hiking Acadia

on my trip to Maine in July, we took Sunday to drive up to Acadia National Park, located about halfway up the coast on an island. Acadia is the most northeastern National Park in the U.S. (I’m counting Saint Croix Island as the “International Heritage Site” it is) and balances the most southwestern site of Cabrillo National Monument in San Diego, which we visited in May.

view north from Cadillac Mountain

Acadia was the first National Park designated east of the Mississippi River. the island which it covers, Mount Desert, saw its first European settlers in the mid-1700s but wasn’t popularized until a century later, when artists and photographers spread images of the island among patrons and friends. towards the end of the 19th century it became a popular, remote destination with the uber-rich of the East Coast (e.g. Rockefeller, Vanderbilt, Astor) whose demands for more luxurious accommodations resulted in improved lodging on the island. their attentions contributed to the extent and quality of landscape preservation the Park demonstrates today.

in 1919, President Wilson declared the area Lafayette National Park which was, as I mentioned above, the first east of the Mississippi. a decade later the name changed to Acadia. over the decades, Acadia has benefited from several infrastructure programs, both public and private. beginning in 1913, the younger John D. Rockefeller began a project (that lasted until 1940) to construct carriage roads throughout the park, allowing for car-free access to more remote areas of the park. rather than flatten hillsides, walls were built to preserve the natural landscape and avoid felling trees all while providing remarkable views. crews quarried native island stone for the roads and planted native plants along the roadsides, blending them into the landscape. two gate houses, one at Jordan Pond and one near Northeast Harbor, serve as entrances to the system (we caught a glimpse of the one at Jordan Pond driving on the ring road — very impressive).

looking up the Precipice Trail

the Civilian Conservation Corps was also active at Acadia and the two camps established on the island ran throughout the duration of the CCC project. the workers completed hundreds of projects, constructing the two campgrounds, monitoring forest health (e.g. fighting fires, fuel reduction, disease management), and constructing and expanding an extensive network of trails, including the two we hiked.

following our brief (and foggy) hike down the Gorge Path from the top of Cadillac Mountain, we did a loop on the Park’s ring road and along the way picked up a pair of hikers who were up from Connecticut for a long stay at the park. the Park has a great bus system but the couple managed to miss the last one that would go past their campsite from the trail they hiked in the afternoon. they were quite nice and joked that they knew we weren’t from the east coast because we’d stopped to pick them up. turned out to be a good deal for all involved; they’d been coming to Acadia for years and offered advice on what to see, what to avoid, and which hikes were most interesting.

their heartiest recommendation? hiking the relatively short but vertical Precipice Trail. it’s only 1.8 miles round trip, but it’s about 1,000 feet straight up. undaunted, we set off with moderately unsuitable footwear to investigate the trail. my guidebook recommended something like 2.5 or 3 hours minimum for a round trip, which seemed a bit generous if it was less than a mile up and back. the terrain was certainly more challenging than the Gorge Path but not so bad as I thought while standing at the base of the hill. unfortunately, we started off rather late (well after 5 p.m.) and when we asked a descending couple how much farther up we had to climb (more than half) we sighed and resigned ourselves to going back down without reaching the top of the hill. unlike with Croagh Patrick, the guidebook’s projected hike length wasn’t completely off base. I suppose the view from the top would have been pretty limited in any case. on a sunny day next time.

Great Fire(s) of Portland

as apparently any schoolkid in Maine can tell you, fire has devastated the city of Portland four times. once when it was a small settlement — settlers fled and local tribes burned the structures; once when it was a fort; once during the French-Indian War; and finally on Independence Day in 1866. my guide at the Observatory said that students are told that children playing with fireworks were to blame for the 1866 fire but sadly that’s not actually the case.

the fire started in a warehouse on the docks early in the morning and firefighters quickly extinguished the blaze. or thought they did. in fact, embers smoldered late into the day and eventually the fire caught once again. the building next door housed a sugar refinery and the highly combustible material went up quickly. the direction and strength of wind are largely to blame for the spread of the fire and extent of the damage. the fire continued north-northeast from the wharf and towards Munjoy Hill mostly unchecked. my guide said what preserved the Observatory was simply that the wind died down in the evening not, as myth would have it, that the owner sat on the roof with buckets and buckets of water to douse any flames that encroached. (he did, however keep vigilant watch and put out embers as soon as they alighted on the shingles, so perhaps things might have gone differently had he not been watching out for his investment.)

prior to the Great Chicago Fire, the 1866 one in Portland was the largest urban fire in U.S. history. part of what made it so famous were telegraph cables that allowed the transmission of the story all across the country. within twenty-four hours, people in San Francisco, Houston, Chicago, Washington knew the details of the fire; it was a truly national news event.

