Strange weather patterns set in 1947 in the state of Maine, as a quick and early spring thaw preceded months of endless rain. Finally, at the end of June, the sun broke through the clouds as temperatures climbed bringing about a warm summer. Mother nature had apparently used up all the rain in the spring, as the state went through 108 days without any appreciable rain. Everything became exceedingly dry in the hot sun and water supply dwindled. Recognizing the dangers of the dry conditions, officials began implementing preventative measures. By the second week of October, a Class 4 state of danger was declared, and Fire watchtowers, normally closed at the end of September, were reopened by the State Forest Service. Mountain Desert Island, home to a glorious National Park, reported the worst drought conditions on record.
On this episode of America’s National Parks Podcast, Acadia National Park, and the year Maine burned.
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Links to some of the resources we used and the website links we mentioned in this episode.
Acadia National Park – NPS Website
“Wildfire Loose” – Joyce Butler’s book on the Maine fires
1947 is one of those years where a lot of history happened. As the US looks to help Europe with post-war reconstruction, tensions with Russia set in, and the term “The Cold War” is coined. McCarthyism spreads as ten men refuse to co-operate with the House Un-American Activities Committee concerning allegations of communist influences in the movie business. They are blacklisted by the Hollywood movie studios on the following day. Jackie Robinson signs a contract with the Brooklyn Dodgers, becoming the first African American major league baseball player in the modern era, and world series games are broadcast on TV for the first time. UFO sightings are reported at Puget Sound, and Mount Rainier, and in a little New Mexico town called Roswell a supposedly downed extraterrestrial spacecraft is reported. Tennessee Williams’ A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE performs on Broadway, and the Tony Awards are held for the first time at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel. Howard Hughes completes the maiden flight of the Spruce Goose, the largest fixed-wing aircraft ever built. The trip lasts only eight minutes, and the “Spruce Goose” is never flown again.
But something else was happening in the far northeast that year. Strange weather patterns set in in the state of Maine, as a quick and early spring thaw preceded months of endless rain. Finally, at the end of June, the sun broke through the clouds as temperatures climbed bringing about a warm summer. Mother nature had apparently used up all the rain in the spring, as the state went through 108 days without any appreciable rain. Everything became exceedingly dry in the hot sun and water supply dwindled. Recognizing the dangers of the dry conditions, officials began implementing preventative measures. By the second week of October, a Class 4 state of danger was declared, and Fire watchtowers, normally closed at the end of September, were reopened by the State Forest Service. Mountain Desert Island, home to a glorious National Park, reported the worst drought conditions on record.
On this episode of America’s National Parks Podcast, Acadia National Park, and the year Maine burned.
Here’s Abigail Trabue.
On Friday, October 17th, 1947, at 4 p.m., Mrs. Gilbert reported smoke rising from a cranberry bog between her home and Dolliver’s dump on Crooked Road west of Hulls Cove. No one knows what started it. Some speculate that it was sunlight shining through a piece of broken glass in the dump. Whatever the cause, once ignited, the fire smoldered underground. By October 19th, many Maine communities were filled with a smokey haze and the smell of burning wood as reports of small fires across the state began to pour in. Careless backyard debris burning, campfires, and even arson are believed to be the sources. The state was so dry, it seemed the slightest spark could cause a massive fire.
Strong winds began to fan the flames, spreading the blazes rapidly out of control. In North Kennebunkport, a fire jumped Route 1 toward the coastal villages, forcing residents onto the beach and into the water for safety. “800 homeless as fire sears Kennebunkport,” an article in The Boston Daily Globe read the next day. “Only chimneys and foundations of houses, and twisted iron of stoves and plumbing and tools remain — silhouetted like weird distortions against a pall of smoke that covers the land and reaches a fog bank far out to sea,”
Personnel from the Army Air Corps, Navy, Coast Guard, University of Maine forestry program, and Bangor Theological Seminary joined local firefighting crews. National Park Service employees flew in from parks throughout the East and experts in the West were put on standby.
The pace intensified, and on October 23 all hell broke loose. It was a day which would become known as “Red Thursday.” Hurricane force winds fed fires in York, Oxford, and Hancock counties. Families often only had a few minutes warning before they had to leave their homes. One Mainer described the roaring fire folding over a home, like a wave breaking on the shore. Flames crossed Route 233 and continued along the western shore of Eagle Lake. The wind shifted, pushing one finger of fire toward Hulls Cove. Firefighters moved their efforts in an attempt to thwart the threat to the community, but in the afternoon, the wind turned again as a dry cold front moved through, sending an inferno directly toward Bar Harbor.
