By David MacDonald
The 57-mile network of crushed stone carriage roads constructed by John D. Rockefeller Jr. on Maine’s Mount Desert Island in the early 20th century are historic and recreational treasures. The carriage roads hearken back to Acadia National Park’s founding, 100 years ago, and today offer unparalleled equestrian opportunities. Their preservation through a partnership between the nonprofit organization Friends of Acadia (FOA) and the National Park Service also provides insights into how public-private collaboration will likely be the key to Acadia’s coming second century — and the future of many other parks around the nation.
For those of us lucky enough to experience the carriage roads on horseback this year during the Acadia Centennial throughout 2016, we’ll undoubtedly share them with walkers, bikers, joggers, wheelchairs, bird-watchers, baby strollers and horse-drawn carriages of all shapes and sizes.
With such broad appeal, accessibility for all ages and growing popularity, it’s hard to imagine a time in the 1970s when this magnificent system was in danger of being lost from years of neglect and dwindling federal budgets for maintenance. One local resident recalled they had come to expect that the carriage roads would devolve into overgrown single-track walking paths.
However, a combination of foresight, generosity and creativity resulted in a far better outcome. All those at Friends of Acadia are proud to be part of this success story.
During the mid-1980s, Friends of Acadia was formed by a group of citizen volunteers who wanted to create more opportunities for people to be able to give back to this place they loved — whether through financial contributions, volunteer work or public advocacy on behalf of Acadia. After a few early years of establishing a board of directors, a relationship with park staff and a modest operating budget, FOA jumped headlong into a new campaign to restore Acadia’s carriage roads.
From the start, the park staff and the lead donors had a long-term vision in mind. With their support, FOA put forward a bold proposal to Maine’s congressional delegation: If the legislators would secure a federal appropriation of $4 million in government funds needed for the restoration work, Friends of Acadia would commit to raising an equal amount in private funds to be set aside as a permanent endowment. This endowment was intended to provide enough income to cover annual maintenance so the system would never again fall into such a state of disrepair.
Maine’s senators at the time, Bill Cohen and George Mitchell, agreed to the challenge and secured the federal funding over three appropriation cycles, and soon Friends of Acadia was underway with a community-wide effort to raise the private funds needed to create the endowment. The campaign was a runaway success — with gifts of all sizes and a renewed public sense of ownership of the carriage roads.
Thirty years later, Friends of Acadia has made nearly $5 million in grants to the Park Service from the carriage road endowment, while growing the fund corpus through careful financial management.
Meanwhile, FOA members and neighbors from surrounding communities help the park stretch its limited dollars by providing volunteer labor throughout the year — removing encroaching vegetation in the spring and summer, raking leaves to keep drainage ditches clear in the fall, and even grooming the roads for cross-country skiing during winters when the snowfall is adequate.
The park continues to update its social science and visitor use surveys in order to understand the ideal level of use for the carriage roads, and at what point too many recreational users might begin to detract from one’s experience there. Although certain popular spots like Jordan Pond or Eagle Lake may occasionally see crowding, the overwhelming feedback from visitors is that a ride on the carriage roads is a magical and memorable experience. Indeed, it’s where many of us go to escape the hustle and bustle of the motor roads, parking lots and visitor centers.
This respite in nature and alternative to motor vehicles is precisely what John D. Rockefeller Jr. had in mind when he began the design and construction of the carriage roads in 1913. The project was not without controversy at the time, as some resented the development of previously wild areas — even if that development was to promote more public use and opportunities for enjoyment. One hundred years later, these carriage roads blend beautifully into the landscape and are an overwhelming favorite part of the Acadia experience of both local residents and visitors from afar. Friends of Acadia’s carriage road campaign has served as a model for future efforts, at Acadia and at other national parks around the country.
David MacDonald is the president and CEO of Friends of Acadia. To learn more about Friends of Acadia, visit www.friendsofacadia.org. A comprehensive history of Acadia’s carriage roads can be found in the book Mr. Rockefeller’s Roads, by Anne Rockefeller Roberts, recently updated and re-issued by Down East Books. For the latest information about Acadia National Park’s centennial celebration visit www.acadiacentennial2016.org.