Ghosts of ’47


While exploring and photographing in Acadia National Park during the pandemic winter of 2020/2021, I stumbled upon a number of rare and spectacular artifacts from the past. No, these were not the remnants of the historic Green Mountain Railway that traveled from Eagle Lake up to the summit of Cadillac Mountain.

What I believe I discovered are ghosts from the great Mount Desert Island Fire of 1947—hidden relic tree stumps that over the last 75 years have decayed into fascinating shapes resembling creatures from a science fiction movie. When I first saw them, I didn’t make the connection to the fire, but after investigating the area further, I came across flat cut stumps and other downed tree parts which showed definitive charcoal scars.

The 1947 fire burned between 17,188 – 18,560 acres on Mount Desert Island, including nearly one-third of the lands comprising Acadia National Park at that time (NPS reports of the fire from 1948 and 1950 give different total acres burned on MDI). Yet despite the devastation of that tragic event, why are charcoal scarred trees, cut stumps, and other traces of the fire -like the weirdly misshapen tree remains that I found, so uncommon in the Acadia landscape?

Immediately after the fire, the National Park Service (NPS) initiated an intensive and wide-scale cleanup to reduce hazards associated with downed trees and to improve the aesthetics and appearance of the recently burned areas of the park. There were at least three NPS and John D. Rockefeller Jr. funded contracts, as well as park crews to carry out the work. There were “nearly 22 miles of hard-surfaced park roads requiring treatment to a width of 200 ft on each site to eliminate the heavy accumulations of unsightly and hazardous fire killed or windthrown trees. The needed work included cutting stumps as close to ground as possible or pulling them out where trees were uprooted, lopping off limbs, bucking trees to log lengths, removal of logs and uprooted stumps, piling, and burning tops and limb wood”.[1]

During the initial treatment efforts, crews were overly aggressive in their removal of burned timber, so much so that the Chief NPS Forester overseeing salvage operations complained in a report about the “austere bareness” of cutover areas. He pointed out the “desirability of leaving, on the areas still to be worked, some trees, even though dead, to relieve the bareness of the landscape, and also leaving a sufficient amount of the forest debris on the ground to help prevent erosion, give protection to reproduction and help enrich the soil”. [2]

In total, over 11,811,593 board feet of sawlogs (roughly equivalent to 30 miles of boards, 12 inches long, by 12 inches wide by 1 inch thick lined up back to back) and 820 cords of pulpwood were salvaged in the 3,746 acres where “burned area treatment” in the park occurred.[3] Short length and defective logs rejected by logging contractors went to a small lath mill in Bar Harbor for manufacturing softwood slats for making snow fences and in smaller quantities, softwood and hardwood slats for lobster traps. Plans were to turn out 6,000 laths/day. Some fire-killed and windthrown timber was used in connection with the reconstruction of park structures and provided free to local residents for their own personal use.[4]

In spite of the severe impact of the fire and the massive logging operations, the park’s landscape was resilient. Just 11 months after the fire, NPS Chief Forester Arnold reported that “there was already an abundance of natural reproduction that had become established in extensive areas within the burn. Almost wherever there is soil, there are herbaceous plants, ferns, grasses, tree and shrub seedlings or sprout growth. In some places, beds of gray birch seedlings were observed growing in such density as to obscure the ground completely. Aspen seedlings are also abundant and specimens five feet tall are not rare. It was not difficult to find seedling reproduction of spruce, balsam fir, white pine, and hemlock in suitable locations within severely burned areas where soil remains”[4]

To complement this natural regeneration, in the spring of 1950, plans were developed for replanting trees in some burned sections of the park. The NPS had a relationship with the US Forest Service for production of white pine planting stock and was exploring options with the University of Maine nursery. NPS Foresters overseeing the treatment of burned areas emphasized the requirement for use of native plants in the reforestation effort.[5]

Given the extensive cleanup and restoration operations and the natural regeneration of vegetation, it is no wonder that today in the park, there are so few visible manifestations of the fire. The Ghosts of 47 that I encountered are noteworthy not only because of their fascinating alien shapes, but because they serve as an important reminder about that tragic event that shaped contemporary Acadia National Park and Mount Desert Island.

[1] February 27, 1948 report titled “The Mount Desert Island Fire of October 17 – November 14, 1948 with Particular Reference to Acadia National Park, Maine” from NPS Regional Forester Arnold and Foresters Savage and Moore to the NPS Director.

[2] April 28, 1948, memo titled “Forestry Conditions and Activities in Acadia National Park, Based on Observations and Discussions During Field Trips from March 30 to April 5, 1948” from NPS Regional Forester Arnold to NPS Regional Director, Region One.

[3]  January 28, 1951 memo titled “Cumulative Report Timber Salvage – Burned Area Treatment” from Acadia National Park Superintendent Hadley to NPS Regional Director, Region One.

[4] September 13, 1948 Memo titled “Results of Field Observations and Discussions at Acadia National Park, August 31 to September 4, 1948” from NPS Chief Forester Arnold to NPS Regional Director, Region One.

[5] June 21, 1948 Report titled “Field Trip to Acadia National Park, June 6-12, 1948” from NPS Forester Moore to NPS Regional Director, Region One.


DAVID MANSKI worked for 35 years with the National Park Service as a natural resource specialist, including 20 years at Acadia. He is on the board of Schoodic Institute and Frenchman Bay Conservancy and is the current President of the Mount Desert Island Photo Club.

This story was published in the Winter/Spring 2022 Acadia Magazine.