June 2015 – One of the great treasures of Acadia National Park is the Carriage Road system. These roads, which are open only to non-motorized traffic, run all through the interior of the park for a total of nearly 50 miles, traveling through the woods, passing by lakes and ponds, and skipping over streams on beautiful old stone bridges.
While we were there, we discovered that, like many of America’s national parks, we have the Rockefeller family to thank for this unusual road system. It turns out that the history behind the Carriage Roads is quite a tale.
Back at the turn of the 20th century when cars were first coming into use, the folks that lived on Maine’s Mt. Desert Island had a bit of a class war over whether or not automobiles would be allowed on the island’s roads.
The wealthy people who owned the summer estates (Pulitzers, Vanderbilts and others of their ilk) wanted Mt. Desert Island to be a rural getaway where they could travel about by horse and carriage and leave the hustle and bustle of the city and its newfangled automobiles behind.
The locals who called the island home all year long wanted the ability to get from town to town easily, and these newfangled automobiles were just the ticket.
The state of Maine left it up to the local communities to decide for themselves whether or not automobiles would be legal on each town’s roads. The upscale towns of Bar Harbor and Northeast Harbor, where the summer residents socialized and moored their yachts, voted to outlaw automobiles on their roads. The more working class towns, like fishing village Southwest Harbor, voted to allow automobiles on their roads.
In the end, after some human road blocks and a few arrests of automobile drivers caught flamboyantly breaking the law and driving on the wrong roads, by 1913 all the towns had agreed that cars were okay.
I’m not sure where the Rockefellers stood on this issue — they lived in Seal Harbor at the south end — but John D. Rockefeller, Jr., decided to build a Carriage Road system just for horses and buggies. These roads went around the interior of the island and were available for everyone to use. This gave all visitors and residents of Mt. Desert a way to enjoy the peaceful inland forests up close, without a car.
John D., Jr., was an expert horseman and an experienced road builder, and he built lots of lovely roads and beautiful stone bridges. He kept buying up parcels of land and extending his road system until he had almost 50 miles of roads throughout the island.
In the 1930’s, the National Park Service began putting together the foundations of what would become Acadia National Park, and Rockefeller ultimately donated all of these land holdings — with their new road system — to the National Park Service to become part of the new park.
I never knew much about the Rockefellers, but they are an incredible family. John D. Rockefeller, Sr., founded Standard Oil in 1870. By the end of his life in 1937 he had created a staggering personal net worth of $339 billion (in 2007 dollars).
It is impossible to compare wealth across the centuries accurately, but to try to put his riches in perspective, he was worth a whole lot more than the top 3 of the world’s wealthiest people today combined.
Bill Gates ($79 billion), Carlos Slim ($73 billion and Warren Buffet ($72 billion) are worth $224 billion all together. That’s $115 billion short of Mr. John D! Even adding in Mark Zuckerberg ($35 billion) leaves a gap of $56 billion.
To think of it another way, Rockefeller was worth 4.3 times what Bill Gates is worth. Imagine someone with assets and/or income 4.3 times more than yours. Or imagine someone with assets and/or income that is one quarter of yours. That’s the difference between John D. Rockefeller, Sr., and Bill Gates. Nevermind the difference between Rockefeller and the rest of us!
What is more, somehow John D. Rockefeller managed to pass on an incredible sense of personal motivation and high standards to his children. And they somehow passed that on to their children too.
How common it is for the people who make the deepest impact on the world to have kids who flake out. Nevermind the flakey kids — who ever hears from the grandkids? In so many cases, the kids, grandkids and great-grandkids of the biggest movers and shakers of this world all float on their predecessor’s money with little motivation or interest in doing something remarkable.
However, while John D. Rockefeller, Sr., was a ruthless, cut-throat, and not necessarily fair playing owner of a total monopoly in the skyrocketing oil industry, at the end of his life he turned his efforts towards philanthropy, and that is where his kids picked up the ball and where his grandkids carried it forward.
John D. Rockefeller had seven grandkids, five boys and two girls. One of these grandchildren, David, is still alive. Reading a little bit about David Rockefeller, I learned he was a highly accomplished man who stepped out of the shadow of his dad and granddad and made his own indelible mark on the world.
He celebrated his 100th birthday a week before our visit to Acadia National Park, and the Park Service rangers were all abuzz with excitement because he had just donated a huge parcel of land adjacent to the park for public use in perpetuity.