In just over an hour, the wildfire drove six miles, leaving behind a three-mile-wide scar of destruction. Sixty-seven estates in the assortment of upper-class cottages called Millionaires’ Row were razed. 170 homes and five historic hotels were destroyed in the area surrounding downtown Bar Harbor. All roads from the town were blocked by flames, so fishermen from nearby towns helped to evacuate 400 people by sea. At 9p.m., bulldozers broke through the rubble on Route 3, making way for 700 cars carrying 2,000 people to escape. The caravan drove through the rolling flames, as cars were pelted by sparks and flying debris.
The governor of Maine declared a state of emergency that evening, and a similar declaration was made by President Harry Truman, making help available from the Army and Navy.
John Smith, of Waterboro, who had only recently returned from World War II, said “I think I was as scared during the fire as any time when I was over there. You just figured that you weren’t going to get out of it. Because you figured there was nothing that was ever going to put this fire out, you kinda were getting the feeling the whole state was going to burn. In fact, there wasn’t much that stopped it until it got to the ocean.”
In fact, the Bar Harbor fire scorched the coast almost to Otter Point, before blowing itself out over the sea in a massive fireball.
The Maine fires were declared under control four days later, but nearly 2,000 more acres would still be destroyed. Hearty soil and vegetation on the forest floor and the matted tree roots reaching deep around granite boulders, fueled stubborn underground fires for weeks, even as rain and snow had fallen. The fire was pronounced completely out on November 4th at 4 p.m. nearly one month after the first reports of individual fires came rolling in.
In her 1979 book, “Wildfire Loose: The Week Maine Burned,” Joyce Butler described the damage, saying “nine communities had been practically wiped out, four more had suffered severe damage, and scores of others had lost buildings. Property damage was estimated at $30 million. Fifteen people had died. In many sections the earth itself had been consumed. Maine had become an armed camp, her roads patrolled by the National Guard, Legionnaires, the police, and self-appointed vigilantes.”
More than 200,000 acres, 851 permanent homes, and 397 seasonal cottages were destroyed in “the year Maine burned.”
10,000 of the acres that burned were in Acadia National Park, nearly obliterating the pine forest. An unknown number of animals died, but park rangers believe that most outran the fire and found safety in ponds and lakes.
Two logging crews, one hired by the park and one hired by the Rockefeller family, worked areas of the park for timber salvage and clean-up. Some fallen logs were left in place to prevent soil erosion, still visible today. But it was mother nature that restored the island. Wind spread deciduous seeds into the burned areas creating the forest we see today.
The park services points to fire’s essential role in nature, saying the 1947 blaze “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.”
But the pine trees will eventually reign again, as Birch and Aspen create a shaded nursery for their growth.
Most of the permanent residents of Bar Harbor rebuilt their homes, but many of the seasonal families in the grand summer cottages never returned. The fire on Mount Desert Island was announced in headlines around the world because the island was a famous summer retreat for the rich. The opulent lifestyle had already been waning from the effects of the newly invented income tax and the Great Depression, and the fire delivered the final blow. The estates on Millionaires’ Row were replaced by motels and tourist attractions, launching an era of family travel to the wonders of Acadia. The community became less dependent on the summer elites, creating a more diverse economy.
Even today, you can see the contrast between the unburnt, dark green spruce trees, and the bright tones of the beech and maple that have dominated in the 70 years since, along with the ruins of cottages where the winds turned, and firefighters made their last stand.
In the aftermath of the fires, municipalities across the state modernized their fire departments, getting state and federal funding to purchase trucks and equipment. Firefighters began to be trained under rigorous standards. In 1949, the Northeast Forest Fire Protection Commission was founded, first including the New England states and New York, and later including the Canadian provinces of Quebec and New Brunswick.
The Crown Jewel of the North Atlantic Coast, Acadia National Park protects the natural beauty of the highest rocky headlands along the Atlantic coastline of the United States, and a diverse abundance of habitats. Rocky coastline, mountains, forests, ponds, marshlands fill the 47,000 acres. It’s home to an array of native species, including whales, seals, moose, foxes, peregrine falcons, herons, salamanders and toads.
It’s a popular place. Each year, more than 3.3 million people explore the seven peaks, 158 miles of hiking trails, and 45 miles of carriage roads. Crowds of visitors in the summer and, increasingly, into the fall and spring, are making it difficult for people to experience the best of Acadia. The park has seen a 60% increase in visitors over the last decade, and a plan is being developed to increase bus transportation and require timed-entry reservations for vehicles.
Plenty of camping is available, but it books up fast. An unreserved campsite is a rarity. Several roads are restricted to RVs or other large vehicles, so getting around using a car, bike, boat, or the park’s buses is required.
This episode of America’s National Parks was written by me, Jason Epperson, and narrated by Abigail Trabue. If you enjoyed the show, we’d love a 5-star review wherever you listen to podcasts. Don’t forget to hit the subscribe button, and follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Just search “National Park Podcast.” You can also join our new America’s National Parks Facebook group for national park lovers. We’ll link to all of our social media, as well as National Park Service resources, in the show notes at National Park Podcast dot com.
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