(HOST) Commentator Willem Lange recently spent a few days hiking in Acadia National Park. While there, he was – of course – reminded of a story.
(LANGE) The summer of 1947 was one of the driest on record in Maine. The autumn rains failed, and by late fall the state was tinder-dry. On the afternoon of October 17 the Bar Harbor Fire Department, on Mount Desert Island, got a report of smoke rising from a cranberry bog.
It was a tough little fire, smoldering underground, but hardly out of control. But on the 21st the wind picked up to near-gale force, fanning the flames into the spruce forest downwind of the bog, and suddenly the island was faced with a wide, fast-moving fire headed straight for the town.
The town was a summer resort of the wealthy – think John D. Rockefeller and J.P. Morgan – so the fire became international news. But the locals were faced with the loss of their homes, and were cut off, besides. All the roads between Bar Harbor and the mainland ran through the flames. Local fishermen came to the rescue, but many residents, looking at the smoke behind them and the gale on the sea ahead of them, opted to stay on the town pier. It turned out to be the better choice; bulldozers cleared a path on the highway, and a caravan of cars made it through.
Before the fire was extinguished in November, it had consumed over 17,000 acres, 170 homes, five grand hotels, and 67 summer estates. Acadia National Park, comprising most of the interior of the island, lost over 10,000 acres of forest.
I’ve been here a few days with a television crew obsessed with filming sunrises and sunsets, which disrupts normal dining patterns. We leave our cabin before five, catch a cup of coffee and a muffin at a convenience store, and at the end of the day take pizza and beer back to our cottage. Barbaric, if you ask me.
The great fire of 1947 changed Mount Desert dramatically. The days of the fabulously wealthy were in decline already, and the destruction of the summer estates pretty much closed them out. The roads into Bar Harbor now are lined with hotels, motels, resorts, and chichi shops and restaurants. Traffic is bumper-to-bumper. We tried to dine downtown, but were thwarted by an absence of parking space. Thus the pizza and beer back at the cottage.
The park’s infrastructure and regulations are works of genius, and the hordes of vacationers we’ve met have been uniformly pleasant – even the college students we met on Cadillac Mountain. They’d gotten up at two to hike to the top for the sunrise. They should join a TV crew.
Yesterday morning we hiked up Cadillac Mountain: a couple of miles over open ledges that were denuded by the fire, and left to regenerate on their own. The summit was crowded with sightseers. But there were no sights to see – unless you count pea-soup fog.
I’m about to start home – 300 miles, six and a half hours. There’s almost no traffic going in my direction this morning. Coming toward me it’s bumper-to-bumper. Time to get out of here.
This is Willem Lange in Bar Harbor, Maine, and I gotta get back to work!