From the fall 1990 Friends of Acadia Journal
by Tammis Coffin
Cobblestone beaches are one of the most delightful aspects of Acadia’s rocky shoreline, providing pleasure to ears, eyes, and sense of touch. A visitor to a cobble beach will hear the special music of stones rattling and rolling in the surf, or may sit upon the beach for hours, sorting through the smooth, colorful stones, looking for perfect spheres and making piles of special stones. Those who toss cobbles across the beach will find that the stones bounce incredibly high, and continue bouncing for a long time with a satisfying patter.
“Cobble” is a geological term describing a rounded stone between the size of an apple and a basketball. Some of the cobbles are derived from adjacent bedrock, but the majority are reworked from glacial deposits. Each beach presents a unique collage of rock types, a blend of local rock types and glacial erratic. The largest cobbles are cast high up by storm waves into a great wall, which spills landward after each storm.
Cobble beaches are located on the exposed shores of outer islands and peninsulas where wave action is greatest. In Acadia National Park, the cobble beaches are tucked between cliffs on the rugged southern and eastern shores of Mount Desert Island at places like Wonderland Point and along the more remote shores of Schoodic Peninsula and Isle au Haut. The two cobble beaches that are easiest to find are Little Hunters Beach and Seawall. These may be the most accessible and most highly visited cobble beaches in the state of Maine.
Little Hunters Beach is framed by cliffs on either side and screened from the road by spruce trees. At the base of the steep log staircase lies a mound of pale-colored stones bleached by abrasion and sunlight. Where the water laps against them the stones reveal the glowing pink of Mount Desert Island granite and the black and gray patterns of the unusual geological formation called the “shatter zone,” created when the intruding granite magma disrupted and remelted the existing rocks. Little Hunters Beach is the only beach dominated by cobbles made up of shatter zone rock, and the cobbles themselves are intriguingly patterned, layered, and striped.
Many people who visit Little Hunters Beach cannot resist taking a stone along with them as a souvenir. Some park staff and local residents are alarmed over apparent loss of volume on the beaches over the years. It is said that the cobbles at Seawall used to be so high that passing motorists could not view the sea. Souvenir hunters and home landscapers have reduced parts of Seawall to an insignificant mound of angular rocks, but still, the stones are taken away, singly and by the wheelbarrowload. Patrol Ranger Mike Blaney has noticed that beach cobbles are being removed rapidly from the park. He says, “At a place like Little Hunters Beach, we can just stand at the top of the stairs and tell people to return stones.”
Maine cobbles have been steadily harvested for over three centuries. Early explorers and traders picked up cobbles to ballast their ships. Later, Maine cobbles were sought as paving stones for the streets of eastern cities. In the 1840s, John Gilley of Bakers Island regularly sailed to Boston to sell his cargo of dried fish and “popples” as they were called. Beach stones paved most city streets until the late 1800s when rectangular paving blocks replaced them. In the ‘40s, bargeloads of cobbles from Penobscot Bay were sold in a New York City department store for several dollars apiece.
What are the cobbles worth to us? Can we help the public to understand that the stones have value where they lie? The natural tumbling machine that sculpts the stones into near perfect spheres of such beauty is slow and takes hundreds of years. And there won’t be a new supply of stones until the next glacial age comes to pass.