THE GRANITE NATIONAL PARKS
LAFAYETTE NATIONAL PARK, MAINE. AREA, 10,000 ACRES
IT has been the policy of Congress to create national parks only from public lands, the title to which costs nothing to acquire. It may be many years before the nation awakes to the fact that areas distinguished for supreme scenery, historical association, or extraordinary scientific significance are worth conserving even if conservation involves their purchase. The answer to the oft-asked question why the national parks are all in the west is that the east passed into private possession before the national park idea assumed importance in the national consciousness.
The existence of the two national parks east of the Rocky Mountains merely emphasizes the fact. The Hot Springs of Arkansas were set apart in 1832 while the Ozark Mountains were still a wilderness. The Lafayette National Park, in Maine, is made up of many small parcels of privately owned land which a group of public-spirited citizens, because of the impossibility of securing national appropriations, patiently acquired during a series of laborious years, and presented, in 1916, to the people of the United States.
While refusing to purchase land for national parks, Congress nevertheless is buying large areas of eastern mountain land for national forest, the purpose being not only to conserve water sources, which national parks would accomplish quite as thoroughly, but particularly to control lumbering operations in accord with principles which will insure the lumber supply of the future. Here and there in this reserve are limited areas of distinguished national park quality, but whether they will be set aside as national parks is a question for the people and the future to decide. Certainly the mountain topography and the rich deciduous forests of the eastern United States should be represented in the national parks system by several fine examples.
The Lafayette National Park differs from all other members of the national parks system in several important respects. It is in the far east; it combines seashore and mountain; it is clothed with a rich and varied growth of deciduous trees and eastern conifers; it is intimately associated with the very early history of America. Besides which, it is a region of noble beauty, subtle charm and fascinating variety.
The Appalachian Mountain uplift, which, roughly speaking, embraces all the ranges constituting the eastern rib of the continent, may be considered to include also the very ancient peneplains of New England. These tumbled hills and shallow valleys, accented here and there by ranges and monadnocks, by which the geologist means solitary peaks, are all that the frosts and rains of very many millions of years and the glaciers of more recent geologic times have left of what once must have been a towering mountain region crested in snow. The wrinkling of the earth's surface which produced this range occurred during the Devonian period when fishes were the predominant inhabitants of the earth, many millions of years before birds or even reptiles appeared. Its rise was accompanied by volcanic disturbances, whose evidences are abundant on islands between the mouth of the Penobscot and Mount Desert Island, though not within the park. The mind cannot conceive the lapse of time which has reduced this range, at an erosional speed no greater than to-day's, to its present level. During this process the coast line was also slowly sinking, changing valleys into estuaries and land-encircled bays. The coast of Maine is an eloquent chapter in the continent's ancient history, and the Lafayette National Park is one of the most dramatic paragraphs in the chapter.
Where the Penobscot River reaches the sea, and for forty miles east, the sinking continental shore has deeply indented the coast line with a network of broad, twisting bays, enclosing many islands. The largest and finest of these is Mount Desert Island, for many years celebrated for its romantic beauty. Upon its northeast shore, facing Frenchman's Bay, is the resort town of Bar Harbor; other resorts dot its shores on every side. The island has a large summer population drawn from all parts of the country. Besides its hotels, there are many fine summer homes.
The feature which especially distinguishes Mount Desert Island from other islands, in fact from the entire Atlantic coast, is a group of granitic mountains which rise abruptly from the sea. They were once towering monsters, perhaps only one, unquestionably the loftiest for many miles around. They are the sole remainders upon the present coast line of a great former range. They are composed almost wholly of granite, worn down by the ages, but massive enough still to resist the agencies which wiped away their comrades. They rise a thousand feet or more, grim, rounded, cleft with winding valleys and deep passes, divided in places by estuaries of the sea, holding in their hollows many charming lakes.
Their abrupt flanks gnawed by the beating sea, their valleys grown with splendid forests and brightened by wild flowers, their slopes and domes sprinkled with conifers which struggle for foothold in the cracks which the elements are widening and deepening in their granite surface, for years they have been the resort of thousands of climbers, students of nature and seekers of the beautiful; the views of sea, estuary, island, plain, lake, and mountain from the heights have no counterpart elsewhere.
All this mountain wilderness, free as it was to the public, was in private ownership. Some of it was held by persons who had not seen it for years. Some of it was locked up in estates. The time came when owners began to plan fine summer homes high on the mountain slopes. A few, however, believed that the region should belong to the whole people, and out of this belief grew the movement, led by George B. Dorr and Charles W. Eliot, to acquire title and present it to the nation which would not buy it. They organized a holding association, to which they gave their own properties; for years afterward Mr. Dorr devoted most of his time to persuading others to contribute their holdings, and to raising subscriptions for the purchase of plots which were tied up in estates. In 1916 the association presented five thousand acres to the Government, and President Wilson created it by proclamation the Sieur de Monts National Monument. The gift has been greatly increased since. In 1918 Congress made appropriations for its up keep and development. In February, 1919, Congress changed its name and status; it then became the Lafayette National Park.
The impulse to name the new national park after the French general who came to our aid in time of need arose, of course, out of the war-time warmth of feeling for our ally, France. The region had been identified with early French exploration; the original monument had been named in commemoration of this historical association. The first European settlement in America north of the latitude of the Gulf of Mexico was here. Henry of Navarre had sent two famous adventurers to the new world, de Monts and Champlain. The first colony established by de Monts was at the mouth of the St. Croix River, which forms the eastern boundary of Maine, and the first land within the present United States which was reached by Champlain was Mount Desert Island. This was in 1604. It was Champlain who gave the island its present name, after the mountains which rise so prominently from its rock-bound shore. To him, however, the name had a different significance than it first suggests to us. L'Isle des Monts Deserts meant to him the Island of the Lonely Mountains, and lonely indeed they must have seemed above the flat shore line. Thus named, the place became a landmark for future voyagers; among others Winthrop records seeing the mountains on his way to the Massachusetts colony in 1630. He anchored opposite and fished for two hours, catching "sixty-seven great cod," one of which was "a yard around."
