The
FIRE
of
1947

In the heart of an American playground, tragedy ravaged a celebrated and revered landscape in the fall of 1947. Mount Desert Island, a small mountainous retreat off the coast of Maine had played host to the rich and famous since the mid 1800s. In the midst of fetes, selfindulgent pastimes and mansions, a conservation effort sprung up led by those concerned with environmental preservation. This extraordinary effort yielded Sieur de Monts National Monument in 1916, which transitioned to LaFayette National Park in 1919, and finally became Acadia in 1929. Here, where the "rusticators" had found serenity on the quiet island nearly a century before, the "Great Fire" of 1947 decimated the wooded scenery which had attracted such national attention.

An unusually dry season had plagued not only the island, but most of the state. The fall rains which replenish the ponds and dampen the forest floor failed to make their appearance. In the wake of a hot and enjoyable summer, the Maine woods became a prime habitat for potential sparks. During the dry fall, fires around Maine and parts of New England became a common and deadly occurrence. "The situation became so explosive that the Governor of Maine declared a state of emergency, closing woods to the use of fires, general travel, etc. After the 23rd [October] the President declared a national emergency existed." 1 By the end of 1947, approximately 213,547 acres of Maine land had succumbed to fire. The Great Bar Harbor fire which devastated 17,188 acres on MDI, constituted 8% of the total destruction that year. 2

Mount Desert Island possesses only one true connection to the mainland; a small bridge reaching from the tip of the main island to Thompson Island, over the Mount Desert Narrows, and finally into Trenton. Any threat of fire on the island is a serious matter, especially due to this "bottleneck" effect for evacuation procedures by land. With a population of several thousand spread across the small communities, and a majority of the island covered by woodlands, the dry conditions set the stage for a potentially deadly affair.

The town of Bar Harbor, largest of the island communities, relied heavily on its small fire department to save not only the woodlands surrounding the town, but the impressive "summer cottages" constructed by the summer visitors. Wealthy individuals built lavish mansions and extensive gardens on their expensive properties. In Bar Harbor itself, large wooden hotels had been common for almost a century, catering to the visitors who had not managed to carve out a piece of the island for themselves. Richard Hale Jr. writes, "from July on, in front of the Bar Harbor Firehouse hangs a placard, telling the degree of fire danger. This custom was suspended during WWII, as giving out information that might aid the enemy, but it was promptly resumed in 1945, after VE Day." 3 The weather conditions were certainly dangerous as the placard indicated that month, but a primarily wooden community on the doorstep of a National Park tempted disaster.

A picturesque and overgrown cranberry bog, adjacent to "Dolliver's Dump" began to smoke on a fall afternoon. The source of the original fire has been greatly contested, either stemming from human activity or bottles magnifying the light. However, as most of the accounts attest, those involved with fighting the fire were far more concerned with stopping the blaze than determining the exact source for posterity. October 17, at approximately 4:05 PM the Bar Harbor Fire Department received the call from the dump, reporting the fateful fire.4

As recorded by Hale, fire was not an uncommon event in Maine, and "all hands turn out to fight it."5 This was certainly true of the many fires around the state, and especially on MDI. The report by Capt. John Heath and Chief David Sleeper of the Bar Harbor Fire Department indicate that, "unlike the fire fighting in other sections of the state at the time, where confusion and divided command was a handicap, the fighting on Mount Desert Island was exceptionally marked by a central command at all times which coordinated all the various units in a well planned attack."6

Newsreel footage of the Bar Harbor Fire. (Courtesy of Northeast Historic Film)
Courtesy of UMaine Digital Commons Special Collections