Following in the footsteps of George Dorr, “father of Acadia”

From the top of Cadillac to the garden-like paths around Sieur de Monts, from the stacks at Jesup Memorial Library to the labs of 2 major research institutions on Mount Desert Island, the presence of George Dorr can be felt.

george dorr

Ronald H. Epp’s biography of George Dorr is published by the Friends of Acadia.

Not only was Dorr the “father of Acadia,” he had a hand in creating Bar Harbor’s public library, the Wild Gardens of Acadia and surrounding paths, MDI Biological and Jackson laboratories, and Abbe Museum. George Dorr even played a role in renaming some of the 26 peaks of Acadia, among them Green and Robinson to the now-iconic Cadillac and Acadia mountains.

These, and other fascinating aspects of the life and impact of Dorr, can be found in historian Ronald H. Epp’s new Dorr biography, “Creating Acadia National Park,” published by the Friends of Acadia on the occasion of the park’s Centennial.

The more than 2 million visitors a year who come from across the country and around the world to admire the beauty of Acadia National Park have George Dorr, in large part, to thank. Yet Dorr’s story and the role he played in shaping Acadia, conservation, Mount Desert Island and beyond, have been largely untold – until now.

“Dorr was not a major historical figure,” writes Epp in his introduction to the first-ever biography of Dorr. “Nor was he recognized as an administrator jockeying for ever-more important positions of responsibility. Unlike John Muir, his published writings did not transform national policy.”

George B. Dorr is father of Acadia National Park

George Dorr’s spirit lives on in this historic photo, which was once on display at the Sieur de Monts area of  Acadia National Park.

Yet, Epp writes, “this grand old man of the National Park Service on Mount Desert Island brought about a federal investment in the conservation of nearly half the landmass of the island. The resultant loss of property tax revenue was offset by the ever-growing number of visitors that clearly contributed to village prosperity. At the county level, Dorr extended the scope of Acadia National Park beyond Mount Desert Island, to other shorelines and islands within Hancock County.”

The legacy of the Boston Brahmin and lifelong bachelor, who used his energy, connections and family wealth to create Acadia, lives on not only along the trails he helped build, from Beachcroft Path to Kurt Diederich’s Climb, or atop the coastal peaks and ridgelines he helped preserve.

Dorr’s gift to the generations can also be felt in the region’s cultural and scientific institutions, and even offers a perspective on the current debate over the attempt by Burt’s Bees founder Roxanne Quimby and family, to donate private land for a national monument or park in Maine’s North Woods.

Honor George Dorr by taking a hike, giving back to Acadia

A tour of the Compass Harbor trail at Acadia National Park

Former Acadia National Park volunteer Jim Allen, standing to the far right, leads a tour of George Dorr’s “Missing Mansion” on the Compass Harbor Trail. A cruise ship and Bald Porcupine Island are in the background.

Here are some ways to pay homage to George Dorr this Acadia Centennial year, by following in his footsteps and learning of his impact, as documented by Epp, Acadia National Park Ranger Maureen Fournier who wrote the foreword to Dorr’s book, former Acadia volunteer Jim Allen who helped create the “Missing Mansion” ranger-led tour of the site of Dorr’s former estate at Compass Harbor, and other resources.

  1. Take a “Missing Mansion” tour– The “Missing Mansion” tour, researched and developed a few years ago by Fournier, Allen and others, is an easy 0.4-mile walk along the Compass Harbor Trail, where you learn about the man who helped create Acadia, and look for clues to where his Old Farm estate once stood. The tour has gotten so popular, that some dates and times require reservations, according to the online park calendar. Just over a year ago, as part of getting ready for the Centennial, the National Park Service erected a wayside exhibit at the start of the Compass Harbor Trail, to allow visitors to do a self-guided tour of the site. And if you happen to have a copy of our Hiking Acadia National Park book, the Compass Harbor Trail chapter is a perfect accompaniment for such a self-guided hike, since it includes details from Epp’s writings and a ranger-led tour.
  2. Hike Beachcroft Path – You can literally walk in George Dorr’s footsteps by hiking this
    George B. Dorr is father of Acadia National Park

    George B. Dorr on Beachcroft Path in Acadia National Park. (NPS photo)

    trail, and standing next to the same glacially deposited erratic as he did, as depicted in an historic photograph. The trailhead is across ME 3 from the Tarn parking lot, just south of the Sieur de Monts park entrance. We include this path as part of a series of historic hiking trail highlights leading up to the Acadia Centennial, which we’ll be further expanding on this blog as part of our commitment as Acadia Centennial Partners. Other nearby paths designed by Dorr that would also be worthy of a hike in his memory: Kurt Diederich’s Climb and Homans Path.

  3. Visit Sieur de Monts – The original heart of Acadia, this area features the Nature Center, Wild Gardens of Acadia, the seasonal Abbe Museum, a memorial to Dorr and the Sieur de Monts Spring Pool, which was recently rehabilitated back to Dorr’s original landscaped vision. The Island Explorer bus, which runs June 23 through Columbus Day, stops here. A special ribbon-cutting ceremony at the Nature Center on June 25, “Park Science Day,” to debut new exihibits there, is part of the park’s Centennial celebration.
  4. Learn more about Dorr’s contributions to science and natural history – As part of its Acadia Centennial celebration, MDI Biological Laboratory is featuring an Art Meets Science exhibition from June 20 through Sept. 30, which features science-inspired art by local, national and international artists, as well as pays homage to Dorr, who convinced the lab to locate on MDI years ago. The College of the Atlantic’s George Dorr Museum of Natural History, housed in the original headquarters for Acadia, is hosting an opening reception for the season on June 21, to celebrate the college’s close connection to the park.

    acadia virtual race medal

    The Acadia Centennial Trek Medal helps raise funds for Acadia.

