Maine: An Encyclopedia

Mount Desert, Fires of 1947

Through the summer and into the fall of 1947 Maine received only 50% of its normal rainfall. Vegetation dries; water supplies dwindled. But the autumn rains never came and by mid-October, Mount Desert Island was experiencing the driest conditions ever recorded. The stage was set for a disastrous blaze in the state’s history of forest fires.

On Friday, October 17, 1947, the fire department received a call reporting smoke rising from a cranberry bog. No one knows what started the fire, but once ignited, the fire smoldered underground eventually creating an inferno that burned nearly half the eastern side of Mount Desert Island and made international news.

In its first three days, the fire burned a relatively small area, blackening only 169 acres. But on October 21st, strong winds fanned the flames and the blaze spread rapidly engulfing over 2,000 acres. Personnel from the Army Air Corps, Navy, Coast Guard, University of Maine forestry program, and Bangor Theological Seminary joined local fire fighting crews. National Park Service employees flew in from parks throughout the East and additional experts in the West were put on standby.

The pace of the blaze intensified and nearly 2300 acres burned on October 22nd. The fire crossed Route 233 and continued along the western shore of Eagle Lake. On the morning of October 23, the wind shifted, pushing one finger of the fire toward Hulls Cove. Firefighters shifted their efforts in an attempt to squelch the threat to that community. But in the afternoon, the wind suddenly turned again and increased to gale proportions, as a dry cold front moved through, sending the inferno directly toward Bar Harbor.

In less than three hours the wildfire traveled six miles, leaving behind a three-mile wide path of destruction. The fire swept down Millionaires’ Row, an impressive collection of majestic summer cottages on the shore of Frenchman Bay. Sixty-seven of these seasonal estates were destroyed. The fire skirted the business district, but razed 170 permanent homes and five large historic hotels in the area surrounding downtown Bar Harbor.

Bar Harbor residents not actively engaged in fire fighting tried to find safety, fleeing first to the athletic field and later to the town pier. At one point all roads from the town were blocked by flames, so fishermen from nearby Winter Harbor, Gouldsboro, and Lamoine prepared to help with a mass exodus by boat. At least 400 people left by sea. Finally, by 9 PM, bulldozers opened a pathway through the rubble on Route 3 and a caravan of 700 cars carrying 2000 people began the slow trip to safety in Ellsworth. According to eyewitness reports, it was a terrifying drive – cars were pelted by sparks and fames flickered overhead. But the motorcade was orderly and successful, an uplifting end to a day that saw close to 11,000 additional acres blackened.

From Bar Harbor, the blaze raced down the coast almost to Otter Point, engulfing and destroying the Jackson Laboratory on its way. The fire blew itself out over the ocean in a massive fireball. Almost 2000 more acres burned before the fire was declared under control on October 27. Organic soil and vegetation on the forest floor, along with matted tree roots infiltrating deeply around granite boulders, aided stubborn underground fires. Even weeks later, after rain and snow had fallen, fire still smoldered below ground. The fire was not pronounced completely out until November 14.

In all, some 17,188 acres burned, over 10,000 acres of which was in Acadia National Park. Property damage exceeded twenty-three million dollars. Considering the magnitude of the fire, loss of human life had been minimal. An unknown number of animals died, but park rangers believe that most outran the fire and found safety in ponds and lakes.

Once the fire was over crews logged selected park areas for timber salvage and clean-up. Some timber was milled, slash was burned, and other logs were left to prevent soil erosion.

The forests that exist today returned naturally. Wind carried seeds back into burned areas and some deciduous trees regenerated by stump sprouts or suckers. Spruce and fir that reigned before the fire have given way to sun-loving trees, such as birch and aspen. As these deciduous trees grow and begin to shade out the forest floor, they provide a nursery for the shade-loving spruce and fir which may eventually reclaim the territory.

Fire has an important natural role and has long been a factor in Maine forestry. It clears away mature growth, opening areas to the sun-loving species that are food for wildlife. The fire of 1947 increased diversity in the composition and age structure of the park’s forests. It even enhanced the scenery. Today, instead of one uniform evergreen forest, we are treated to a brilliant mix of red, yellow, and orange supplied by the new diverse deciduous forests.

Bar Harbor, too, was changed by the fire. Most of the permanent residents rebuilt their homes, but many of the grand summer cottages were not replaced. In fact, many of the seasonal families never returned. The estates on Millionaires’ Row have been replaced by motels that house the ever-increasing tourist population. But the fire alone cannot be blamed for ending the island’s once-grand “Cottage era.” The opulent lifestyle had already been suffering from the effects of the newly invented income tax and the Depression. The destructive flames merely provided a final blow.

The fall of 1947 was a dry one throughout the state, and the many serious fires destroyed 200,000 acres, 851 permanent homes, and 397 seasonal cottages in “The year Maine burned.” See Hollis, Newfield and Waterboro.

Source: Friends of Acadia National Park Internet Site

Additional resources

Bar Harbor (Me.) Fire Department. The Bar Harbor fire, 1947. Bar Harbor, Me., 1947? [University of Maine, Raymond H. Fogler Library, Special Collections]

Butler, Joyce. Wildfire Loose: The Week Maine Burned.  Camden, Me. Down East Books. 1997. [Maine State Library]

Dolby, Lawrence T.  Fire: The Big Story of 1947. (by State Fire Inspector Lawrence T. Dolby) Saco, Me. Graphic Arts Lab. 1997. URSUS NOTE: “This little booklet contains some of the stories of my memories of that October in 1947 when Maine was devastated by one of the worst woods fire in modern times. Since having recently completed my work on the book, The Language of Fire, many people have asked if there is much in that book about the ’47 woods fire; the answer to that question is no.”–Introduction

“Fire of 1947.” U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service. (accessed July 22, 2011)

Vandenbergh, Lydia Bodman. Bar Harbor’s Gilded Century: Opulence to Ashes, 1850-1950. (edited by Earle G. Shettleworth, Jr)  Camden, Me. Down East Books. 2009. [Maine State Library]

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4 Responses to Mount Desert, Fires of 1947

  1. Shirley Bailey says:

    I have been looking for a book on the Bar Harbor fire. Do you know of one? Thanks, Shirley

    • Jim says:

      I do not know of a book on the Bar Harbor Fire. However the “Additional resources” contains several works that include Bar Harbor’s experience. They may be out of print, but some are available in the libraries cited within the brackets. Various online sources have pieces of the puzzle. Maybe other readers can help.

  2. Jon says:

    How about “Lost Bar Harbor”? That has many images of the older estates, large hotels, and other structures from the early 20th century.

    • Jim says:

      As you probably noted, I have included “Lost Bar Harbor” in the “Additional resources” section of the Bar Harbor article. I could not pluck the images from the book which is still in copyright. I do plan to revisit Bar Harbor in a few months to capture the remaining National Register structures as they appear in 2015. If any of the “lost” are still around, I will seek them out. Thanks for the nudge!

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