in March, the tourism industry in Bar Harbor is akin to a race runner at the starting blocks. The gun goes off in mid-May, and it’s an all out sprint to the end of the season.
Surprisingly, the end of the season is not the end of summer. With the natural beauty of Acadia National Park and the changing of the leaves, tourists flock to this coastal town well into the fall. People clamor to get to Bar Harbor and experience the most popular town in Maine. In the summer of 2021 alone, the number of people who entered Acadia National Park was over 4 million. For a town of 5,000, this is a drastic change.
Native Mainers do everything they can to avoid the area in the summer. Tourists do everything they can to spend time in this pretty, quintessential Maine town. How did Bar Harbor lay such a claim on the hearts of people all over the world? What makes this town any different than other coastal towns in the state? Let’s take a look back in time and see how this small town morphed into one of the most visited destinations in Maine.
Bar Harbor’s First Settlers
The first people to visit Bar Harbor and enjoy its beauty were the Passamaquoddy and Penobscot tribes in the 1600’s. Not unlike those who would come after them, they were drawn by the beauty of the coast, and the plenty of the wildlife populations. They spent their time on the island hunting, fishing, and gathering.
In the 1700’s, French and English explorers came to the island in hopes of settling down with their families. They built homes, formed a small settlement of a few families, and named the town Eden. The growth in popularity did not come until after artists had painted local scenes and took the paintings back to their cities. These nature-seeking folks came from the Hudson River School of Painters. Included in the ranks were names like Fitz Hugh Lane and Thomas Cole.
The Transition to the Gilded Age
These men published their renditions of Bar Harbor and people began swarming to the area, eagerly looking to see what was so special about it. Summer tourists were welcomed; the first hotel, the Agamont House, was built in 1855. Soon after that, families like the Vanderbilts, the Rockerfellers, and the Ford’s began building “cottages” to stay in during their summers on the island. These influential families contributed significantly to the appeal of the town. Grand hotels were built to accommodate the summer influx, fine dining establishments popped up over town, golf courses were built, garden parties were held, and horse races were common.
This era is often called Bar Harbor’s “Gilded Age.” The most famous people in the United States flocked to the little town in droves, both to see the natural beauty there and to experience the thriving social scene. Suddenly, all of that grandeur came crashing down in 1947.
A Pace-Shifting Disaster
On October 17, 1947 at around 4 in the afternoon, someone reported smoke rising from a nearby cranberry bog. While the firemen made their way to the bog, the fire picked up…fast. It moved through town, destroying 67 cottages on Millionaire’s Row, 170 homes, and 5 massive hotels. In the wake of the blaze, the original Jackson Laboratory burned down, and 10,000 acres of Acadia National Park were destroyed. Firemen reported the flames were officially out on November 14th, 1947. Almost a month after the fact, Bar Harbor was left in shambles.
Due to the Great Depression and the World Wars, many summer homes were not rebuilt. However, there were still a good number of wealthy individuals that began the process of building back the town. Simply put, they loved the area.
Bar Harbor Today
Today, Bar Harbor is known a little differently. The Rockefeller family and its descendants still own a good portion of land nearby, Martha Stuart summers on the island, and other wealthy folks spend time in the area, but the majority of residents are from a little more modest means. Tourism is the lifeblood of the area; without it, many Maine residents would not be able to make a living. The former Millionaire’s Row has been converted to gift shops, ice cream parlors, candy shops, and restaurants.
Acadia National Park’s damaged acreage has been heavily protected. Despite heavily protected areas, the park still continues to draw millions of people to the town every year. While Bar Harbor is rich in history, it’s now much more accessible to the everyday person.
All Your Favorites
We know that not all of our followers and friends are able to make it to Maine every summer to stock up on their local favorites. That’s kind of why we started this thing! If you have not been able to make it to Maine this season, maybe even to Bar Harbor, don’t worry. We have all the tourist favorites right on our website. From teas, to chocolates, to stickers, you’ll find everything you may need!
We hope you learned a little something about one of Maine’s most iconic towns today! Thanks for tuning in this week 🙂