The Heart of Acadia
One hundred years ago John D. Rockefeller, Jr., made a fateful decision that would forever change Mount Desert Island and the hi
- By: Andrew Vietze
- Photography by: Sue Anne Hodges
John D. Rockefeller, Jr., didn’t much care for the automobile. While his affluent peers in turn-of-the-century New York City were eager to get behind the wheel of the first cars, he commuted to work behind a pair of horses, clip-clopping up Broadway. When his friends went for Sunday drives in their newfangled autocars, he went for long buggy rides along the Hudson River.
There’s a certain irony to Rockefeller’s disdain for cars. His vast fortune was derived from oil. And in Maine he is most famous for building roads, including Acadia National Park’s prized Loop Road, which he designed and financed. But Rockefeller, or “Junior” as his parent’s called him, had misgivings about the family business, Standard Oil, and it was precisely because he didn’t like cars that he built roads.
The young Rockefeller had a habit of defying expectations. When “Johnny Rock” was at Brown University he was known as something of a penny-pincher, despite being the son and heir of the richest man the world had known to that point. And in March 1910, the quiet, shy Rockefeller left Standard Oil, walking away from the company his father founded and dividends of a million dollars a month. Then he bought a house 385 miles from Manhattan on Mount Desert Island.
It seemed everything in his life up to that point, all his interests and hopes, converged in Seal Harbor, just as Acadia National Park was being born.
Young John D. Rockefeller, Jr., first visited Mount Desert in 1893 while he was a student. Rockefeller was evidently quite taken with the place because in 1908 he decided to return with his family. His wife, Abby, daughter of Nelson Aldrich of Rhode Island, once known as the most powerful man in the U.S. Senate, was pregnant with their third child, and her physician summered in Blue Hill. The family moved up to Bar Harbor for the summer to be near him, and he delivered a boy, Nelson, on August 8.
The Rockefellers loved the island, as Ann Rockefeller Roberts recounts in her book, Mr. Rockefeller’s Roads. JDR described their feelings to the Bar Harbor Times: “As a result of the summer thus spent on Mount Desert Island we were so enamored of its beauty that we returned the following year and the year after to occupy rented houses in Seal Harbor and then bought our present home there where we have been ever since.”
That home was on a 150-acre plot on Barr Hill, overlooking Seal Harbor’s Eastern Way. The Rockefellers called their Tudor-style cottage the “Eyrie,” and they greatly expanded the place, adding huge new wings and dozens of dormers, until it was a massive hundred-room mansion.
Rockefeller’s life in New York was anything but quiet and peaceful, and one of the greatest appeals of the Eyrie was the ability for JDR to get away from the noise and drama of the city — and its automobiles. He enjoyed the fact that cars were not allowed on Mount Desert Island, the result of a huge battle that had been waged two years prior which pitted locals, who wanted cars, against the rusticators, who had been moving up in droves since the 1880s. The debate had raged in the papers — and in the streets — and it was so intense that the state legislature got involved. Because of the clout wielded by the affluent summer people, a ban was passed in 1908.
It would prove to be short-lived.
At about the same time, another gas-guzzling machine had the wealthy folks from away in a state of alarm — the portable sawmill. The new gas-powered saws gave loggers more mobility than previous steam and water-powered devices. Large tracts of woodlands on the island were owned by timber companies, and they were beginning to fell trees.
Several summer residents — with Bostonians George B. Dorr and Charles Eliot at the forefront — banded together in opposition to this threat and the seeds of the first national park east of the Mississippi were planted. The pair’s nascent organization quickly began acquiring significant pieces of land all across the island.
Dorr and Eliot made their initial approach to Rockefeller in 1914, asking him to join their preservation effort. He was willing to listen — and had ideas of his own.
Rockefeller inherited more than a fortune from his father, he also shared his love of the outdoors. He was born in 1874, and when he was still a young boy, his father, “Senior,” began building a network of gravel roads on their Forest Hills estate in Cleveland Heights, Ohio. An expanse of more than six hundred acres outside the city, it sprawled across hills and dales, and the young Junior loved to explore its woods and lakeshores and especially to ride alongside his father in horse-drawn carriages.
Rockefeller went off to Rhode Island to study in 1893, and upon graduating, dutifully reported to work at Standard Oil in New York. But unlike other affluent men his age, he commuted behind a pair of horses. He enjoyed splitting wood, he jogged, he drove his team along quiet stretches of the Hudson. One newspaper reporter wrote, “Young Mr. Rockefeller believes in the out-of-door existence and advocates it at every opportunity, not only by speech, but by action.”
