ACADIA’S CARRIAGE ROADS FROM HORSE-DRAWN CARRIAGES TO MOUNTAIN BIKES
August 15th, 2020
August 15th, 2020
BY LYNN FANTOM
Those who have bicycled, walked, or jogged around the Eagle Lake Carriage Road in Acadia National Park undoubtedly noticed how the perspective of the lake changes during the trip.
Sometimes, you are so close you can discern the yellowish-orange bill of a great blue heron as it wades along the shore. At other places, your view from high above the water reduces a kayaker to diminutive proportions. These changing vistas reflect intentional planning and demonstrate just one of the many considerations that intrigued John D. Rockefeller Jr. as he created the network of carriage roads that are now a cultural treasure of Acadia National Park.
Remaining true to those aims and using traditional methods of construction are the top priorities in the total rebuild of the Eagle Lake loop, the final seven miles of Acadia National Park’s Carriage Road network to be reconstructed. Preliminary work is slated to begin in the fall with the bulk\ of construction in 2021 (see related story). Completion of the restoration will cap an effort that began nearly 30 years ago when Friends of Acadia instituted its first major capital campaign and raised more than $3.4 million to help leverage federal dollars for the project.
In many ways the process has been not unlike the labor of love begun by Rockefeller in 1913. Over more than a quarter-century of construction, the philanthropist, who was the only son of the founder of Standard Oil, pondered every detail including siting, drainage, and roadside vistas and landscapes. He was obsessed with building roads, according to historian Richard H. Quin.
“The view, moreover, is usually more attractive if one looks down into the lake from a little elevation than from practically the level of the lake,” Rockefeller said. “Then, too, the road further back and higher up would undoubtedly be less apt to be seen from the lake,” he further reasoned in a letter to the National Park Service after a team visited Mount Desert Island in 1922 to inspect proposed routes.
Such manipulation of views —to reveal stunning scenery, provide a range of perspectives, and offer surprises —was a guiding principle of Rockefeller’s siting strategy, but so was aligning the roads to the land.
First and foremost, these roads were built for the pleasure of carriage driving: gently sloped for the needs of horses, wide enough for two carriages to pass, and curved to accommodate a carriage’s turning radius. They started out in 1913 as “horse roads” for family and friends on Rockefeller’s own property and gradually expanded throughout the eastern half of Mount Desert Island, in cooperation first with the Hancock County Trustees and then the US government, up to 1940.
It is no coincidence that the effort coalesced in 1913, the same year the Maine Legislature finally repealed laws favored by MDI summer residents Rockefeller was a master of road building, having worked closely with his father to construct carriage roads on their summer estates near Cleveland and later in Pocantico Hills, NY. When the family moved to Manhattan in the 1870s and went carriage driving in Central Park, he was influenced by its designers Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, whose plan included pastoral bridges and separation of the driving roads from the city street system.
In Maine, Rockefeller personally chose the locations of the roads, walking the routes and providing written comments to his contractors. Thomas Vint, the chief landscape architect of the National Park Service, once remarked that “Mr. Rockefeller did not arrive at this excellent knowledge of road building by sitting at his desk and merely issuing instructions.”
Rockefeller’s construction team, longtime Mount Desert Island residents, built the roads using a broken stone construction method. Requiring much hand labor, it was difficult and time- consuming.
Generally 14 to 16 feet wide, the roads were excavated deeper than common gravel roads. Workers then successively layered large stones and boulders (ranging from the size of a human head to a car), medium stones, gravel and then very small “fines,” which were watered in and compacted. Along roadsides, they laid coping stones, some natural and some split from larger slabs. Residents dubbed them “Rockefeller’s teeth.” Modern crews and volunteers tasked with trimming grass and weeds between the stones often refer to the job as “flossing Rockefeller’s teeth.”