Maine Capitol

a statue of “Wisdom” adorns their dome

as with many new territories, the first capital of Maine did not last (nor did the first capitol building, for that matter, which was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1866). Portland housed the new state government from its independence from Massachusetts in1820 until a selection process settled on Augusta as the new state capital in 1827. the current State House in Augusta was designed by Charles Bulfinch and modeled after his design of the Massachusetts State House. construction on the building began in 1829, using granite quarried from nearby Hallowell (also a capital city contender), and the legislature met in it for the first time in 1832. a faulty heating system resulted in numerous fires but the original Bulfinch facade survives intact, though over the years major expansion and remodeling projects brought the building to its current size and configuration. the original cupola was replaced by the current dome, which reaches 185 feet, and the length of the building doubled to 300 feet.

the snazzy visitor’s entrance

during a push in the 1990s to improve general quality of life within the capitol (fix leaks, improve ventilation, etc.), a potential time capsule was discovered embedded in a cornerstone next to the original entrance to the building. however, because of fiscal constraints it was decided to leave the object in place until it could be unveiled with greater ceremony and pomp. unfortunately, the day before the Capitol’s 182nd birthday did not merit such pomp and, in fact, we were the only ones wandering around the grounds!

Portland Observatory

Casco Bay

over the weekend, I went to Maine for the first time. during my day in Portland, I visited the Observatory which sits atop Munjoy Hill in the East End of town. built in 1807, the 86ft tall building is the last remaining maritime signal tower in the United States and operated as a subscription service for merchants operating out of Portland Harbor. they would pay a fee to Lemuel Moody, a long-time captain turned entrepreneur, who kept watch over Casco Bay from the cupola and identified ships as they approached. having advance notice of several hours or even the better part of a day allowed merchants to hire the stevedores necessary to off-load the ships and get cargo moving quickly. ships could also convey messages to merchants, alerting them of damaged goods or other problems that arose during transport. Captain Moody also kept thorough meteorological records and eventually began offering them to the local newspaper for a fee. (our guide was quick to impress upon us the entrepreneurial nature of Moody.)

Portland Observatory from the northeast side

the Observatory served a watchtower during the War of 1812 but the advent of the telegraph and, later, ship-to-shore radios rendered obsolete the original function of the Observatory and in 1923 it ceased operation. the City of Portland came into possession of the tower at that time and they retained it until Greater Portland Landmarks took it over. twice in the last century the structure has undergone renovations — the first as part of the Works Progress Administration (1939), and again in 1994 when an infestation of powder post beetles brought years of seeping water damage to light. despite the near total dismantling and reconstruction of the tower in 1994, much of the original material remains. prior to beginning the 1939 restoration, all original surfaces were painted a mahogany color and, as we stood on the third or fourth level with our tour guide, most of the walls and ceiling were still dark brown in color.

it’s all kinds of landmarked!

the foundation of the structure is perhaps the most unique feature of the Portland Observatory. because a layer of granite lay six inches beneath the topsoil, there was no reasonable way to dig down an appropriate depth to support an 86ft octagonal structure. instead, Moody designed a “ballasted” footing for his tower — 122 tons of rock underneath the floor of the first level keep the building secure. almost immediately after touring the building in 2006, the American Society of Civil Engineers named it a National Civil Engineering Landmark. my guide (Bob) was nice enough to open the trap door on the first floor to let me take a peek at the ballast; it was exactly what I thought it would be — great big rocks stacked all over the floor!

(check out a real-time view of Casco Bay from atop the Observatory)