Rockefeller worked for his father for years, assuming more and more responsibility at Standard Oil, as Senior began to consider retiring. During his tenure, scandals erupted one after the other. The biggest involved the man who succeeded Senior at the helm of the company, John Dustin Archbold, who was alleged to have bribed two congressmen. Scooped by the Hearst newspapers, the story became a sensation. Senior refused to address the critics. Junior found it very painful to watch the company and his family name being dragged through the dirt. Soon “Rockefeller” would become synonymous with rapacious greed.
By 1910, Junior could take it no more, and he tendered his resignation at Standard Oil, deciding to embark on a life of philanthropy, to explore, as he said, “the social purposes to which a great fortune could be dedicated.” He called it “one of the most important decisions of my life.”
That same year, Junior and Abby bought their home on Seal Harbor and ventured north.
All of Junior’s interests seemed to find a home on Mount Desert. He loved the quietude and the privacy — Mainers tended to leave him alone — and he could tool around behind his carriage without worrying about being hit by a car. After moving to Seal Harbor, Rockefeller purchased the land surrounding his property when it came available, and soon he added more and more acreage — Long Pond, the south end of Jordan Pond, a parcel along Otter Cove, the eastern shore of Bubble Pond, the north shore of Eagle Lake, a swath encircling Upper Hadlock Pond, and another around Witch Hole Pond and Aunt Betty Pond.
These acquisitions didn’t go unnoticed. In September of 1914, George Dorr wrote to his island neighbor. At the time, Dorr was the president of the Hancock County Trustees of Public Reservations, the conservation group working to set aside land from development. In the note he asked JDR for his help “protecting and developing to public use the natural beauty of the island and promoting its welfare as a resort home.” History has lost Rockefeller’s response, but he and Dorr struck up an agreement and began working together.
Rockefeller had already begun conceptualizing a system of carriage roads on the properties he owned, much like the one his father had built in Ohio. He saw a network of crushed-rock lanes as an ideal way to open the interior of the island — Jordan Pond, Eagle Lake, the small water bodies, and the valleys between the peaks — to not only horse carriages but to hikers. His vision was to connect Frenchman’s Bay up north with the sea to the south, making it possible to wend one’s way through the park without ever having to get into a car.
The shovels first hit dirt in 1911 on JDR’s own Seal Harbor property. He purchased a parcel of land west of Long Pond and another that reached all the way up to the shore of Jordan Pond. Roads began to thread through them, and JDR wanted to link them all. But to do so he would have to cross land owned by the Hancock trustees. Rockefeller asked Dorr if he could build a right of way and was granted permission to do so. He could construct roads on reservation land, as it was called, at his own expense, but he had no legal right to the byway or the acreage it crossed. That was good enough for Rockefeller. By 1915, the trustees passed a resolution formalizing the agreement, and JDR’s contractors started felling trees, filling holes, laying down roadbeds, lining the sixteen-foot lanes with coping stones, and ultimately surfacing with gravel.
Rockefeller was quick to locate talent in the area. By 1916 he was working with Charles Simpson, an engineer from Sullivan who had done projects for the Kebo Valley Golf Club, the town of Northeast Harbor, and for landscape architect Joseph Curtis. The pair worked together for six years, a period that saw roads built in the area between Seal Harbor and Jordan Pond. When Simpson retired, JDR hired his son, Paul, who worked as chief engineer until the last carriage road was built in 1940.
The public looked on with interest as Rockefeller’s roads became longer and longer. During all of the construction, JDR was a frequent visitor to work sites. He’d talk to foremen, make sure views were being highlighted, check gradients, see to it that the roads were three layers, with a six- or eight-inch crown for good drainage. In other words, state of the art.
In 1919, the year Lafayette National Park (it was renamed as Acadia in 1929) was dedicated, crews came across a problem in the building of a road near Jordan Stream. The fix? A bridge. JDR hired architect Welles Bosworth to build the first significant span on the carriage roads, known as the Cobblestone Bridge. With a long curve and parapets overlooking the stream, it’s the perfect complement to the carriage road that leads to it and a marvel of engineering. Over the years, fifteen more bridges would follow, each prettier than the next, looking like something out of a storybook.
