Charles W. Eliot, George Dorr and a Son’s Legacy

Acadia National Park Saved to future generations as it has been to us The Maine THing Quarterly
Chapter 2

How did the spark of the idea for what would become Acadia National Park get started?

With a vacation, of course.

Shocking, right? Actually, it’s not that hard to believe that the idea started with a family getaway. Especially considering the aforementioned connection travelers tend to form to this place. This is what happened to Charles Eliot—and his connection to Acadia National Park would become a decidedly historic one.

So, who were the Eliots? They were a well-to-do family who lived in Boston, and traveled year after year to Mount Desert Island. Charles W. Eliot, the patriarch of the family, was the president of Harvard University. His son, also named Charles, developed an extraordinary emotional attachment to the areas around the island, fervently exploring them as a young child and on into his teen years. He obviously wouldn’t be the last kid to fall in love with the place.

Charles’ passion for the outdoors, and most specifically the island, grew. He started the aptly named Champlain Society, in which he and a group of friends interested in hiking Acadia’s trails and traversing the mountains would explore and document their adventures. It’s not surprising that Charles built an affinity for landscape architecture, and after graduating from college, he got to work on numerous landscaping projects.

His visions for molding the landscape while still having respect for conservation were way ahead of their time. He knew that Mount Desert Island was a place that needed to be preserved for years to come.

Tragically, Charles contracted spinal meningitis, leading to his untimely death at just 38 years old.

It seemed his visions would never see the light of day.

But never underestimate the love of a grieving father.

Courtesy Acadia National Park

Inspired, Charles W. Eliot began to make it his life’s work to bring his son’s vision for a beautiful public space to fruition. He developed the Hancock County Trustees of Public Reservations in 1901, whose purpose was simple:

“…Acquire, by devise, gift of purchase, and to own, arrange, hold, maintain or improve lands in Hancock County, Maine, which by reason of scenic beauty, historical interest, sanitary advantage or other like reasons may become available for such purpose…”

Charles W. Eliot discovered the journals in which his son had written about the island. Among the copious notes, Mr. Eliot discovered this passage:

It is time decisive action was taken, and if the state of Maine should…encourage the formation of associations for the purpose of preserving chosen parts of her coast scenery, she would not only do herself honor, but would secure for the future an important element in her material prosperity…
Acadia’s Founding Fathers

was set.

Imagine, if you will, a world in which people willingly donate thousands of acres of land for the public good. It’s difficult to believe that such a thing could ever happen. Especially when it is land as beautiful as that of Mount Desert Island.

But a man named George Dorr (whose family, incidentally, had been visiting the island since he was 14) was appointed the executive secretary of the Hancock County Trustees. He was tasked with working with landowners on the island; and eventually, they began to donate their land. Sites including Cadillac Mountain, The Bubble Mountains, The Beehive, Sargent and the Jordan Mountains were given out of pureness of heart. These tremendous gifts, given with the best of intentions, were put into very able hands.

George Dorr knew that the only way to finally protect this land was to get national park status. In what probably became the most famous closed-door meeting between two men concerning the fate of a piece of land, Charles W. Eliot and George Dorr spoke about taking their cause to the federal government. The decision was made: George Dorr was to set off for Washington with the backing of Charles Eliot.

The plan was presented to President Woodrow Wilson, and Dorr and Eliot’s wish was granted. President Wilson named the land the Sieur de Monts National Monument in 1916. Three years later, in 1919, the island was given a designation that would make it a truly unique and historic place: It became the first national park east of the Mississippi River – Lafayette National Park.

Thanks to the efforts and love of his father, Charles Eliot’s dreams came to be.

In 1929, the park’s name was changed to Acadia National Park, and today is comprised of more than 47,000 acres of some of the most beautifully preserved land in the United States.

It became the first national park comprised totally of donated lands and continues to be a breathtaking treasure not just for Hancock County and the people of Maine, but for the world.

It is no coincidence that the deep familial connections we associate with special places had a hand in the formation of this destination. For the Eliots, a family vacation spot sparked a passion in their son, ultimately leading to a vision for a perfectly preserved and maintained park for the public to enjoy. The tragic death of Charles Eliot only stood to fuel the fire, giving a father the opportunity to cement his son’s legacy.

George Dorr’s passion for the park started in similar fashion, with family vacations that began when he was 14 years old. Dorr devoted his life to the preservation of a place that for many is synonymous with togetherness, goodwill and lasting memories.

We are not sure where the path of life will take us. But for these men, the paths happened to be the trails of a treasured piece of land, leading to the same place: The goal of sharing something incredible with the world.

Be unselfish. That is the first and final commandment for those who would be useful and happy in their usefulness. If you think of yourself only, you cannot develop because you are choking the source of development, which is spiritual expansion through thought for others.
– Charles W. Eliot