Acadia Creation Myth
Acadia was Federalized for political protection against a local revolt, not a gift
August 3, 2022
The common account of Acadia National Park we have heard over and over — so many times that it has become rote mantra — is that Acadia was a gift from the Rockefellers, no one there has lost land, and without the Park humanity would not have Cadillac Mountain on the ocean. We are expected to be thankful, with hushed adulation. And this, we are told, justifies bringing in the National Park Service elsewhere in Maine. Free money will fall from the sky amidst scenic splendor and no one will be hurt. Utopia will come to Earth.
Those who believe any of that from the incessant repetition of the Acadia myth may be forgiven for some confusion, but none of it is true.
Acadia was not created from a gift. The National Park Service at Acadia as a Federal agency (and its founders) have been just as arrogant in bullying as other places NPS controls. NPS did not create the mountain over the ocean, will not recreate them anywhere else, and does not cause money to flow from the air. The National Park Service is a Federal bureaucracy that is allowed to take over areas, often with spectacular scenery and sometime less (and sometimes turkeys), but these areas are what they already were, except that local people no longer have rights they once did.
But let us focus here on the Acadia Creation Myth promoted as a founding Gift.
The early land aquired for what is now Acadia was accumulated from multiple owners by the first land trust in Maine, the Trustees for Reservations. Chartered in 1903 as a tax–free corporation, it was organized by the “Rusticators” on Mt. Desert Island — wealthy summer mansion owners, some by inheritance, attracted by the scenery to Bar Harbor and who wanted the views of the land around them preserved in what was already a very prosperous area and elite resort.
John D. Rockefeller Jr. was a member of the Trustees, but not especially prominent in it, having bought his summer mansion in 1910 (according to the Robin Winks 1997 biography of his son Laurance).
The history of the founding of Acadia is told in the autobiographical account by George B. Dorr, one of the wealthy Rusticators from Boston, who having inherited a textile fortune made his career the running of the Trustees and then Park Superintendent. Dorr, known as the “Father of Acadia”, published his account in The Story of Acadia National Park, 1942 & 1948, reprinted in one volume by Acadia Publishing Co., 1985.
His account is politically self–serving, as would be expected, but nevertheless reveals quite a bit in the self–righteous open hubris of that era.
The publisher of Dorr's book (1985 edition) described it as “a forest of political intrigues, favors called in, land speculation, the rebellion of the 'locals', an the unlimited use of reputations, power and money". Dorr's campaign took him "into the parlors and dining rooms of America's elite, through the halls of Congress, and finally right into the Oval Office itself”.
The Rusticators donated land to the Trustees, but Dorr also aggressively pressured others whose land he wanted, engaging in a variety of arm–twisting. When it wasn't enough, he went to his cronies in the state legislature seeking state eminent domain power over all of Mount Desert Island. He got part of it, and used it.
A “Gift” to Stop a Revolt
Dorr and the others had no intention of establishing a government park, let alone giving the land around them away to anyone. But the locals were revolting, and in 1913 Dorr was tipped off that the legislature was considering revoking the Trustees' tax–free charter.
Dorr rushed to Augusta from Boston and successfully lobbied to block the revolt in the legislature, but the Trustees still feared the locals' backlash. Dorr decided to seek Federal protection for the Rusticators' interests and spent a year in Washington exploiting connections to lobby officials of all kinds, including President Wilson personally.
Wanting to bypass any requirement for Congressional approval, Dorr settled on the strategy of a National Monument to be unilterally imposed under the 1906 Antiquities Act. The Antiquities Act had been passed to allow a President to unilaterally preserve the smallest land area feasible, on land already in Federal ownership, to protect ancient artifacts, emphasizing Indian ruins and artifacts in the southwest as “historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest”
In 1916 Dorr turned over the deeds for approximately 5,000 acres as President Wilson was pressured to proclaim the entire holdings to become the Sieur de Monts National Monument on July 8, despite Wilson's doubts about the legality.
They decided that the land as a whole qualified as geological and historical because the mountain was [like the topography everywhere else] formed by glaciers, and French settlers had been there [like the rest of the region], making exactly his whole 5,000 acres happen to qualify while knowing fully well that this had never been the motive. Dorr subsequently turned back to rhapsodizing about scenery as the “need for more land, much more”.
The new Monument was managed by the slightly newer National Park Service created the next month. Subsequent legislation in 1919 turned it into Lafayette National Park, then expanded it under the name Acadia National Park in 1929.
