Imagine Mount Desert Island’s forested mountain slopes clear-cut for dwellings, hotels and other development. This could be the picture if not for a dozen Harvard students more than a century ago.
Led by then Harvard President Charles W. Eliot’s son Charles Eliot, the scholars called themselves the Champlain Society after the French explorer Samuel de Champlain, whose ship ran aground off MDI in 1604. They camped on the island, studying its rich flora, fauna, geology, weather and watershed, from 1880-1889.
“When we’re celebrating the centennial of Acadia National Park, we have to realize that the Champlain Society … recognized how vulnerable it was to development,” Mount Desert Island Historical Society Executive Director Tim Garrity reflects. “We attribute to the Champlain Society the first vision of a national park.”
The Champlain Society’s story and contribution to Acadia National Park’s founding is the focus of an exhibit “Before Acadia: Adventure & Discovery” on view through October, at the MDI Historical Society’s Somesville Museum & Gardens.
Called the “captain,” Charles Eliot went on to become a Boston landscape architect and fought business interests to conserve large areas of MDI. He also founded Massachusetts’ Trustees of Public Reservations — the nation’s first land trust — in 1891. He died of spinal meningitis at age 37.
Taking on his son’s dream, Charles W. Eliot and conservationist George B. Dorr founded the Hancock County Trustees of Public Reservations and acquired more than 35,000 acres that later was donated to the national park Service and became the foundation for Acadia National Park.
“If Charles Eliot was still [alive] he would’ve been a much larger part of the creation of Acadia,” museum intern Katey Leard said.
A sophomore at Bar Harbor’s College of the Atlantic, Leard researched the Champlain Society’s log books that have since been digitized for public viewing.
“It was really wonderful that his father [Charles W. Eliot] took up the leadership role after he (Charles Eliot] passed away and said, ‘My son wanted to preserve this place. Can you help me?’”