  5. Listen to Epp and Fournier speak of George Dorr – Epp will speak of his biography during an authors’ night at the College of the Atlantic on July 19 and at the Blue Hill Library on August 19, details available on the official online Centennial calendar. Fournier will speak at an Acadia Centennial Trek meet-up we’re sponsoring on June 1 at the Side Street Café in Bar Harbor. The Trek is a free year-long 100-mile virtual race that celebrates Acadia’s trails, and an optional Acadia Centennial Trek Medal is available for purchase to help raise funds for the park.
  6. Climb Dorr Mountain – Acadia’s 3rd highest peak at 1,270 feet, Dorr was named after the “father of Acadia” posthumously, on June 15, 1945, according to Epp’s biography. Once called Dry and then Flying Squadron Mountain, Dorr rises steeply from the Tarn and the Sieur de Monts Spring area, and is across the gorge from Cadillac. Dorr’s successor as Acadia superintendent, Benjamin Hadley, argued that to keep Dorr’s memory alive, a physical feature of the park should be named after him, since “he was a man of rugged stature, of rock-like integrity, and of eminent scholarly attainments and culture,” as cited in Epp’s biography.
  7. Pay respects to Dorr’s memory – Visit the memorial behind the Nature Center at the Sieur de Monts area, and ponder his legacy, and the words inscribed there.

    george dorr

    The original memorial to George Dorr burned in the Great Fire of 1947. This is the replacement, behind the Nature Center at Sieur de Monts.

There is no gravesite to visit to pay one’s respects, for Dorr was cremated and his ashes scattered at a private spot he had selected.

Over the years, a fictional anecdote spread, that 2 aristocratic ladies sipping tea in Bar Harbor saw some of his ashes being scattered from a plane, drifting down into their teacups. One of the women reportedly said, “Oh dear, it’s Mr. Dorr.”

The fiction, repeated in Dayton Duncan and Ken Burns’s book and documentary, “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea,” is debunked in Epp’s biography. Dorr’s ashes were “scattered near Beaver Dam Pool at the northwestern foot of Champlain Mountain,” according to Dorr’s successor Hadley, as quoted by Epp. It had been a favorite spot of his mother Mary Dorr’s, and where he had built a bicycle path in 1895.

Perhaps the best way to pay respect to Dorr’s memory, suggests Epp in his epilogue, is to carry on Dorr’s passion for Acadia, and for conservation.

“Dorr’s fortune was not his family inheritance, despite its utility in purchasing hundreds of land parcels on Mount Desert Island,” Epp concludes. “Long before his death, those who knew him best recognized that this designed, public, federally protected park was his fortune. We who live on into the second century of Acadia National Park are challenged in many ways unanticipated by Acadia’s founders. As the stewards of this fortune – citizens, park advocates, and civil servants – it remains to be seen whether we can carry forward the ideals of this phenomenal conservationist.”

george dorr

The words of George Dorr, on display in the Schoodic section of the park.

8 thoughts on “Following in the footsteps of George Dorr, “father of Acadia”

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  6. James Linnane

    What a great post. Really sorry I’m going to miss Maureen’s talk. That the park is finally recognizing Dorr by conducting tours at Compass Harbor is wonderful. For too long it was an embarassment. Thank you, Maureen, for bringing Compass Harbor out of the ANP closet.

    I love reading John Muir. If ever prose was poetry it was written by Muir, and Yosemite is a glamor star amongst national parks. Dorr did not have such a way with words, and Acadia is small and out of the way in the far northeastern corner of the country. Dorr had as much impact as Muir in his way, however, because he preserved the most beautiful place in the eastern US as a national park and did it all through persistent persuasion of private donors and single minded pursuit of his dream, even when Washington was distracted by war. Following Acadia’s founding, Dorr served as superintendent and guided Acadia to maturity.

    It would be fitting if the name of Cadillac were stripped from Acadia’s highest peak and bestowed elsewhere. Cadillac, apparently a fraud, had little to do with Acadia except as an absentee landlord. The highest peak should be called Mount Dorr.

    Reply
    1. Acadia on my mind Post author

      Thank you, Jim, for your comment! We’re going to miss you, too, at the Acadia Centennial Trek meet-up, but perhaps we’ll host another one the week of July 4 when we are next up. If we get Maureen’s permission, and that of Gary Allen’s, perhaps we will videotape their remarks on June 1, and post it on YouTube and share on our blog and Facebook. Ron Epp’s Dorr biography, along with the park’s new wayside exhibit at the start of the Compass Harbor Trail and Missing Mansion tour, as well as other Centennial events, are rightfully putting attention on George Dorr. And many of the challenges he and his peers faced in trying to conserve land, still face this country today. Thank you again, Jim, for your insights.

      Doubt the US Board of Geographic Names would go along with a proposal to change Cadillac’s name. And let us hope we won’t be seeing any kind of sponsorship relating to the car in the park anytime soon….

      Reply

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