The 100-Year-Old Hiking Trip that Changed Maine Forever

Before he was Maine's greatest benefactor, Percival Baxter was just another nature-loving politico huffing and puffing up Katahdin.

Percival Baxter, fellow legislators, the state’s chief warden and fish-and-game commissioner exploring what would become Baxter State Park
Courtesy of the Maine State Museum
By Andrew Vietze
From our August 2020 issue

In early August 1920, a 44-year-old Maine legislator named Percival Baxter stood on the granite summit of the state’s tallest mountain, surveying the green landscape far below. Woodlands stretched to the horizon in every direction, broken only by ponds, rivers, and lakes. “I stood spellbound upon the top of Mount Katahdin and looked across the great forest areas of northeastern Maine,” Baxter later said. “Standing there all alone, I was carried away by the prospect before me. To me, Maine seemed to be nothing but forests.”

A few weeks later, Baxter was elected president of the Maine state senate. Four months after that, he unexpectedly inherited the governorship when his predecessor died just weeks into his term. What Baxter would become known for, though, are the decades he spent acquiring land on and around Katahdin — what became Baxter State Park — in an effort to keep the area “forever wild.” That hike in 1920, Maine historian Herb Adams says, was the future governor’s “St. Paul moment — that flash that changed everything that followed.” 

The scion of a prominent Portland family, Percival Baxter was already intrigued by the idea of protecting Katahdin from development. The prospect of a park had been floated by state tourism and sportsmen’s associations in the 1890s, and prior to World War I, a Maine congressman had introduced federal legislation to create a national park surrounding the peak. Thanks to figures like Henry David Thoreau and Theodore Roosevelt — both of whom enjoyed their own transcendent moments on Katahdin — the preservation of wild places was very much in the national conversation.    

Baxter’s 1920 climb was, in fact, a PR stunt to hype a proposal for a “centennial park” honoring Maine’s 100th birthday. He was joined by a troupe of notables, including fellow legislators, the state’s chief warden and fish-and-game commissioner, and a few sympathetic journalists. Reaching Katahdin a century ago was no easy feat — the party traveled for days by train, carriage, riverboat, and boot leather just to reach the warden’s camp from which they’d strike out for the summit.

Baxter’s first trip to the Katahdin region was in 1903, a fishing trip with his dad, six-time Portland mayor James Phinney Baxter. Some historians say he had his “forever wild” epiphany then, though Baxter credited his later summit trip with setting his resolve. “While I was there that day,” he wrote, “I said to myself, ‘This shall belong to Maine if I live.’”

“There is no doubt in my mind that the 1920 climb was one of the most important moments in his life,” says John Neff, author of the definitive history of the region, Katahdin: An Historic Journey. “It set the course for his lifelong and persistent commitment to preserving not only the mountain but also the land around it. His crossing of the Knife Edge touched him deeply that day and also those who were with him.”

It also may have unnerved Percival Baxter and his VIP pals. The editor of the Lewiston Evening Journal, along for the trip, wrote that some of the men needed handholding as they crossed Katahdin’s famously narrow ridge. “Others were on their hands and knees,” he went on, “a strange picture that I will never forget.”

Despite the successful expedition, Baxter’s centennial park scheme fizzled, and as governor, he fared no better getting the legislature to buy into his vision. He was five years out of office when he used his personal fortune to buy the mountain from Great Northern Paper, in 1930. Over the next 30 years, he would purchase 195,000 additional surrounding acres, deeding all of them to the people of Maine.

But this was all in the future on that August afternoon. Standing on the peak that would one day bear his name, Baxter reflected on the climb. “I wouldn’t go through that experience again if someone offered me a million dollars,” he reportedly said to his companions. “But I wouldn’t have missed this wonderful scenic view for a million.”