"By a curious train of circumstances," writes George B. Dorr, "the titles by which these mountains to the eastward of Somes Sound are held go back to the early ownership of Mount Desert Island by the Crown of France. For it was granted by Louis XIV, grandson of Henry IV, to Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac, an officer of noble family from southwestern France, then serving in Acadia, who afterward became successively the founder of Detroit and Governor of Louisianathe Mississippi Valley. Cadillac lost it later, through English occupation of the region, ownership passing, first to the Province, then to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. But presently the Commonwealth gave back to his granddaughterMadame de Gregoireand her husband, French refugees, the Island's eastern half, moved thereto by the part that France had taken in the recent War of Independence and by letters they had brought from Lafayette. And they came down and lived there."
And so it naturally followed that, under stress of war enthusiasm, this reservation with its French associations should commemorate not only the old Province of Acadia, which the French yielded to England only after half a century of war, and England later on to us after another war, but the great war also in which France, England, and the United States all joined as allies in the cause of the world's freedom. In accord with this idea, the highest mountain looking upon the sea has been named the Flying Squadron, in honor of the service of the air, born of an American invention, and carried to perfection by the three allies in common.
The park may be entered from any of the surrounding resorts, but the main gateway is Bar Harbor, which is reached by train, automobile, and steamboat. No resort may be reached more comfortably, and hotel accommodations are ample.
The mountains rise within a mile of the town. They extend westward for twelve miles, lying in two groups, separated by a fine salt-water fiord known as Somes Sound. The park's boundary is exceedingly irregular, with deep indentations of private property. It is enclosed, along the shore, by an excellent automobile road; roads also cross it on both sides of Somes Sound.
There are ten mountains in the eastern group; the three fronting Bar Harbor have been renamed, for historic reasons, Cadillac Mountain, the Flying Squadron, and Champlain Mountain. For the same reason mountains upon Somes Sound have been renamed Acadia Mountain, St. Sauveur Mountain, and Norumbega Mountain, the last an Indian name; similar changes commemorating the early English occupation also have been made in the nomenclature of the western group. Tablets and memorials are also projected in emphasis of the historical associations of the place.
Both mountain groups are dotted with lakes; those of the western group are the largest of the island.
The pleasures, then, of the Lafayette National Park cover a wide range of human desire. Sea bathing, boating, yachting, salt-water and fresh-water fishing, tramping, exploring the wilderness, hunting the view spotsthese are the summer occupations of many visitors, the diversions of many others. The more thoughtful will find its historical associations fascinating, its geological record one of the richest in the continent, its forests well equipped schools for tree study, their branches a museum of bird life.
To climb these low mountains, wandering by the hour in their hollows and upon their sea-horizoned shoulders, is, for one interested in nature, to get very close indeed to the secrets of her wonderful east. One may stand upon Cadillac's rounded summit and let imagination realize for him the day when this was a glaciered peak in a mighty range which forged southward from the far north, shoulder upon shoulder, peak upon peak, pushing ever higher as it approached the sea, and extending far beyond the present ocean horizon; for these mountains of Mount Desert are by no means the terminal of the original mighty range; the slow subsidence of the coast has wholly submerged several, perhaps many, that once rose south of them. The valley which now carries the St. Croix River drained this once towering range's eastern slopes; the valley of the Penobscot drained its western slopes.
The rocks beneath his feet disclose not only this vision of the geologic past; besides that, in their slow decay, in the chiselling of the trickling waters, in the cleavage of masses by winter's ice, in the peeling of the surface by alternate freezing and melting, in the dissolution and disintegration everywhere by the chemicals imprisoned in air and water, all of which he sees beneath his feet, they disclose to him the processes by which Nature has wrought this splendid ruin. And if, captivated by this vision, he studies intimately the page of history written in these rocks, he will find it full of fascinating detail.
The region also offers an absorbing introduction to the study of our eastern flora. The exposed bogs and headlands support several hundred species of plants typical of the arctic, sub-arctic, and Hudsonian zones, together with practically all of the common plants of the Canadian zone, and many of the southern coasts. So with the trees. Essentially coastal, it is the land of conifers, the southern limit of some which are common in the great regions of the north, yet exhibiting in nearly full variety the species for many miles south; yet it is also, in its sheltered valleys, remarkably representative of the deciduous growths of the entire Appalachian region.
The bird life is full and varied. The food supply attracts migratory birds, and aquatic birds find here the conditions which make for increase. Deer are returning in some numbers from the mainland.
In brief, the Lafayette National Park, small though it is, is one of the most important members of the national parks system. For the pleasure seeker no other provides so wide and varied an opportunity. To the student, no other offers a more readable or more distinctive volume; it is the only national museum of the fascinating geology of the east, and I can think of no other place in the east where classes can find so varied and so significant an exhibit. To the artist, the poet, and the dreamer it presents vistas of ocean, inlet, fiord, shore, wave-lashed promontory, bog, meadow, forest, and mountainan answer to every mood.
If this nation, as now appears, must long lack national parks representative of the range of its splendid east, let us be thankful that this one small park is so complete and so distinguished.
Last Updated: 30-Oct-2009