Secrets of the Summit

Sunrise over the rocky summit of Cadillac Mountain
The Cadillac Of Sunrises

NPS Photo

Cadillac Mountain is a familiar sight for many. At 1530 feet (466 m) tall, Cadillac is the tallest mountain on the eastern seaboard of the United States! It is also the first place to see the sunrise in the U.S. in the winter. For thousands of years, people have climbed Cadillac Mountain and looked out from its lofty peak.

Wabanaki communities, who were this island's first inhabitants and continue to call this place home, the early tourists and Rusticators, and modern visitors have all experienced the beauty of its trails, the awe of its views, and the power of its landscape.

Why does Cadillac's Summit Look Like it Does?

Historic glacial coverage in relation to Acadia National Park
The Laurentide Ice Sheet relative to present day Acadia National Park

NPS Photo

Cadillac Mountain summit sports “subalpine-like” conditions. The mountain is not tall enough to be considered subalpine, but the habitat is similar to those found at much higher elevations. So why does Cadillac’s summit look sub-alpine? The shallow, dry soil (and lack of soil is some areas), strong wind from the Atlantic Ocean, and limited nutrients makes the habitat inhospitable for many species. The plants and animals that do live there have adapted to be hardy and resilient.

During the last ice age, a glacier covered most of what is no Canada and Northern U.S, including Acadia. Known as the Laurentide Ice Shet, it towered about a mile high. It's movement, from north to south, carved the landscape to the shape we see today. When the Laurentide Ice Sheet melted away, it exposed the dramatic landscape of what is now Acadia National Park. You can see its effects throughout Acadia, including the bald peaks of the mountains and the large rocks that seem to be in peculiar places. The little soil that was left behind helped pave the way for the subalpine vegetation found on the summits today.

Because there isn’t much soil at the top, plants have to be very specialized to live there. These specialized plants can use this rocky habitat because they have adapted to little or no soil, harsh winter conditions, and low water supply. The harsh winds can even dry out their needles! Although all these forces make the summit habitat seem too difficult to survive, a select few plants persevere. Species like the pitch pine have adapted to these conditions and have waxy needles to help prevent desiccation and freezing, and their dark green color helps absorb sunlight in the early spring.

But Why the Name "Cadillac?"

Now that we are familiar with the habitat atop Cadillac Mountain, let's talk about who used this land historically, and why. Long before cartographer Samuel de Champlain named this place Isle des Monts Deserts (Island of Barren Mountains) in the early 1600s, Wabanaki peoples used the island as a central meeting place to gather, trade, hunt, and fish with one another. Collectively, four tribes are known as Wabanaki: the Maliseet, Micmac, Passamaquoddy and Penobscot. Many knew this island as “Pemetic” meaning “range of mountains.” The name Wabanaki also reflects the magnificent landscape; it translates to “People of the Dawn Land.”

The island's tallest mountain has had many names. One Wabanaki name for it was Pesamkuk. Euro-American settlers called it Green Mountain, until 1918 when the mountain was named Cadillac Mountain, to honor the French nobleman, Antoine de la Mothe, who was gifted this land by the governor of New France in 1688. Cadillac’s name lives on both here, and in the city of Detroit, where he established a fort, and parish in the early 1700s. You can find Cadillac’s family seal at the top of Cadillac Mountain, but only the car; the company, founded in Detroit, adapted the seal for their emblem.

Did you know that most of Cadillac Mountain’s visitors have never been to the true summit? If you are familiar with the summit of Cadillac, you have probably visited the Summit Loop, a half mile trail around the eastern summit, but that is not actually the tallest part of the mountain! There are 3 summits, and the tallest one is about a 5-minute walk down the South Ridge Trail. As you find your way to the South ridge trail from the parking area, and begin walking, you may notice the trail is very wide, even big enough for a car to drive.

Historic Land Use

Historic wooden two room structure
The Brewer's Mountain House

Photo courtesy of the National Park Service, Acadia National Park

During the increased period of visitation in the late 1800s, a road was built that summitted what was then called “Green Mountain”. This road, called the Buckboard Road, started at the northern end of the mountain, climbing up the north ridge and terminating here at the true summit. According to those who braved the trek the Buckboard Road, the ride was tolerable in horse-drawn carriages, but early tourists though it more “agreeable” to walk. The old roadbed leads to an unimposing rock set back from the trail. This is the humble summit of Acadia’s tallest mountain.

The U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey was installed in 1858, while the summit marker was installed in 1954. The Coast Survey was established in the early 1800s by President Thomas Jefferson and its goal was to survey & map the coast. The benchmark helped with mapping by being a point that surveyors knew the exact location of, helping to scale and orient the maps. The coast survey is now part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, also known as NOAA.

