Caring for Historic Landscapes as the Great American Outdoors Act Becomes Law
Deciding what to wear to work is easy for Gail Gladstone: a gray shirt, green trousers, and straw hat. (Well, a ball cap is an option.) Even without seeing the patch on her sleeve, most people quickly recognize her uniform as connected with the National Park Service. But don’t expect to glimpse Gail at a welcome counter or guiding a group of visitors along a trail on Mount Desert Island.
“My job is to care for the historic resources,” she said about her position as cultural resources program manager for Maine’s Acadia National Park. In fact, the official symbol of the National Park Service—with its Sequoia tree, bison, mountains, and water—takes the shape of an arrowhead to remind us how important historical and cultural values are to its mission. People shape the picture.
“Acadia tells us a story of the last 5,000 or more years of cultural and human history,” according to Kevin Schneider, Acadia’s superintendent. “There’s a rich, rich history.”
At the mention of national parks, images of breathtaking natural landscapes and endangered wildlife often spring to mind first. But “cultural landscapes”—that is, landscapes designed by master planners, architects, and other individuals of historic stature—have also earned a place in our national heritage and are now actively protected by professional stewards like Gail. At Acadia National Park, the lighthouses, carriage roads, bridges, and even motor roads have a long, lively, and sometimes controversial past. Epic controversies seem to go with the territory.
Take picturesque lighthouses, for example—of which Acadia has three. In America’s early days, when shipwrecks caused alarming loss of life, budget problems and opaque political alliances had rendered America’s system of navigational aids among the poorest in the world. What’s more, lighthouse keepers were political appointees, who came and went (and sometimes came again) based on the party in power.
In 1852, Congress finally addressed the situation in a report (of 760 pages!) that recommended a coordinated, national system. It ushered in an era of significant reforms and technological advances.
At about that time, artists such as Thomas Cole and Frederic Edwin Church began visiting Mount Desert Island. Through their paintings and sketches, they popularized the mesmerizing beauty of the island’s cliffs, coves, sunsets, and fog. Their artwork, widely distributed, led to an increase in summer visitors. With more vessels navigating the treacherous coastline, the federal government authorized a new lighthouse, which was built in 1858 high on a granite bluff.
Just this July, that same Bass Harbor Head Light Station was transferred from the U.S. Coast Guard to Acadia National Park, and its rehabilitation becomes a new project in Gail’s portfolio.
As Gail and team members develop plans, they will be guided by a report created last February that specifies what features of the light station are “character-defining.” Replete with photographs and drawings, this 500-page document notates everything from historic trim in the keeper’s house to the lighthouse’s “new-and-improved” 1901 Fresnel lens.
For years, America had eschewed the “far superior” Fresnel lens, developed by a French physicist, in favor of a design by Winslow Lewis, a Massachusetts sea captain, whose sway over government officials still baffles historians. “What is clear, unlike Lewis’s lenses, is that this relationship deterred the integration of significant technological advances,” the report stated.
Traveling by both steamboat and railroad, “rusticators” ventured to Mount Desert Island. In 1867, a Portland woman named Clara Barnes Martin wrote the first travel guide to the island. In it she tells how she and her companions “scrambled” through “impenetrable” forests, climbed “rough paths” to mountain tops, and went “rocking” along the coastline. For many walks, “one must have not only stout boots but well-trained feet,” she said.
That kind of vigorous activity limited who could partake in Mount Desert’s beauty, and there begins the story of John D. Rockefeller, Jr.’s singular contribution to the island’s cultural landscape.
In 1913, the wealthy heir to Standard Oil started building carriage roads on his summer estate, a hobby that would envelop him until 1940. What began as “horse roads” on his own property grew to 45 miles of passage throughout the eastern half of the island. Rockefeller himself chose the routes, walking the lines laid out by engineers. Expertly sited, they were almost invisible from mountains or lakes.
About 14 to 16 feet wide, roads were excavated deeper than common gravel roads and built up in layers, from boulders, some as large as a car, to fine rock. Alongside the edges, crews laid large blocks of granite that served as guardrails, which locals dubbed “Rockefeller’s teeth.”
Gail has been involved in many projects to maintain these roads. A focus has been Rockefeller’s ingenious infrastructure, such as the drains, ditches, and culverts that prevent water on the mountains from washing the carriage roads away. “Infrastructure! Not sexy, but so necessary,” she said.
“The carriage road system would never be built today. The effort, money, and manpower to do something like that could not happen again. But we have it at Acadia.”
The gauze of history, though, has obscured the fact that even Rockefeller’s money could not guarantee those roads would be built. At first, complaints came that the road work was destroying the forest and driving away the birds. Later, a prominent Pennsylvania congressman, also a summer resident, led an all-out attack, asserting the island’s “sense of remoteness” would be destroyed by making it accessible with these roads.
Like sparks from a fire, opinions—for and against—crackled at contentious village meetings and in newspaper editorials. Embers flew down the coast as the Portland Chamber of Commerce and the Maine League of Women Voters expressed support for Rockefeller’s project that would open up the park to a broader group of people.
As the controversy embroiled the National Park Service in Washington, prominent landscape architect Beatrix Farrand weighed in. The only woman among the founders of the American Society of Landscape Architects in 1899, the Bar Harbor summer resident rejected arguments that the carriage roads would permanently scar the landscape. With signature aplomb, she said, “An omelet is not made without breaking eggs.” She may well have been describing not only the landscape, but the quietude of communities.
Farrand would go on to design native plantings to heal some of the wounds of construction, as the controversy surrounding these remarkable roads and 16 unique stone-faced bridges also faded.
Farrand is one of Gail’s favorite figures in Acadia’s historic constellation. Herself a landscape architect with a master’s from the University of Texas at Austin, the Philadelphia native brings both skills (how to read site plans, for example) and a professional sensibility (the importance of maintenance and engineering) to her work. She also possesses a trained eye and knowledge of history, having specialized in photography and art history as an undergraduate at New York University. She is now reading A Black Women’s History of the United States.
For over 12 years, Gail has served in National Park Service positions both in Bar Harbor and Omaha, where she was cultural resource specialist for the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail.
Since March, though, she hasn’t been wearing her uniform every day since the coronavirus shifted federal employees to working from home. As she spoke via Zoom on a recent Saturday morning, she warned that her nine-year-old daughter might be passing in the background. Occasionally, her own face almost disappeared from the screen as she dipped down to pet her Whippet mix, a recent rescue who barked vociferously when denied Gail’s attention.
“Cultural resources may be cherished for their beauty or utility or a host of other reasons. Beyond that, these meaningful relationships with the land connect one generation to another,” Gail said. “They reveal our shared experience.”
Describing Mount Desert Island as a “magical place,” she added that “I feel people who live here are all on the same page about how beautiful it is.”
In fact, the desire to enjoy and preserve natural beauty binds a larger nation. Though Americans have been divided in many ways—now, as in the past—Congress recently came together to pass the Great American Outdoors Act. Lifting our collective despair for at least this moment, it will pour billions of dollars into U.S. national parks to address deferred maintenance. And Gail Gladstone will be busier than ever.