1604 - The early French explorer Samuel de Champlain ran aground near Egg Rock Island on Frenchman Bay, close to the shore of present-day Bar Harbor. He observed the adjacent, mountainous island to be bare and rocky at the top and thus named it “Isles de Mont-desert”.
Mount Desert Island is the third largest island on the US East coast and is home to Acadia National Park. It is also home to Somes Sound, the only fjord in the US East Coast. The tiny Egg Rock Island now houses a lighthouse. Apparently it is indeed quite treacherous to navigate around it – a few hundred years after Champlain, the USS Massachusetts also ran aground off Egg Rock Island but was successfully salvaged.
1600s to 1700s - The land where present day Bar Harbor sits was part of French Acadia that extended far north into Nova Scotia. The first capital of Acadia was established in 1605 as Port-Royal in Nova Scotia. There was continuous warfare between England and France for these territories. The English eventually took control of Acadia and conquered Maine by defeating the Native American Wabanaki Confederacy along with their allied French troops in the 1720s.
During these wars, French frigates were known to hide behind Porcupine Island in Frenchman Bay and be in the lookout to pounce on British naval vessels. According to the historian Samuel Eliot Morison, Frenchman Bay was so called because it became a staging point for French warships preparing to fight the English. The French and their Native American allies often raided or menaced the colonial New England towns to the South.
The portrait of the man sitting alone somewhere atop Mt Desert Island is typical of the Hudson River School of painting style of which the painter Jervis McEntee belonged.
Typically, the paintings from this school reflect the quintessential themes of a pioneering America - discovery of nature and exploration of new lands. One of the central tenets was of peaceful coexistence between nature and man. The solitary figure in the painting is loosely aligned with the school's principles that favored rugged individualism.
By the time of the painting during the 1870s, Acadia was fast becoming a tourist destination for East Coast travelers. They arrived by steamboats or other means, many seeking to rekindle the pioneering spirit of the times in their quest for personal discovery. When it comes to hosting visitors, this same can-do spirit and individualism behind the painting is reflected to this day in the design of some of the daring-do expert-level trails within Acadia. In fact the Precipice and Beehive Trails were designed by the adventurer Rudolph Brunnow, an Indiana Jones type philologist and a one-time chair of Semitic languages at my hometown of Princeton who had traveled to Arabia to survey the ancient Roman province of Arabia Petraea. Even his so called more moderate trails such as the Beehive Trail are not for the faint-hearted as I have detailed here.
Late 1800s - In the late 1800s, Bar Harbor's popularity as a summer resort drew recreational water crafts and steamboats. By now most of the whaling expeditions were also undertaken using similar steamboats but the whaling industry itself had been in decline for decades chiefly due to new sources of energy. Today you can see all types of boats at Bar Harbor, from restored schooners to lobster fishing boats and of course, whale watchers.
One of the famous sailboat designs that came out of the Late 1800s was the Friendship schooner, reputed to be the original lobster boat. A sturdy new design was needed to keep up with the harsh New England winter and this locally designed and built vessel fit the bill. While not in commercial use as lobster boats anymore, sailing enthusiasts still favor the design for its looks, maneuverability, and stability.
You can rent one of these for day sailing at Sail Acadia. Or if you prefer to simply soak in the local sailing history from your guide while experiencing a thrilling sail around Frenchman Bay in a tall ship, you can book a sailing cruise here
The 1880s were known as the Gilded Age and this was personified in Bar Harbor by its most famous vacationer at the time, US Senator from Maine and one time Secretary of State James G Blaine. True to the opulence of the time and his considerable influence, he was nicknamed “the plumed knight”. A regular favorite to win the Presidency, he lost the 1884 US presidential election to Grover Cleveland by less than a percent.
The senator made the Mira Monte Inn his summer home and often planned out his ambitious political strategies in relative seclusion there. The accompanying newspaper illustration from the period depicts Blaine enjoying a summer horse-drawn carriage ride. His summer residence, the Mira Monte Inn is also illustrated to the side of the drawing, captioned as “Blaine’s Cottage”.
You can still book a room (by clicking on the Booking.com reviews icon right below this para) at the same Mira Monte Inn, one of the most charming hotels in Bar Harbor today, known for the hospitality of its owners and staff, its spacious fireplaced rooms, a restful back porch overlooking a tranquil, natural setting, and serving a delicious breakfast. The hotel remains proud of its affiliation with Senator Blaine and has preserved some of the artifacts and chronicles from the time.
In the 1890s Bar Harbor saw in its waters one of the greatest fleets that had ever been assembled in American waters, the famous White Squadron. These new class of modern warships saw action during the Spanish-American war a few years later. The outskirts of Frenchman Bay was an ideal location for target practice and maneuvers.
It was on one of these exercises at the outskirts of Frenchman Bay that the battleship Massachusetts ran aground near Egg Rock Island, the same spot where the French explorer Champlain's ship suffered a similar mishap.
Immediately adjacent and to the west of Porcupine Island where the French vessels used to hide during their long guerilla war against the British fleet in the 1700s, lies Bar Island.
Between an hour or so prior to low tide and up to an hour past that low tide, there is a temporary natural land bridge that connects hikers to the main landmass of Desert Island and Bar Island. The entire hike covers about 2 miles round trip across and into the small island.
As you walk across the temporary, natural bridge you will find starfish and crabs. As you keep walking into the island you will be entertained by scenic views of Desert Island, the small creatures residing within its thick woods, and wonderful short hiking trails. The duration of this entire walking self-tour should take about 60 to 90 minutes, but do keep track of the time in order to get back prior to high tide. You can check Bar Harbor tide times here.
The Bar Island Trail will take you towards the highest point on the island where you can take in panoramic views of Desert Island and the waters of Frenchman Bay.