Not everyone was happy with all the construction going on, however. In August of 1919, Rockefeller received a letter from George Wharton Pepper, a Philadelphia lawyer, summer resident of Northeast Harbor, and future senator. Pepper had heard that Rockefeller was eyeing a section of hills and forest between Jordan Pond and the Hadlock ponds, known as the Amphitheater, and he didn’t like it. He thought extending the carriage roads into the area — his home was nearby — was “a serious mistake.” “The Amphitheater is an as yet unbroken forest,” he wrote. “Pierce this with a road or roads and its character will vanish.”
The balance between wildness and accessibility is a delicate one in any park, and Pepper and many others believed that with more roads “the park will be overdeveloped and due proportion of wilderness destroyed.” The controversy brought construction to a halt, and it highlighted a conflict that had always been in place between Rockefeller and George Dorr.
While Dorr was bold and perhaps even a little reckless, Rockefeller was serious and thoughtful, and their views on preservation were somewhat at odds. Both wanted to save the lands of Mount Desert in perpetuity — and for public use — but they came at conservation from different schools. Dorr was a wilderness advocate who believed in preserving large chunks of land for the sake of it and having the least impact possible. Rockefeller, on the other hand, believed nature’s beauty had to be made accessible.
“He was the part of the school of thought that man could enhance nature,” says Acadia interpretive ranger Betty Lyle, who runs a program on the carriage roads each summer.
The opposing rusticators were not only disturbed by the opening of the wild fastness and the building of roads into this stunning natural bowl but also by what they anticipated would happen next. “A lot of people were afraid the roads would eventually be opened to cars,” explains Lyle, adding that construction was halted for about ten years. “A lot of them came up for the peace and quiet.”
Much as Rockefeller — and many island residents — hated it, cars were coming. In 1913 the ban on automobiles on Mount Desert had been eased, allowing them on the Bar Harbor side of the island. Two years later, however, all restrictions were removed, and they could go wherever they pleased. This most certainly spurred Rockefeller into action.
He was so opposed to keeping cars out of the interior of the park and off his carriage roads that he volunteered to finance, design, and help build the Park Loop Road, the twenty-seven-mile highway that links many of Acadia’s biggest attractions. He figured it was inevitable that cars would make their way into the park’s heart, and he wanted it done in a way he could control. “I would not have been interested to build any roads had I thought they would ever be made available for automobiles,” he wrote in a letter.
Carriage-road construction continued until 1940, until Rockefeller reached the end of what he wanted done. All told the roads cross forty-five miles, passing dozens of peaks and ponds and lakes, and rolling over sixteen historic bridges. Landscaping around many sections was done by famed architect Beatrix Farrand, who began working on a garden for the Rockefellers in the early twenties and moved to the roads next, and the system was lauded by the even more famous Frederick Law Olmsted, who had designed Central Park.
After paying the roads a visit in 1932, Olmsted wrote to Rockefeller: “Driving in horse-drawn vehicles along narrow, winding woodland roads amid beautiful and varied scenery, completely free from the annoyance, and even the dread of meeting motor cars, is so real and extraordinarily rare today that systematic provision for it may reasonably be expected to develop into one of the most unique attractions of the park and the island.”
John D. Rockefeller, Jr., would gift this unique attraction to the park — and all the land upon which they sat. When added up the sum of his donation is astounding. “He gave the park about a third of all its acreage,” says ranger Lyle.
Until he died in 1960, JDR paid for the maintenance of the carriage roads. When he passed away, care of “Mr. Rockefeller’s Roads” reverted to the National Park Service. “They went from having a sixty-person crew [looking after them] to a two-person crew,” says Lyle.
By the 1980s, when mountain bikers discovered the roads en masse, several miles had fallen into disrepair. News stories came out lamenting the state of the roads, 25 percent of which were so overgrown they were half as wide as when they were built.
As they did when the park was born, generous summer people offered their help, again with a Rockefeller at the fore. John D. Rockefeller, Jr.’s son, David, along with the Friends of Acadia began a project to create an endowment for the beloved icons, matching federal funds to the tune of $4 million. Construction lasted until the 1990s. The bridges were next. In the early 2000s, the park service had most of them repointed.
Today, the days of controversy are long gone and the venerable byways are in great shape — they’re considered the finest example of broken-stone roads in the country — and are used by cyclists, walkers, hikers, horses, and photographers. Just as Rockefeller had planned, they connect many of the park’s most beautiful places. They link the north to the south, making it possible to travel the entire park without ever having to sit in the confines of a car.
And, as Rockefeller might have loved most of all, horse and carriage rides are available on them all summer long.
- By: Andrew Vietze
- Photography by: Sue Anne Hodges