Acadia National Park visitors in search of sunset on Cadillac Mountain know from social media and the Internet that the best place to watch is from the Blue Hill Overlook. But late last year, workers removed the sign for the overlook and put up one that says “West Lot” instead.
And before the spot was named for its view west to Blue Hill in the late 1980s, visitors knew to flock to what was then called Sunset Point, as the official park map labeled it. But the crowds got so bad, “to alleviate evening traffic congestion, the National Park Service changed the name in 1988 from Sunset Point to Blue Hill Overlook,” according to the new and definitive book, Place Names of Mount Desert Island and the Cranberry Islands, Maine, by Henry A. Raup.
As Shakespeare wrote in Romeo and Juliet, “What’s in a name? A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”
Whether it’s called the West Lot, Blue Hill Overlook or Sunset Point, the view of the sunset on Cadillac from this very spot is, indeed, just as sweet. And visitors will eventually find it.
The renaming of Blue Hill Overlook to the West Lot is just the latest chapter in the long history of changing place names in Acadia and surrounding areas. Even the park itself went through several name changes, from the Sieur de Monts National Monument in 1916, to Lafayette National Park in 1919 and finally Acadia National Park in 1929.
What’s in a name? Sunset Point is Blue Hill Overlook is West Lot?
The name change from Sunset Point to Blue Hill Overlook did not reduce traffic problems at sunset on Cadillac, according to the NPS. Traffic congestion on Cadillac during the busy season was only eliminated with creation of a paid vehicle reservation system for the summit, now in its second year of operation between late May and late October after a pilot in 2020.
The new change to West Lot was done to provide a more generic name that would also illustrate the use of the lot for the vehicle reservation system with simply East and West lots, according to an Acadia National Park official.
But Raup, a retired geography professor whose place names book was published late last year, said he would have supported keeping the Blue Hill Overlook name and before that, probably would have left Sunset Point in place, too.
“They were much more descriptive than West Lot, which just sounds industrial,” he said in an interview.
“They’re trying to convert it into a parking lot instead of a viewpoint, it sounds like,” he added.
The NPS officially confirmed the name change to West Lot, calling it “the former Blue Hill Overlook” in the 2022 Superintendent’s Compendium, a summary of park-specific rules.
West Lot, a viewing area and lot built in 1966, may not be the final name for the best place to watch sunset on Cadillac. “We’re still looking at messaging regarding the lot,” Sean Bonnage, public affairs assistant at Acadia National Park, told us.
Preliminary planning and initial project scoping, funded by the Friends of Acadia, has also begun this year for an accessible path on Cadillac to link the 120-space main parking lot at the summit, now known as the East Lot, with the smaller 38-space West Lot, located about 0.2-mile short of the summit. According to Bonnage, the path will provide a clearer and safer connection for visitors including those seeking to watch sunset on Cadillac, or those arriving for sunrise, which is so popular that reservations often sell out in seconds.
Acadia National Park rarely approves new place names
Raup said it is unusual for modern-day Acadia National Park to approve new place names for park purposes, even if NPS recently dropped the Blue Hill Overlook name in favor of West Lot. Blue Hill Overlook was marked by a road sign and was often mentioned in park reports, including those on the historic trails network and transportation system. But it was not in the official US Geological Survey’s Board on Geographic Names database, which serves to standardize geographic name use throughout the federal government.
Since the death in 1944 of George B. Dorr, the “father of Acadia,” the National Park Service did propose one major name change: Dorr Mountain, replacing Flying Squadron Mountain, which Dorr petitioned for in 1918 as a substitute for Dry Mountain, to recognize American aviators during World War I.
Some of the renaming over the years has been fraught with controversy, especially during the early 20th century. Dorr, the park’s first superintendent, sparked an uproar among local residents in 1918 and 1919 when he successfully petitioned the Board on Geographic Names to change the name of a dozen mountains including Green Mountain to Cadillac, and Little Brown to Parkman to honor Dorr’s friend and Boston neighbor, historian Francis Parkman, according to Raup’s research.
Many local people were comfortable with the old names for the mountains and resisted the changes pushed by Dorr, who was born into Brahmin wealth and spent his family’s money to help create the park. Locals liked some of the old family names for mountains such as Acadia, which used to be Robinson, and Brown, now Norumbega; or traditional names like Picket, changed to Huguenot Head, and Dog, revised to Saint Sauveur.
Eight of the new mountain names stem from early French or English explorations and claims, Raup wrote, such as Western to Bernard, for Sir Francis Bernard, a British governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony who was granted ownership of Mount Desert Island and employed a heavy hand to impose taxes like the Stamp Act; Newport to Champlain, for Samuel de Champlain, who tagged Mount Desert Island when the Wabanaki knew it as “Pemetic,” meaning range of mountains; and the east peak of Western to Mansell after Sir Robert Mansell, a 17th-century vice admiral in the English Navy known for a bloddy sword duel in 1600 in which he severed the hand of his rival and was himself severely wounded.
Time to sunset Cadillac and other place names for colonialist roots?
Dorr’s decision to rename Acadia’s tallest mountain Cadillac commemorates French explorer and colonizer Antoine Laumet, Sieur de La Mothe Cadillac, and is drawing criticism more than a century later.
A new study, Words are Monuments: Patterns in US national park place names perpetuate settler colonial mythologies including white supremacy, published in April in the journal People and Nature, found 254 places names in national parks that memorialize settler colonialism including Cadillac Mountain in Acadia. The study referred to research that Cadillac, a fur trader, provided Native Americans with copious amounts of alcohol, distressing the Jesuits.