Apparently David Rockefeller is quite a spry 100-year-old. A ranger told me she’d seen him cruising around on these Carriage Roads his father built in a horse drawn carriage!
The Rockefellers acquired and gave away massive tracts of land all over the place to preserve the most beautiful landscapes and make them available for everyone to enjoy.
When we were in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, we learned that half of the land that was donated and half of the money that was raised to create that park had come from the Rockefellers. The other half was provided by local landowners, residents and the National Park Service.
Half! That’s incredible!
It is really easy to bash the ultra rich, or be envious, or question how they got their money, and on and on. But if it weren’t for the Rockefeller family using their staggering wealth to preserve these unique tracts of land, they would have fallen prey to development.
And the amazing thing is that the Rockefellers didn’t have to do any of it.
In the case of the Tetons, John D. Sr., had to put up quite a fight to get the National Park Service to take his land. The process was a bit of a nightmare, and he could have thrown up his hands and quit. But he didn’t.
So, we have the Rockefellers to thank for choosing (and sometimes fighting) to spend their money on us and on future generations of humanity.
David Rockefeller, who just gave away all that land on Mt. Desert Island a few weeks ago, is worth only $3 billion now, a mere fraction of what Bill Gates, Carlos Slim and Warren Buffet are worth. Obviously, he could be worth a lot more if the family had kept their money to themselves.
Perhaps with a nod to the example set by the Rockefellers, Bill Gates is busy giving away his fortune to fight disease and poverty in third world countries,. Three years ago, Warren Buffet gave each of his kids $1 billion with the requirement that they, in turn, give it away.
This is all very heady stuff, but the Rockefellers have been on my mind a lot since we started traveling, because their name keeps coming up at so many of the national parks we visit. The depth of caring in that family for the beautiful places in America seems to have extended through the generations.
We recently watched a thought provoking movie called America: Imagine The World Without Her. It’s a documentary made by a man who was born and raised in India, and it is fascinating to see this country through the eyes of someone who is not a product of it.
It’s a highly political film. However, it is well worth watching, because it makes you think about the origins and spirit of this country.
One of the most interesting points it makes is that after the American Revolution ended, and after General George Washington managed to wrest control of the locals away from the Brits, he broke with historical tradition.
Unlike all the leaders in human history up until that very moment, he did not proclaim himself King of this new country and give himself and his heirs absolute power and authority over the populace until the next overthrow.
He could have.
Since then, America has been a place of many kinds of firsts. Setting aside public land in the form of national parks was one, and the very first national park in the world was Yellowstone, created in 1872. Countries around the world have followed suit and preserved their natural treasures with gorgeous national parks that are open to the public. What a blessing for everyone alive today and for all that follow in the future, worldwide.
It is highly ironic that the polluting combustion engine, fueled by oil drilled from nasty, dirty wells, created the fabulous wealth of the Rockefellers who then turned around a generation and more later and poured their profits into the national parks.
It’s ironic, too, that the family that benefited the most by the invention of cars and the related explosion in demand for oil was behind the creation of the unique Carriage Road system at Acadia National Park where the only legal traffic is human or horse powered.
I guess a leisurely ride or stroll on this special road system through the woods inspires a bit of reflection. It did for me.
If you do some RV travel in Maine, or if you visit Acadia National Park by some other means, make sure you spend a little time out on the Carriage Roads in Mt Desert Island’s forests. You may find new thoughts, ideas and musings stirring within you.
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For more info on all this, check out these links:
- Carriage Roads Map (from the National Park Service) and Carriage Roads Starting Point (Google Maps)
- History of the Carriage Roads – From the National Park Service
- John D. Rockefeller, Sr. and David Rockefeller – Wikipedia Pages
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More from our visit to Mt. Desert Island in Maine:
- Eastport and Bangor – Off the Beaten Path in Maine! 08/18/15
- Lubec & Campobello Island – Fantastic Lighthouses! 07/17/15
- Taking the Mail Boat Ferry to Maine’s Cranberry Islands 07/15/15
- Beauty in the Mist – Bass Harbor Head Lighthouse, Maine 07/10/15
- Schoodic National Scenic Byway – Downeast Maine at its best! 07/04/15
- Acadia National Park – Alluring Beauty on the Maine Coast 07/01/15
- Narrows Too RV Resort – A Great Acadia National Park Home Base 06/27/15
- Hinckley Yachts Factory Tour – Where Cruising Dreams Come True 06/16/15