Friday, May 4, 2012

George Bucknam Dorr - the Father of Acadia National Park

George B. Dorr
Courtesy: ANP-NPS
George B. Dorr has been called the "Father of Acadia National Park." Appropriately so. His successful efforts to preserve this beautiful area involved frequent travel between Mount Desert Island, ME and Washington, DC and extensive coordination between the Federal Government and the Hancock County Trustees of Public Reservations to have its acquired property accepted as Federal land. Later he served as Acadia National Park's first superintendent, a job he held for nearly 30 years.

George Bucknam Dorr was born in 1853 in his parents’ home on the shore of Jamaica Pond in the Boston neighborhood of Jamaica Plain, MA. He came to MDI with his parents in the summer of 1868. Eight years later they built their Bar Harbor summer home, which they named Oldfarm, on 90 acres at Compass Harbor. The property's entrance is a mile south of the Bar Harbor village green.*1  Dorr was a horticulturalist and in 1896 he established the Mount Desert Nurseries on 20 acres of his Oldfarm property. Irrigation pipes and old culverts off the Schooner Head Path are still visible.*2  He also owned the Bear Brook Quarry, located at the north base of Champlain Mountain.*3  It is below the Park Loop Road parking lot opposite the entrance to the Champlain North Ridge Trail (former name: Bear Brook Trail).

Dorr was among the original founders of the HCTPR in 1901and its incorporators in 1903. Through Dorr’s determination and the efforts of members of the HCTPR, of which Harvard President Charles W. Eliot was President and Dorr its First Vice-President, some 6000 acres of donated land, including Cadillac Mountain, were acquired and presented to President Woodrow Wilson for federal protection. As a result, Wilson established Sieur De Monts National Monument in 1916. Dorr had suggested the name in honor of the Frenchman under whom Samuel de Champlain sailed; it was Champlain who named Mount Desert Island in 1604. In 1919 Congress gave it national park status and renamed it Lafayette National Park in honor of the French general and American Revolutionary War hero. In 1927 Dorr secured the donation of over 2,000 acres of promised land on Schoodic Peninsula across Frenchman Bay from the heirs of native Mainer and wealthy NY-entrepreneur John G. Moore. Moore's daughters, who had immigrated to Great Britain and become citizens, suggested their land donation to the Park could go through if the French name of the Park were changed. Thus in 1929, upon Dorr's suggestion, the Park's name changed from Lafayette to Acadia.

Dorr, who was six feet tall and blue-eyed, never married. He died at his beloved Oldfarm estate in 1944 at the age of 90. According to his wishes, he was cremated at Mount Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge, MA and his ashes were scattered beneath the trees at the northwestern foot of Champlain Mountain near the 12-acre Beaver Dam Pond. A popular but entirely fictitious tale maintains that Dorr's ashes were scattered over Oldfarm from an airplane and into the teacups of women relaxing below! A simple memorial stone was placed at the Dorr family lot in Mount Auburn Cemetery. It is often stated he died penniless, having expended all of his wealth on the Park. But that may not be so. His estate gave Bar Harbor's Jesup Memorial Library $12,865.63 and equal amounts of $6,432.81 to the HCTPR and the Abbe Museum of Bar Harbor. His memorial was dedicated on August 29, 1947 at Sieur de Monts Spring. It reads:

In Memory of
George Bucknam Dorr
1853  -  1944
Gentleman  Scholar
Lover of nature
Father of this
National Park
Steadfast in his zeal
to make the beauties
of this Island
available to all

1947 Dedication
Courtesy: Woodlawn Museum
Dorr's memorial is located behind the Sieur de Monts Nature Center.*4  Less than two months after the memorial had been dedicated, MDI suffered a devastating fire that destroyed a third of the Park, including Sieur de Monts. The Dorr memorial plaque survived. The granite stone on which it was attached apparently did not, as the memorial is now secured to a different stone but in the approximate location. Also in his honor, Dry Mountain, which overshadows the Sieur de Monts area, was renamed Dorr Mountain.

What became of the Oldfarm estate? Dorr donated it to Acadia National Park in 1941with the wish that it would at least be used as a place for visiting VIPs to meet and stay. The park tore down his Oldfarm home 10 years later, but remnants of it exist.*5  Storm Beach Cottage, the 1879 guest house into which Dorr had moved after conveying Oldfarm, remains and serves as seasonal Park employee housing.*6

Oldfarm home
Courtesy: ANP-NPS
Storm Beach Cottage
The Oldfarm estate no longer comprises its original 90 acres. Today there are about 60 acres under Park control. Over the years the Oldfarm property has been neglected and it has transformed itself into a quasi town park enjoyed for strolls, dog walks, and occasional bike rides. On the official Park map it is shaded as Park property but not identified.

Home site cleanup-Dec. 2011
Local groups, sensing the evanescence of a significant tribute to the Park's founder, have lobbied the Park for years to do something about it. With renewed interest the Park this past December let a small team of experienced volunteers clean up the home site of debris and some surrounding vegetation and remove the growth of moss carpet from its brick floors. Much more can and needs to be done. It is hoped that with Park permission and guidance work will continue on the site and in time George B. Dorr's Oldfarm estate will receive the historical recognition it deserves.

Oldfarm aerial view
* Footnoted GPS coordinates:
1  estate entrance:  N44° 22.427'  W068° 11.834'
2  path entrance:  N44° 22.345'  W068° 11.670'
3  quarry:  N44° 21.785'  W068° 11.566'
4  memorial:  N44° 21.721'  W068° 12.466'
5  home:  N44° 22.447'  W068° 11.577'
6  cottage:  N44° 22.317'  W068° 11.560'


  1. It was good to read that people were lobbying to get this site treated with the reverence it deserves. I hope the clean-up continues.

  2. What in the world were they thinking when they tore that beautiful place down. It could have served as an museum.