George Bucknam Dorr, (December 29, 1853-August 5, 1944) known as the father of Acadia National Park, spent most of his adult life bringing the park into being, caring for the park, and expanding it. It was Dorr’s vision and passion that ensured these lands would be set aside for preservation and protection for future generations.
Dorr was a private citizen whose life covered the last half of the 1800s and the first half of the 1900s. He came from privilege, the son of affluent Bostonians. He inherited fortunes from both his parents. He attended Harvard University and traveled widely in Europe with his parents. He was a gentleman scholar and lover of nature who first visited Mount Desert Island in 1868 on a vacation with his parents and made the decision to make the island his primary home. The remains of the family residence, Old Farm, at Compass Harbor in Bar Harbor, are part of Acadia National Park today. He never married; instead he focused his time, energy, and intellect on preserving the natural beauty of his beloved island. Over four decades he worked tirelessly to acquire tracts of land for protection. He donated scores of parcels of his own land and persuaded others to donate land or gift funds.
George Dorr built the spring house at Sieur de Monts in 1909 and carved “The Sweet Waters of Acadia” on a nearby rock. Today, this location has come to symbolize the enthusiasm and contributions of Dorr and other early-20th-century citizens in the creation and preservation of these lands. Dorr was ever vigilant that anything done in the park would be of the highest quality and not mar the incredible beauty and uniqueness of the area. In 1913, John D. Rockefeller Jr. began construction of a carriage road system on private land that was developed and expanded as public land with Dorr’s support.
His later years would certainly bring satisfaction but also trials and difficulties. He loved to hike and walked all over the island. He swam in Frenchman Bay almost daily, even having to break ice along the edges to do so. He had a heart attack in 1934 while enjoying his morning swim and was told he had six months to live (he lived ten more years). Chronic visual difficulties recurred throughout his life until he lost his sight in his final years.
Dorr always believed his personal fortune could absorb purchasing land on behalf of the park forever, but this was not the case. At the onset, he declined any salary except for one dollar a month as the first custodian of the national monument, but by the time the park became Acadia in 1929, he gladly accepted a regular salary. Despite the income from his highly successful Mount Desert Nurseries, he depleted his inheritance in the decade prior to the inauguration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The federally funded social programs of the President enabled the park to rapidly develop in ways that eclipsed what had been accomplished in the first decade of the park.
Dorr’s Old Farm estate was accepted a park property one month before the attack on Pearl Harbor. Dorr never retired and continued working with Mr. Rockefeller on land acquisition projects until August 5, 1944 when the heart that was supposed to have given out ten years earlier finally stopped. The National Park Service and the executors of his estate renamed the mountain overshadowing Sieur de Monts Spring and a monument at the base of Dorr Mountain honors his memory.