Managing Historic Infrastructure in a Rapidly Changing Environment


Historic recreation routes at Acadia National Park were developed over time by different interests; the hiking trails network was created by the Rusticators, the carriage roads were developed by John D. Rockefeller Jr., and the motor road was also built by Rockefeller Jr. This historic network of roads, bridges, and trails are increasingly under threat by impacts from a changing climate. Impacts we are seeing are a result of increased storm frequency and intensity which threaten to overwhelm the infrastructure that is keeping these resources in place. This proposal will focus on the motor road and how the park is balancing the practice of historic preservation with planning for adaptive management of these resources.

The motor road was constructed through a unique collaboration between Rockefeller’s engineers and contractors, Bureau of Public Roads engineers, NPS landscape architects, and landscape architects from the Olmsted Brothers firm. Design was done to minimize the roads’ impact on natural water systems and existing walking paths and carriage roads with carefully designed “separation of ways” like those employed by Olmsted and Vaux for New York’s Central Park.

This presentation will focus on the motor road in the vicinity of Sieur de Monts Spring and the Great Meadow, the largest freshwater wetland on Mount Desert Island. In the 1930s, Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. and his partner Henry Hubbard provided an important series of studies to reconcile the disparate views of George B. Dorr, Superintendent of the park, and Rockefeller Jr. in the design of the site.

While Olmsted Brothers attempted to minimize the impacts of the motor road on natural water ways, the roadway traverses the Great Meadow to access Sieur de Monts. The combination of this infrastructure and previous manipulations within the Great Meadow has resulted in significant impacts to the overall health of the Great Meadow. The hydrologic response to precipitation in the meadow is slower, and overall drainage is increased resulting in a wetland with reduced plant diversity that skews toward disturbance tolerant species.

Climate change is amplifying these impacts to Great Meadow as average annual precipitation has increased six inches in the past 100 years with more frequent and intense storms. The motor road, already a barrier to the natural hydrology, is further impacting the resources under these amplified conditions.

Acadia is undertaking two infrastructure improvement projects: a road/stream crossing at the outlet of the Great Meadow and a paving project at Sieur de Monts. The park, in collaboration with Friends of Acadia, are expanding the approach of these projects to design not just for historic or current conditions but to adaptively manage the site in anticipation of conditions 20, 30, even 50 years on. The projects include consideration of natural resource restoration in conjunction with infrastructure design that respects the historic condition of the road. The restoration work is not about looking to “replacement in kind”, rather to acceptance that environmental conditions are changing and to accommodate those changes while restoring the Great Meadow and preserving the integrity of the historic resources.

Presenter Biographies

Gail Gladstone is the Cultural Resource Program Manager at Acadia National Park where she has worked for the past seven years. Gail has worked for the NPS for 14 years in cultural resource management starting her career in 2008 at the Midwest Regional Office working in cultural landscapes and historic structures documentation. The cultural resource program at Acadia includes the integrated historic recreation routes which are 125 miles of hiking trails, 45 miles of broken stone carriage roads, and 27 miles of motor road. Gail has a master’s degree in Landscape Architecture from the University of Texas at Austin.

Brian Henkel is the Wild Acadia Project Coordinator. The Wild Acadia initiative is a collaboration between Acadia National Park and Friends of Acadia that takes a watershed-based approach to improving degraded ecological conditions in and around Acadia National Park. Within this collaboration, Brian works with park staff and area partners to coordinate efforts to improve ecological integrity and resiliency in the face of rapid environmental change. Brian is a graduate of the University of Texas at San Antonio with a BS in Civil Engineering. He has worked as a hydrologist in groundwater and surface water for more than 20 years.

Part of a series of articles titled Olmsteds: Landscapes and Legacies.

Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site

Last updated: December 21, 2022