Mount Desert Island

(continuer en français) – Last updated: October 11, 2020

Mount Desert, this strange name was given by Samuel de Champlain in 1604. He had been assigned the task of exploring the Atlantic coast south of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, with a view to establishing an Acadian colony. He then considered that Acadia would extend beyond Cape Cod. As he approached the island he was amazed by the contrast between the coniferous forests that covered the land and the tops of the rocky hills that were devoid of vegetation and therefore deserted.

Cadillac is another Frenchman who left his mark on the island, the highest mountain (466 m) is named after him. The island was part of the land that was granted to him in 1688. This grant was rather theoretical as it was disputed between Acadians and Americans, it was perilous to carry out any farming or commercial activity on the island. Frustrated by these obstacles, the Adventurer set off on an inland journey, creating Detroit in the process. However, after the end of the official French presence in the area, the Americans returned half of the island to Cadillac’s granddaughter.

Champlain worked hard to find a name that was both descriptive and mysterious, but as time went by these values get lost and today to follow the current fashion of acronyms reducing everything to a few meaningless letters, people say MDI. In the course of a conversation, the local expression ‘downeast’ may also come up, to be understood as a kind of coastal outback, a remote and hard-to-reach place. By road, from Boston and after Portland, the progression must embrace the relief vagaries where fjords and lakes nibble the land, the road waves along the coast.

Mount Desert Island is the largest island on the coast of Maine and the second largest on the East Coast after Long Island. A bridge connects it to the mainland.

Acadia National Park

A large part of the island is occupied by Acadia National Park, created in 1919 from land purchased by the American ecologist George B. Dorr, who poured his fortune into this project. He ended his life at the age of 90, blind and miserable, living in a crumbling cottage at Old Farm, the last remnant of the inheritance left by his parents, wealthy textile industrialists.

Other wealthy philanthropists supported and continued George B. Dorr’s efforts, the Rockefeller, Ford and Vanderbilt families who built vacation homes wanted above all to preserve the pleasant surroundings that had attracted them. The establishment of a national park provided the necessary protection.

Strangely enough, it was painters who drew attention to Mount Desert Island. Thomas Cole then Frederic Edwin Church and followers of the Hudson River School came to stay and paint throughout the 19th century, often in rustic living conditions. They brought back landscape paintings which in turn prompted art amateurs to come and discover this natural setting.

Bar Harbor

Originally named Eden, the town became Bar Harbor in 1918. It is the most important town on the island, with the largest number of shops for visitors. Its name benefits from the fame of the celebrities who have established their holiday homes here since the beginning of the 20th century.

Bar Harbor also serves as a stopover for cruise ships sailing along the New England coast. Each year more than 200,000 passengers land there, convoyed by shuttles. They are attracted by a visit to Acadia National Park and by the lure of rich and famous residents, those who frequented or continue to stay in Bar Harbor.

Marguerite Yourcenar at Mount Desert Island

In 1950, the novelist Margueritte Yourcenar moved to Mount Desert Island in this house she named Petite Plaisance. She lived there until her death in 1987.

Born in Brussels of a Belgian mother and a French father, Margueritte Yourcenar moved to the United States in 1939, at the time of the war. A professor of literature in New York, she obtained American citizenship.

She kept on writing in French and published in France. Difficult to read, her work is characterized in particular by Antiquity and homosexuality. Success came in 1951 with Mémoires d’Hadrien (Memoirs of Hadrian) which made her known to the general public. In 1968 she was awarded the Femina prize for L’Œuvre au noir (The Abyss). Finally, in 1980 she was elected to the Académie Française, the first woman to be elected to the French Academy. Despite of this honour, she quickly disappointed her supporters by preferring to stay on Mount Desert Island, ending up going to Paris rather infrequently.

A postcard

Making the most of its proximity to the water, particularly the long fjord that almost cuts it in half, Mount Desert Island has become a renowned and popular summer resort. Censuses count about 10,000 permanent residents on the island, compared to the 2 to 3 million annual visitors.

In the past, farming, forestry and shipbuilding were economic resources, but today tourism is the dominant activity. However, small scale fisheries remain active, fitting well with the postcard that Mount Desert Island has become.

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