Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Rudolph Brunnow and the Myths about Him

Rudolph E. Brunnow
Appointed by the Bar Harbor Village Improvement Association in 1913 as chairman of its path committee, a position he held until his death, Rudolph Brunnow built Acadia National Park's signature hiking trail, the Precipice Trail, on the east face of Champlain Mountain, as well as the challenging Orange and Black Path and the exciting Beehive Trail.*1

On the Precipice Trail
Despite Brunnow's achievements that have drawn hikers to the Park from far and wide, local storytellers appear determined to tell visitors three myths about the man, i.e., he was a German, he built his oceanfront home for his fiancé who perished on the Titanic, and he died from an accident on the Precipice. None is true.

Rudolph Ernest Brunnow (1859-1917) was born in Ann Arbor, MI, the only child of a German father and American mother. His father, Franz Friedrich Ernst Brunnow (1821-1891), left Berlin to become a professor of astronomy and the director of the observatory at the University of Michigan in 1854 and in 1857 married Rebecca Lloyd Tappan (1836-1893), the daughter of the president of the University of Michigan.

Educated in Europe, Rudolph taught at the University of Heidelberg between 1889 and 1904. In 1894 he married Marguerite Beckwith (1872-1907) in Lenox, MA and they went to live in Europe. After her death in Bonn, Germany, in 1907 he was left with five young children. He moved back to the United States to have his children educated as Americans and accepted a position at Princeton University, becoming a full professor of Semitic philology in 1908.

First summering in Bar Harbor with his children in 1909, he bought property along Schooner Head Road in 1910 and the next year started construction of the cottage he named Meadow Brook after the stream that flows nearby. He occupied it in 1914, having stayed at nearby Hare Forest cottage off Schooner Head Road between 1912 and July 1914 apparently to oversee its construction. His cottage, renamed High Seas by a subsequent owner, survived the fire of 1947 and is now owned by the Jackson Laboratory.

Meadow Brook
A Bar Harbor newspaper's obituary of Brunnow is the apparent origin of the fiancé myth and the German-by-birth claim. It stated he had a fiancé for whom he had built Meadow Brook and who had perished on the Titanic in 1912.*2  There is no evidence to corroborate the newspaper's fiancé claim. It is interesting to note the reported birth in Germany was apologetically corrected the next week by the newspaper to reflect his birth in Ann Arbor and U.S. citizenry.*3  It did not mention its fiancé claim.

Brunnow died of pneumonia in Bar Harbor on April 14, 1917. His children went to live with his mother-in-law, Margaretta F. Beckwith, in Philipstown, NY. He is buried in Princeton Cemetery in Princeton, NJ, next to his oldest son, Eric, who had died the year before from infantile paralysis while a freshman at Princeton.
Brunnow's grave
Brunnow's death was not the result of an accident on the Precipice. His brother-in-law, Edward P. Beckwith, however, had a serious accident on Champlain Mountain on October 28, 1916 while exploring for a new trail off the Orange and Black Path with Brunnow and three of Brunnow's children. Rocks gave way and Beckwith fell 20 feet. After a 4-hour rescue he was taken to the Bar Harbor hospital where it was determined he had injured his hip.*4  This is likely the accident our storytellers have confused in their tale of Brunnow's death.

Brunnow shines brightly in the trails history of Acadia NP. It serves no good purpose to perpetuate these myths.

* Footnotes:
1 Bar Harbor Record, April 9, 1913, p.5.
2 Bar Harbor Times, April 21, 1917, p.1.
3 Bar Harbor Times, April 28, 1917, p.3.
4 Bar Harbor Record, November 4, 1916, p.1.