Great craftsmanship and years of labor were invested in what started out as “a rich man’s hobby,” as one detractor said, and ended up as a way for the public to access beauty and nature. “These roads are something that never would, nor could, be built today,” says Gail Gladstone, Acadia’s cultural resources program manager and herself a landscape architect.
Among all of the system’s attributes, it is the design of the drainage system that Gladstone says she most admires. Along each section of a carriage road, Rockefeller’s workers created extensive stone-lined ditches to capture and direct water moving down mountains. In addition, a series of “back drains,” stone-lined channels perpendicular to the roads, were dug to guide water down the slopes to ditches and culverts. Those culverts ranged from two- to over 20-feet in diameter, some with multiple spans. Next time while enjoying the carriage roads, Gladstone suggests visitors notice the drainage system’s “beautifully considered, hand-placed stonework,” which varies in style based on the crew working in that section.
“Infrastructure! Not sexy, but so necessary,” says Gladstone. Without it, the carriage roads “would wash right off the side of the mountain,” she adds.
Rockefeller also took care to protect the roadside landscape, which he enhanced with a little help from his friends. He sought to preserve the trees, their roots, boulders, and embankments. “You have agreed to see to it that your men are exceedingly careful,” he wrote to his contractor, acquiescing to a cost estimate that he deemed “a very high price” because of the meticulousness required.
In later years, the prominent landscape architect Beatrix Farrand of Bar Harbor drove the carriage roads with an assistant who made “road notes” about where native plants, fl owering shrubs, and wild ferns might further delight, as well as conceal any construction scars. Despite Rockefeller’s entreaties to submit a bill, she refused, saying, “I enjoy it as any work I do anywhere and have all the pleasure of a dog carrying a newspaper, as it makes me feel of some little use.”
The experience of passing through a woodland garden was heightened by the creation of 16 unique stone-faced bridges. (An additional one was not financed by Rockefeller.) For these, Rockefeller enlisted new teams of architects and builders. The first bridge, which spanned Jordan Stream, featured the use of native cobblestones, the only one to do so in the system.
Although future bridges were constructed of quarried stone, each displayed an individual design and attention to its setting. For example, Hemlock Bridge adopted a gothic-arch style, “probably chosen as appropriate for its setting in a dark hemlock grove, reflecting the pointy tips of the majestic trees,” says historian Quin. Although construction of the carriage road network— stretching 45 miles within the park and 11 on private property —was complete by 1940, Rockefeller stayed involved. Rockefeller continued to remain adamant that motor vehicles not be allowed on carriage roads, except for emergencies and maintenance. Among his communications with park management during the 1940s were messages transmitting disappointment that a visit by the Secretary of the Interior included a ride on the carriage roads in a car, and one opposed to the War Department’s request to let large trucks transport classified radar testing equipment on carriage roads on Sargent Mountain.
After World War II, recreation was changing. A Northeast Harbor summer resident asked the Park Service to allow bicycling over the carriage roads. In response, Acadia’s resident landscape architect Benjamin Breeze pedaled more than 40 miles to assess the adaptability of the carriage roads to bicycle use and prepared a report, which was sent to Rockefeller in 1949. Breeze evaluated options such as tarring three or four feet on one side or building separate cycle trails.
In the end, the park official, “being 35 years old, weight 195, and not having used my second wind more than twice a year for the last ten,” was surprised how much park territory he could cover. He advocated joint use of the carriage roads by horsemen and cyclists. Some adaptations were necessary. For example, the park surfaced the ever-popular Eagle Lake loop with finer gravel in the 1970s, according to an historic engineering record. And soon it will be the focus of a major rehabilitation including both the road surface and drainage infrastructure.
So, next time you venture out on a carriage road, think about John D. Rockefeller Jr.—and the architects, contractors, engineers, and crews who made his vision a reality. No matter how you enjoy the carriage roads, the well-trained, educated, and informed eye is sure to see more.
A former NYC marketing executive, FOA member LYNN FANTOM writes about the outdoors and aquaculture, especially in Maine, where she now spends half her time.