After he graduated from Harvard in 1880, Roosevelt vacationed near Schooner Head on Mount Desert, partly to inspire writing of his epic “The Naval War of 1812.” Roosevelt was also drawn to the island by the landscape paintings of Mount Desert by two of his favorite artists – Frederic Church and Thomas Cole of the Hudson River School.
Roosevelt, then 22, was joined on the island that summer by two friends, Dick Saltonstall and Jack Tebbetts, and later, Alice Lee, who would become his first wife.
“He was lulled by the murmuring ocean, he picked baskets of cranberries, collected shellfish in the tidal marsh and gathered wild berries, and when Alice .. arrived, strolled ‘with my darling in the woods and on the rocky shores’,” according to “The Wilderness Warrior,” a biography of Roosevelt by Douglas Brinkley, a professor of history at Rice University in Texas who quoted from Roosevelt’s diaries.
Even though a doctor at Harvard warned Roosevelt that year that his heart was “terribly weak” and he could die young, Roosevelt rode horseback, hiked and sailed while visiting Mount Desert, Brinkley wrote. A “favorite locale” was 1,530-foot Cadillac Mountain, then called Green Mountain.
Roosevelt, and his fifth cousin, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, along with Eleanor Roosevelt – wife of FDR and niece of Theodore Roosevelt – are now being featured in “The Roosevelts: An intimate history,” a seven-part series on public television by filmmaker Ken Burns.
FDR and Acadia’s CCC camps
The policies of the two Roosevelt presidents were important in helping create and maintain Acadia National Park.
In the depths of the Great Depression, Franklin Roosevelt, starting his first of four terms, signed a bill in 1933 to establish the Civilian Conservation Corps, which employed more than 3 million young men across the nation. Corps members worked on projects in parks and forests across the country including Acadia.
The work of the Corps was vital to Acadia. One of the Corps’s first camps was near Eagle Lake, now the site of park headquarters, and a second – the Great Pond Camp – was set up close to Southwest Harbor.
“During the nine years the CCC was stationed at Acadia, they completed hundreds of projects,” said a park service fact sheet on the Corps.
“Out of more than 4,000 camps that would eventually be created, only 100 would run the entire span of the program including the two on Mount Desert Island,” the fact sheet said.
The Corps built the park’s two campgrounds, Blackwoods and Seawall, and hauled away thousands of dead or downed trees.
The Corps constructed the iconic Ocean Path and did the back-breaking work to build the Perpendicular Trail, a near-vertical climb up hundreds of stone steps to 949-foot Mansell Mountain west of Somes Sound.
Theodore Roosevelt and the Antiquities Act
Theodore Roosevelt, who served as president from 1901 to 1909, lay groundwork for Acadia and other national parks when he signed the Antiquities Act in 1906. The disputed law allows presidents to go around an often divided Congress and use executive orders to preserve parks and public lands.
And it may have been his trips as a young man to Mount Desert Island and other parts of Maine that sowed the seeds for his strong conservationist presidency.
According to the Theodore Roosevelt Association’s Web site, “TR’s love of the outdoors and his lifelong conservation ethic was nurtured early in his adult life by two friends, the skilled Maine hunting guides Bill Sewall and Wilmot Dow.” Sewall’s house, in Island Falls, near Baxter State Park, is now a yoga retreat run by his great granddaughter, Donna Sewall Davidge, and on the National Register of Historic Places.
And according to a Theodore Roosevelt biography that focuses on his relationship with Sewall, “Becoming Teddy Roosevelt,” by Andrew Vietze, the future president stayed at the family home of friend Jack Tebbetts near Schooner Head when visiting Mount Desert Island.
While there, he would have been inspired by the same scenery as the Acadia visionary, George B. Dorr.
So perhaps it is only fitting that at the urging of Dorr, nearly four decades after Theodore Roosevelt’s visit to Mount Desert Island, President Woodrow Wilson used the TR-signed Antiquities Act to designate land on Mount Desert as Sieur de Monts National Monument on July 8, 1916. Acadia will celebrate its centennial on that date in 2016.
Wilson on Feb. 26 of 1919 signed a bill passed by Congress to create Lafayette National Park and a decade later it was renamed Acadia.
When Congress passed the Antiquities Act, its sponsors intended it as a way to protect ruins and archaeological sites in the Southwest, according to a 1989 article by Robert W. Righter that is posted on the web site of the National Park Service. But the wording of the act was vague enough that Theodore Roosevelt used it to designate the Grand Canyon a National Monument. A series of other presidents, including FDR and Jimmy Carter, also employed the act to set aside national monuments that later became national parks, according to Righter.
Peaks of Mount Desert Island build character of future president
When he visited Mount Desert Island in 1880, Theodore Roosevelt likely never imagined that it would become the centerpiece for a national park some 40 years later.
He definitely, however, appreciated the beauty of Thunder Hole and other sites. Already an accomplished ornithologist, he decided against collecting birds on Mount Desert but he grew exuberant over the “sheer diversity” of avian life, Brinkley wrote.
“Seabirds such as jaegers, shearwaters, puffins, and razorbills were everywhere, prancing around in the surf then flying away when the shades of twilight fell under the full onset of the sea,” he wrote. “At Thunder Hole, Theodore and Alice sat entranced as sea water waves rushed in and out of a perfectly formed cave while debonair black skimmers circled above.”
And during a climb up 1,058-foot Newport, later renamed Champlain, Roosevelt displayed the bull-headed determination that marked his long career in politics and years as an adventurer.
During his stay, he became horribly ill with gastroenteritis.
Nonetheless, he decided to hike Newport, figuring it might serve as a cure, Brinkley wrote.
“Given that he was ill, Roosevelt’s mountaineering feat at Newport can be attributed only to sheer will — a will ever growing, ever persistent in overcoming obstacles.”
On the peaks of Mount Desert Island, the character of a future president was being built.
And a half century later, another Roosevelt president would help build Acadia and America out of the Great Depression.