25 May 2010

Disasters: The Year Maine Burned

By Jennifer Linforth

It was dubbed "the year Maine burned." It was also the end of an era.

The fire of 1947 that made headlines internationally was in Bar Harbor, Maine on Mount Desert Island, a vacation destination for the rich and famous of the day. "Rusticators," as the wealthy were called, came to Maine to escape New York City life and live in "cottages" (which were massive mansions on the rocky coast). They enjoyed hiking, picnics, horse and carriage rides, and the pristine trails of Acadia National Park.

Until fire changed it all...

On Friday October 17, 1947, Mrs. Gilbert called the fire department to report a plume of smoke coming from Dolliver's Dump--a fire was smoldering underground. To this day the cause is undetermined. From a plume of smoke came an inferno that burned half of the eastern side of Mount Desert Island.

The fire burned slowly at first until October 21 came with forceful winds that send that blaze out of control engulfing 2,000 acres. By the following day 2,300 acres burned and pushed the blaze to the center of town and Eden Street--known as "Millionaire's Row." Sixty-seven estates were destroyed and razed 170 homes and five hotels in the Bar Harbor area. It blessedly missed the business district

Bar Harbor residents fled for safety. The athletic field and pier were the only safe areas in town. All roads were blocked by flames. A mass exodus was organized by local fishermen from surrounding towns to ferry residents to the mainland. Four hundred were evacuated this way. Bulldozers cleared rubble off streets so a lineup of 700 cars could carry 2000 people across the only bridge to the mainland. Sparks and flames rained around the cars.

By the end of the day 11,000 more acres were burned.

The world famous Jackson Laboratory was destroyed before the fire blew itself out over the ocean. It was not until November 14 that the blaze was considered officially out. Over 17,000 acres burned, and over 10,000 of those acres were in Acadia National Park. Property damage was estimated at $23 million dollars.

Mount Desert Island is a popular tourist destination--but the scars of the fire are still seen. Once dotted by coniferous trees, the east side of the island is now primarily deciduous. Many of the oaks and birches are same size and shape having risen from the flame. Those magnificent "cottages"--mansions to the rich and famous--were never rebuilt. Many permanent residents, like the Phoenix, did rise from the flame and rebuild, but the fire marked the end of the days of the rusticator...