Not only did the old roadbed led to the true summit of, but it was also built to take visitors up to Cadillac Mountains first hotel. To capitalize on the visitors coming to the top of Cadillac Mountain, the Brewer family, who previously owned what was then called “Green Mountain”, built The Mountain House in the early-1860s. It was located about 10 yards north of the summit. Before becoming a hotel, this structure was used to house the U.S Coast Survey workers. Early tourism was booming on Mount Desert Island and there was a demand for another hotel on top of Green Mountain.

A New Way to Traverse the Mountain

Historic locomotive with riders
One of Clergue's Green Mountain Locomotives

Photo courtesy of the National Park Service, Acadia National Park

After an influx of visitation in the 1880’s, construction of the Green Mountain Cog Railway started in 1883, just around the time the newest hotel was built on Cadillac Mountain. Francis H. Clergue (aka Frank) a self-taught lawyer from Bangor, began taking steps to build the railroad in 1882 with 7 other investors. After getting their hands on the design of the locomotive itself, Frank had to get landowner permission from the Brewers, who granted him a right-of-way up the western side of the mountain. In February of 1883 ground broke of the construction and did not stop until its speedy completion in July of that same year. The 175 laborers tasked with this backbreaking job were paid $1.50 per day but their hard work paid off once the railroads first customers took the trek up the mountain.

Although you may think getting on the train is an easy solution to summiting the mountain, it is a bit of a crazy journey to get to get to the top via the cog railroad. After parking their horse drawn carriages at the North end of Eagle Lake, visitors would board the Wauwinet. The steamboat took them to the southeast end of the lake where passengers could board the Green Mountain Cog Railway. At just $2.50 round-trip, the train traveled at the lightning speed of 2 mph. Passengers would often get off and walk along the train to pick blueberries and jump back on. After arriving at the summit, passengers could enjoy the Mountain’s accommodations and stunning view.

One dreadful night in 1884, a small spark set ablaze the roof of one of the hotels: The Green Mountain House. As the whole building became engulfed in flames, the fire grew to the old mountain house, about 50 yards away. Residents of Otter Creek thought that visitors were having a large bon fire at the summit but soon realized it was much worse. Luckily, everyone escaped the blaze unharmed.Within 48 hours of the fire, Bar Harbor builder, John Clark, already had a new hotel drawn up on paper. Ground broke on a temporary structure not long after. Within a year of building the temporary right side of the hotel, the Summit house was completed and ready for guests. In 1889, the Hotel accommodated the US Signal Service, in which a weather station was located on the third floor.

In the 1890s, the visitation to Cadillac Mountain had slowed so much, that the Cog railroad was falling into extreme debt, the railroad was closed, and Frank Clergue and the Green Mountain Railway were in $14,000 of debt. The hotel was also short lived, little over 10 year after its completion, the structure had already fallen into disrepair due to the decreased visitation. Residents decided that the mountain would be more enjoyable with an expansive view of Mount Desert Island, the Summit House was torn down and burned. The cog railroad still lives on to this day, as you can find the original locomotive on display at the White Mountains National Forest.

A History of War

Present day summit with parking area
Present day summit, including radio tower and parking area

NPS Photo

Just 3 decades later, the land in which Cadillac Mountain stands became Sieur de Monts National Monument in 1916, the same year that the National Park Service was established. Later it became Lafayette National Park in 1919 through an act of Congress, and the name changed again to Acadia National Park in 1929. Once Acadia National Park was established, visitor accommodations atop Cadillac Mountain began once again. The Summit Tavern was constructed in 1932 and provided refreshments and souvenirs for visitors who hiked one of the many trails leading up Cadillac Mountain, or drove up the new Summit Road.

Even lesser known, is that the summit of Cadillac Mountain played a key role in World War II. Although Cadillac Mountain was closed to visitors during this time, it was still in use. Due to its ideal location, the mountain was home to a World War II radar facility for early-warning aircraft detection. The mountains height and location gave strong radar signals and is the reason Acadia National Park still uses it for communications. The radio antenna on Cadillac Mountains is now used by the National Park Service, local police and fire departments, and the U.S. Coast Guard.

Physical change, a harsh environment, and historic human development may not be noticeable at a quick glance atop Cadillac Mountain, but the rich history of Acadia's tallest peak goes back thousands of years. Cadillac Mountain has not only changed names, but it has also showed a unique attempt to capitalize on tourism in the late 19th century. From the early visitors, to the massive railway operations, Cadillac Mountain has withheld the test of time. The harsh environment, however, has remained relatively unaltered. Nonetheless, the impressive vistas Cadillac Mountain has to offer have been enjoyed by millions.

Acadia National Park

Last updated: September 3, 2023