The most dramatic event in modern Bar Harbor history was the 1947 wildfire that burned from October 17th to November 14th, much of that time out of control. Almost no rain fell on Mount Desert Island that year after Memorial Day, making it the driest year on record.
October 23rd has been called “the most fateful day in Bar Harbor history.” At 4:10 pm, with high winds driving the flames and the village completely surrounded by fire, the evacuation was sounded. Some 2500 people, assembling at the athletic fields, then walked six blocks to the pier. Boats from neighboring towns, maneuvering in surging seas against winds gusting to gale force, worked hard to take 400 people to safety. The wind stayed constant, fortunately, and the fire, traveling more than six miles in less than three hours, burned its way straight out to sea between Schooner Head and Otter Cliff. Most of the village, a few hundred yards to the east, escaped unharmed.
Across Maine that fall, 200,000 acres burned as fires destroyed all or part of a dozen towns. Thousands were left homeless, and 16 people died. York County was hit the hardest, but Bar Harbor, thanks to its elaborate summer cottages, got much of the publicity. Locally over 17,000 acres (one-third of the island) burned, including 10,000 acres in Acadia National Park. So did the remaining five area luxury hotels, 67 summer cottages, 170 local houses, and 90,000 mice used for scientific research at the Jackson Laboratory. Property damage on the island exceeded $12 million.
People sometimes say that the Fire of ‘47 ended Bar Harbor’s days as a summer resort for the wealthy. By that summer, though 87 of the town’s 222 great cottages already were unoccupied, either boarded up or for sale. The Depression, the start of income taxes, and World War II—with its blackouts and the absence of servants, who now served instead in the Armed Forces—already had changed the character of the town.