Mount Desert Island Heritage

Southwest Harbor - Ferries and Fish

When the rusticators first began coming to Mount Desert Island, travel overland was very difficult. The ocean was the highway, and that is why bustling villages were able to thrive in seemingly out-of-the-way places at the end of peninsulas or on offshore islands. Reaching Mount Desert from the major east coast cities usually meant taking a steam powered ferry from Boston, Portland, Rockland or Hancock Point.

Steamboat wharfs were constructed, first at Clark Point in Southwest Harbor and later near the foot of what is now Agamont Park in Bar Harbor. Until 1868, Southwest Harbor was the only place to connect with the steamboats. Even in later years, much of the traffic bound for Mount Desert Island disembarked at Southwest Harbor and traveled by horse drawn wagon to Somesville, Bar Harbor and other villages.

The first regularly scheduled ferry serving Mount Desert was the side-wheeler Ulysses sailing from Rockland, where connection was made with larger steamships from cities to the south. After sinking in 1878, it was replaced by the Mount Desert which operated until 1904 when the J. T. Morse began serving that route.

In 1884 Maine Central Railroad began offering rail service from Boston to Mount Desert. Connection was made at Portland, and the terminus was Mount Desert Ferry located at Hancock Point. From there, the railroad provided steamboat ferry service to Bar Harbor, Southwest Harbor and eventually other communities around the island. These ferries were smaller vessels than those plying the longer routes from the south. Two boats, "Norumbega" and "Sappho" ran twice daily until 1931. Although the railroad provided a partial alternative, ferries continued to be a primary mode of transport to, from and around Mount Desert until well after the appearance of the automobile and the development of interior roads.

Early residents of Southwest Harbor were, as one would expect, quite industrious and sustained their new community by taking advantage of the resources and circumstances available to them, especially their large, natural harbor. Men engaged in a wide variety of trades. Regular ferry service supported some local business, including several rustic hotels catering to summer visitors. But fishing and boat building were the mainstays of their economy. In fact, Southwest Harbor was the industrial and economic center of Mount Desert Island for quite some time. Relatively few "cottagers" built homes in Southwest until other areas on the eastern side of the island became too expensive.

Initially, the fishing industry concentrated on herring, and then other species such as cod, haddock, and mackerel. Clams were also important and readily available. Lobsters were considered to be a low quality byproduct of other fishing efforts and were frequently used as fertilizer or given to those unable to afford other seafood. Smoked herring became a big business, and the product was shipped to New York and other markets to the south. Sardine canneries existed in Southwest Harbor and Bass Harbor from around 1890 into the 1950's. Stinson Seafood Company operated a huge sardine packing facility at the head of Southwest Harbor (now Great Harbor Marina), employing many local women.

Eventually, when other fish stocks began to decline, lobsters became highly desirable as an expensive delicacy and soon dominated the fishing economy. This domination still exists today.

Southwest Harbor and other communities on the western side of Mount Desert have always been less dependent upon the summer economy which was, and continues to be, more important on the eastern half of the island. Their concentration on fishing, boat building, and other trades has led to a more stable, if sometimes lower, income level for local residents. Presently, Southwest Harbor is home to a large U.S. Coast Guard base, is well known as a lobster fishing capital, and has produced world class boat builders such as Ralph Stanley, the Henry R. Hinckley Company
and Morris Yachts.