The study, completed by an assistant professor at Oregon State University and researchers at the Society for Conservation Biology in Washington, looked at 16 of the 62 US national parks including a dozen in the US West. The study warned: “All national parks examined have place names that tacitly endorse racist or, more specifically, anti-Indigenous ideologies,” sustaining settler colonialism and white supremacy for generations to come.
Raup also raises questions about naming the mountain Cadillac for historical reasons, although he’s not suggesting it be changed.
According to Raup, a French king confirmed in 1689 a land grant that gave Mount Desert Island to Cadillac and Cadillac declared himself “Lord of Frenchman Bay and Mount Desert” [English translation]. Better known for his founding of what is now the city of Detroit, Cadillac may have only lived around a year or two on MDI. “In view of Cadillac’s relatively minor role in Mount Desert history, and the dubious claim to his title, it is curious that the most important mountain on the island should receive his name,” Raup wrote.
Dorr, who traveled extensively in Europe and held degrees from Harvard and Oxford universities, was fond of the French and interested in tying history into the new mountain names, Raup said. “If he could bring in a French link somehow, he was happy to do that,” he said.
In the 16 national parks, the Words are Monuments study found four places commemorating black people or named for a black person including Frazer Point in Acadia. That’s a paucity of black representation especially considering that 52 place names in those same parks commemorate whites who perpetrated physical, racial violence, the study said.
Raup, who began compiling place names about 1980 as a seasonal park ranger at Acadia, also documented names of several geographic locations on Mount Desert Island that may be considered racist in modern times.
These include China Hill, within the park boundary in Tremont, and Negro Point near the head of MDI, both of which are found on maps and in the Board on Geographic Names’ database.
Raup’s book also documents old names like Squaw Hollow, an early 20th century summer camp for Wabanakis in Bar Harbor near the current Athletic Fields; and Devil’s Half Acre, also a Wabanaki camp in Bar Harbor before they were displaced by a real estate developer and moved to Squaw Hollow, but those aren’t in the Board on Geographic Names database.
Negro Point, located on the northwest shore of Mount Desert Island, was probably named for a small black population that lived there after the Civil War, according to Raup’s book. After the Civil War, a Maine officer helped some emancipated slaves settle in the area, and they worked raising an old wooden drawbridge over Mount Desert Narrows, the book said.
The name China Hill, a small summit south of Seal Cove Road within the park boundaries, may not be racist in itself but it was linked to the term “Chinaman,” according to Raup. The hill was named possibly for Daniel Cough, “a Chinaman, who owned it, but would not live there because he thought it was haunted,” according to an historic reference uncovered by Raup. Cough may have arrived in Maine as a stowaway and is said to have been the first person from China to have lived in Maine, settling in Bernard, raising a family and owning a store and land, according to the Southwest Harbor Public Library’s digital archive.
In the book, published by the Mount Desert Island Historical Society, Raup identifies almost 1,400 specific names, and 1,200 alternate or “variant” names, virtually all established since Champlain’s 1604 naming of the island itself.
Raup researched the origins of the names and wrote that it is rare that an actual origin can be documented, partly because old names came into oral use before they appeared in print.
“So many names just evolved through time and the origin has long since been lost,” he said.
Origins of some place names in Acadia lost with the passage of time
The origins of some names in Acadia National Park are unknown including Aunt Betty Pond, Baker Island, Compass Harbor, Conners Nubble, Day Mountain, Flying Mountain and Kebo Mountain – “one of the great puzzles of Mount Desert Island place names,” Raup wrote. Even the genesis of Frenchman Bay remains unclear. There are different accounts and explanations of the origins of certain names like Baker, Frenchman Bay and Kebo but in many cases, none can be documented, he wrote.
And while Raup’s book doesn’t go into great length about original Native American names, he cites an article that is available on the Abbe Museum website, Naming the Dawnland – Wabanaki Place Names on Mount Desert Island.
Raup, a retired professor of geography at Western Michigan University, said he grew up with place names and was inspired to write the book by his father, Hallock F. Raup, who worked for the US Geological Survey’s Board on Geographic Names.
He said it took him 40 years to research and write the 644-page book. “It is a hobby,” he said. “Some people like to play cards or play tennis. I like to run down odd place names.”
Raup’s book is easy to read and contains many details and vignettes about the history of place names in Acadia National Park and the islands.
“It’s not really a book intended to be read. It is like a dictionary. But I am getting quite a few reports of people who are reading cover to cover. That is not just the way you read this kind of book as a rule. You use it as a reference, but I guess there is enough interest, people just want to read it from page one. I can’t complain.”
Raup said he would love to hear from people with an interest in Mount Desert Island place names and can be reached at [email protected]
This is also a review of Raup’s fascinating book, which is well worth the praise lavished upon it.
Many who watched the sunset from the West Lot when it was known as Blue Hill Overlook probably assumed that they were parked on a small hill at Cadillac’s summit called “Blue Hill” and were not aware that they were looking at a hill located almost 40 miles away by road. It is only recently widely acknowledged that the official summit of Cadillac, called Mount Desert, is not near the Summit Path.
Thanks, Jim. Yes, the name “Blue Hill Overlook” was probably not the best choice. The name apparently was chosen intentionally to discourage people from going to the viewing area for sunset in order to reduce traffic congestion. That did not work and now the vehicle reservation system is doing the job. We support the vehicle reservation system. We understand that people can’t be spontaneous and drive up Cadillac any time they want between end of May and end of October, but what was the NPS supposed to do with traffic congestion on Cadillac? Allow chaotic, dangerous traffic congestion and clear it when necessary? That’s not a great option. The vehicle reservation system was the best way to improve the experience and parking on Cadillac.
Okay thanks do I go today or tomorrow or next week