The same “Gift–Monument” maneuver to buy government policy was subsequently employed for controversial NPS takeovers of a combined over hundred thousand acres at Jacksone Hole in Wyoming (by Laurance Rockefeller) in 1943 and Katahdin in Maine (by Roxanne Quimby) in 2016 with decrees by Franklin Roosevelt and Barack Obama, resp., both also despite overwhelming local opposition to a new Federal presence.
The whole Acadia creation affair, including the misuse of the Antiquities Act and the pressure tactics and eminent domain by the elitists that had caused the local revolt, was pure insider political corruption by the powerful all the way. Yet the overt buying of Federal power for the elitist Rusticators' political interests against local people in revolt has been sanitized and promoted as a great “gift” to the “public” ever since.
Provoking emotional rapture over scenic imagery while invoking the “public good”, exploited to irrationally swamp the most basic ethics, is a pervasive trend in National Park politics.
Repeating the Gift of Condemnation on a Grand Scale
JD Rockefeller Jr and other wealthy donors, promoters, and politicians provided another “gift” sacrificing people — many many more — to the “public good”: They arranged for and funded mass condemnations, again using state eminent domain authority. They removed thousands of rural mountain people for the new Smoky Mountains and Shenandoah National Parks in the southeast in the 1930s — for the benefit of urban tourists in the east, “a day's drive away”. The displaced people had been assured they could stay, while the plans were hidden from them to avoid a public backlash. These parks, too, are still extolled as great gifts. Winks' biography of Laurance Rockefeller calls it “celebrating and protecting Appalachian landscape and culture”.
See for example:
- Sue Eisenfeld's Shenandoah: A Story of Conservation and Betrayal, 2014
- Durwood Dunn's Cades Cove: The Life and Death of a Southern Appalachian Community 1818-1937, 1988, especially Chapter 10 "Death by Eminent Domain".
The National Park Service in 1982 produced a video on Shendandoah sold and shown to millions of park visitors, The Gift, “which perpetrated the idea of the property as a gift and depicted the mountain residents as poor, illiterate, filthy, barefoot hillbillies who raped the land with their industry.” (Eisenfeld, 2014). The video was revised in 2001 to admit the forced removals of the helpless residents, but the revised promotion, still being shown, diminishes the significance and acknowledges no violation of ethics; it promotes the sacrifices as for a greater good of urban tourists: “And so it is that citizens of this country and the world now have the good fortune to enjoy the blessings and restorative powers of this beautiful place made special by the foresight, dedication and sacrifice of those people who previously passed [sic] this way.”
Can we say it again? Provoking emotional rapture over scenic imagery while invoking the “public good”, exploited to irrationally swamp the most basic ethics, is a pervasive trend in National Park politics. Only the National Park Service could get away with turning corruption and abuse on a mass scale against rural populations into politically self-serving promotion for a century as a great “gift”.
Evolving Boundary Law at Acadia Brings Back Condemnation
JD Rockefeller Jr. and others subsequently transferred a lot of additional land around them — but there was no gift of their own mansions and grounds — to Acadia. The surrounding preserved land grew in an ever-expanding Federal area at the expense of local ownership, the private economy and the local tax base — it was kept as the donors wanted through Federal control, with others unable to live there.
This included the formal carriage trails built by Rockefeller, who had a long–standing dispute with the town over his desire to exclude the new–fangled automobiles from the luxury wilderness, manicured as formal landcaping (recounted by Dorr and the Winks sympathetic biography of Laurance Rockefeller.)
But the National Park Service at Acadia was prohibited by law from directly buying or condemning property — the wealthy Rusticators did not want their own privately kept prime land taken by eminent domain. The 1929 Acadia law allowed expansion only by donation and exchange anywhere in Hancock and parts of Knox Counties.
The 1929 arrangement at Acadia prohibiting further eminent domain lasted until new legislation in 1982 and 1986 expanded the park boundaries, allowing for the first time at Acadia Federal condemnation of private property — which does not include the land of the Rockefellers and others with political influence.
The new legislation was devastating to the new inholders trapped inside acquisition boundaries and who had been told there would be no eminent domain — in typical broken promises of the raw, nasty National Park politics they had no control over, no say in, and no knowledge of.
It was a Washington “compromise” between two factions: the towns wanted fixed boundaries to stop the Park from progressively taking over land across two counties through the land “gifts” by the wealthy seeking to avoid high taxes; the NPS lobby wanted more expansion by their “traditional” eminent domain used at other parks. We (begin to) cover the modern Acadia details under its new condemnation powers here.
Last Update: 9/26/22