Bar Harbor is situated on the northeastern shore of Mount Desert Island, bordering on Acadia National Park. The town includes Bar Harbor as well as the adjacent villages of Hulls Cove, Salisbury Cove, and Town Hill, about 28,000 acres in all. Bar Harbor has a year-round population of about 5,000, but swells to several times that number during the busy summer months.
Bar Harbor was originally incorporated in 1796 as the Town of Eden, after Sir Richard Eden, an English statesman, in a document signed by Samuel Adams. In 1918, the town’s name was changed to Bar Harbor.
The Abenaki people were the original residents of the town and the island, long before the arrival of French explorer Samuel Champlain in 1604. It was Champlain who named the island “Isle des Monts Desert” for its barren mountaintops.
The island and its amazing wealth of natural beauty began to attract artists from New York in the 1850s. Thomas Cole, Fitz Hugh Lane, William Hart, and Thomas Birch, among others, did much to popularize Mount Desert Island through their paintings of the Acadia mountain and seascapes. These bucolic scenes attracted the attention of the wealthy denizens of Boston, New York and Philadelphia, many of whom traveled by train and ferry to this faraway island on the Maine coast to see and experience it for themselves.
These early visitors, known as “rusticators,” at first boarded with local residents. But as their numbers grew so did the need for more elaborate lodging. Thus was born the era of the grand hotels on the island. The Agamont House was the first, constructed by Tobias Roberts in 1855. By the 1880, there were 30 hotels on the island, 17 in Bar Harbor alone, including the Rodick House, an immense affair with 400 rooms. Along with the hotels, wharves were built to accommodate increasing steamboat traffic.
Concurrent with the hotel boom, these wealthy summer visitors – their names included the likes of Pulitzer, Proctor, Vanderbilt, Rockefeller, Ford, Carnegie, Astor, and Mellon – built magnificent “cottages” with as many as 80 rooms, opulent mansions rivaling those on the Millionaire’s Row of Newport, Rhode Island. Golf, garden parties, carriage rides, and horseracing were hallmark activities of this Gilded Age of the island elite.
Development began to change the nature and character of the island, and so became an increasing concern for island residents, notably Charles Eliot, George Dorr, and John Rockefeller. Together, these men spearheaded a movement to preserve land on the island and protect it from further development. By 1913, this effort helped put 5,000 acres under the care of the Hancock County Trustees of Public Preservation.
Permanent protection was sought from the National Park Service at the federal level, and in 1916, the Sieur de Monts National Monument was established. In 1919, the monument became Lafayette National Park. The name was changed to Acadia National Park in 1929.
The Great Fire of 1947, one of many fires across Maine that terrible summer, consumed more than 17,000 acres on the island, including more than half of Bar Harbor. In all, 237 houses and 70 cottages burned to the ground.
Today, Bar Harbor and Acadia National Park annually attracts more than 3 million visitors, who travel here to experience the natural wonders of the 46,000-acre park and the surrounding Mount Desert Island, recreating, refreshing, and relaxing in a multitude of ways amid some of the most spectacular scenery on the planet.