Crabtree Neck Trust’s preserves offer natural and human history

By Jared Gendron

If you want to discover crystalline coves, splintered remnants of a historic railway or wild woodland to hike through, then look no farther than Crabtree Neck in Hancock. 

East of Ellsworth, Crabtree Neck projects out into Frenchman Bay. On the peninsula, bounded by water on three sides, the Crabtree Neck Land Trust offers visitors six preserves across 400 acres. They include a former ball field, a long-lost farm, ice pond, aged railroad bed and community garden. The trust’s conservation-minded founders sought to preserve the sites for their natural habitats and to enable the public to experience parts of Maine’s historic and storied environments.

Shona Crabtree, president of Crabtree Neck Land Trust, is a descendant of Captain Agreen Crabtree, who first settled the wild, wooded point of land over two centuries ago. Her father, Steven Crabtree, acquired the coastal property for the trust from a friend whose values resonated with Crabtree’s conservation efforts. 

“Our mission is to conserve the valuable habitat … and provide access to the public to get into nature, which is something I think they really value — especially during the pandemic,” she said.

Crabtree’s ancestor migrated to coastal Maine from Massachusetts in the 1760s. Captain Crabtree was among the early settlers putting down roots on the neck of land overlooking Frenchman Bay and east of the Skillings River in what is now the town of Hancock, according to a Maine Farmhouse Journal entry. The sea captain and crew are known for intercepting British ships and seizing their goods during the American Revolution. The privateer vessel also is remembered for having captured enemy merchant ships off Nova Scotia.

“The privateers — men got into her, went on board the ship and took her — they brought the guns to bear upon a brig loaded for England, and ordered the master of the brig to come alongside the ship, with the brig,” the Boston Gazette reported in November of 1776. “They then striped the ship of everything valuable, and put the effects on board the brig, and let the ship go on shore, and came off with the brig.”

Captain Crabtree’s devotion to his newfound country is rooted in the sands and soil of Crabtree Neck. The land carries the Crabtree family legacy, but it also possesses an ecological elegance and biodiverse habitats.

A 15-minute drive from Ellsworth, Hancock’s Crabtree Neck Land Trust maintains 7 miles of walking/hiking trails. The half-dozen preserves boast a variety of wildlife including turkeys, foxes, moose, fishers, bald eagles and at least a dozen different species of waterfowl. Marine worm and clam diggers make a living from the coastal shores’ mud flats. 

Among the preserves is the Old Pond Railway Trail, just off Route 1. This late spring, visitors enjoyed white birch in bloom and boundless layers of lime- and drab-green foliage. The narrow trail is shaded by a canopy of white and gray birch, northern red oak and balsam fir. On a sunny day, this cover makes for a comfortable stroll. Put on bug spray and watch your step as you maneuver across withered railroad ties. 

Maine Central Railroad Co. built the railway in the 1880s. The passengers, traveling from as far away as Boston and Philadelphia, disembarked at Hancock and boarded ferries taking them across Frenchman Bay to resorts and summer homes on Mount Desert Island and Bar Harbor. In the late 2000s, Eagle Scouts laid new planks on that same old railway trestle to create the east-entrance parking lot and built benches along what is now the Old Pond Railway Trail. 

Steve Crabtree, among the trust’s board members emeritus, says Maine Central’s surviving railroad ties were left. 

“Some people wanted them taken out,” he recalled. “We said, ‘No, this is a rail trail. We want to keep that memory.’”

A brisk, sea-salt breeze refreshes hikers approaching the Old Pond’s clear, turquoise waters. The wind conjures a symphony of rustling leaves and branches. Past the pond, gazing southward, you can catch a glimpse of Youngs Bay. The former railroad track stretches over 2.5 miles west, skirting Hills Cove and finishes north of Kilkenny Cove.

“It is incredible to know when you walk the rail trail and watch the glittering water …” Shona Crabtree mused, “that that is the same view that people saw more than 100 years ago.” 

A half-mile south of Old Pond, a short trail leads to the Ice Pond Preserve. Several other paths fan out into deep wooded areas. In warm weather, Hancock resident Renata Moise played as a child in the stream that meanders into the forest. Come winter, she skated on the Ice Pond back in the 1960s and ’70s. 

“I remember skating with large groups of children for hours until our fingers and toes were frozen … it was an exhilarating, wonderful way to spend a winter afternoon,” the Crabtree Land Neck Trust board member said. 

Winters were longer and more intense back then. Starting in December and through February, local children skated on Ice Pond, warming up around bonfires. In the days before refrigeration, Moise said her father helped cut ice to distribute to the community. In her youth, she remembers encountering a mountainous pile of sawdust. Sawdust commonly was used to keep ice cold.

The Community Garden is a collaborative effort between Crabtree Neck Land Trust and volunteer gardeners. A variety of vegetables — from kale to snap peas — are grown there. The site has been used educational workshops such as apple-tree pruning.

On Crabtree Neck, the Ball Field Preserve houses two nesting boxes for bluebirds, which were set out by Downeast Audubon. The Ball Field, where children learned to play ball for decades, adjoins the Sam Ball Woods Preserve named after a gentleman who established a strawberry farm there in the late 1700s.

From Hancock Point, visitors can take in a sweeping view of Frenchman Bay as they stroll the trust’s Carters Beach Corridor. The public is welcome to picnic, take an ocean dip or fish along the shore. 

The trust’s diverse preserves and trails offer a fresh blend of forest quietude, coastal vibes and New England history. 

“I think of them like trail snacks,” Shona Crabtree said. “If you live in Hancock, you can get to them very easily.”

To visit Crabtree Neck Land Trust, go to crabtreenecklandtrust.org. For more info, email [email protected] and visit the trust’s Facebook page.

Kate is the paper's Digital Media Strategist, responsible for all things social, and the occasional story too! She's a former reporter for the paper and can be reached at: [email protected].