Mount Desert Island Heritage

The Rusticators

As people in the Philadelphia, New York and Boston areas in the mid-1800's began to see the paintings of Frederic Church and Thomas Cole and to read the writings of noted authors such as Robert Carter, Washington correspondent of the New York "Tribune", they developed an increasing interest in visiting Mount Desert Island.

First came college educators, clergy and those who were able to take most of the summer off, and who primarily wanted to commune with nature. They were followed by wealthy industrialists and professionals who had accumulated great fortunes as the major east coast cities developed.

Travel by land in the northeast was difficult at that time because there were few roads, so a journey to Mount Desert usually had to be accomplished by steamship from Boston. These early summer visitors often boarded with local families and moved about the island by horse and wagon. Because the trip tended to be long and arduous, they generally would bring a large entourage and would stay for a month or more enjoying the grand scenery and participating in island life.

One such visitor was Charles Tracy, a prominent New York lawyer and grandfather of J.P. Morgan. In 1855 he brought a group of twenty seven including family, household help, friends such as Frederic Church and a piano to reside in the village of Somesville at a tavern now known as the Mount Desert House. Tracy kept a wonderful diary that he called "The Log Book", and which has recently been published by the Mount Desert Island Historical Society. In this diary are elaborate descriptions of daily life during his month-long stay; sometimes wistful, sometimes amusing, but always interesting.

Following is Tracy's account of arriving on Mount Desert: "Mount Desert island appears at a great distance; at first, a pale line above the horizon, but gradually growing into a chain of hills, the most wild and picturesque, and as we drew in front of its south coast, the hills seemed to be divided and riven apart by deep cuts, going down to their foundations. Some were green with forests, & some were bald rock, hanging out abruptly over the water. Our party were intensely animated with the scene, and came on shore at Tremont (the area now known as Clark Point in Southwest Harbor) in high spirits."

Between 1855 and 1880 increasing numbers of prosperous "rusticators" came to spend the summer on Mount Desert. Boarding houses and taverns soon were replaced by large hotels constructed of wood and owned by local residents. Many of these grand hotels were in the village of Bar Harbor, but some were built in Northeast Harbor, Southwest Harbor and other smaller villages as well. They had no source of heat and no plumbing. Food was cooked and served by local women and girls, often members of the owner's family. Only two of these summer hotels survive today - The Asticou in Northeast and The Claremont in Southwest. Others succumbed to fire or to the ravages of time.

It wasn't long before these wealthy summer visitors came to expect, and then demand, more services and more comfortable accommodations. Thus began the "cottage era".