‘Bar Harbor has been visited again by the deadly automobile scourge…” the Bangor News reported in 1908.
Indeed. Many in the state of Maine considered motorcars a thing that caused great trouble, even suffering, to the point that automobiles pretty much were banned for more than a decade on Mount Desert Island, basically until the establishment of what we now know as Acadia, the first national park east of the Mississippi River.
If banning cars from an area of more than 100 square miles seems outrageous in modern times, you have not been paying attention to the news, nor have you visited the “Auto Wars: Then and Now” exhibit at the Seal Cove Auto Museum.
The Seal Cove museum specializes in Brass Era vehicles — automobiles and motorcycles — and, because many of its visitors aren’t car guys but Acadia tourists looking for something to do on a rainy day, in using them to tell a story. The story recently unveiled at what is probably the country’s eastern-most car museum celebrates the centennial of the national park system and examines the battle to ban cars — then and now.
The Reader’s Digest condensed version: In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Mount Desert Island (by the way, it’s pronounced like dessert, not desert, in honor of its founding by French explorers) became the playground of the rich and famous (and in many ways it still is). It’s noteworthy that before it became Bar Harbor, the town was called “Eden.”
So the wealthy summertime visitors found motorcar traffic to be noisy and bothersome and used their influence with state politicians to get cars banned from the island, with the exception of the southernmost towns of Tremont and Southwest Harbor. The ban lasted from around 1905 until 1915.
That was then. What about now? Well, now there are residents who again are unhappy with so much tourist traffic in the summer months and are exploring ways to reduce it. Not only is the history of the Auto Wars explored in the Seal Cove exhibit, but the pros and cons of the current traffic situation also are presented.
The museum was the way for Richard Paine to share his car collection with others. Paine was a Boston blue blood, a descendant of a signer of the Declaration of Independence. But his passion was cars and he brought it with him when he moved to the island. He was among the first Saab dealers (Saabs still are amazingly popular in Maine), also sold Porsches and started a Mercedes-Benz dealership just so he could get a 300 SL gullwing. By the mid-1960s his collection ranged from Ferraris to Duesenbergs, and grew significantly when he bought 41 cars from New York plastic surgeon Samuel Scher. He also bought cars from Briggs Cunningham’s museum and James Melton’s collection, so many cars that he built the nondescript building that now houses the Seal Cove museum.
After Paine’s death, the museum was reorganized. The decision was made to focus on Brass Era vehicles and especially vehicles with New England history. Some 60 cars were sold at auction to create an endowment and the museum reopened in 2009 to showcase its collection and to use it to tell stories.
Speaking of stories, remember the “automobile scourge” reported by the Bangor newspaper in 1908? It concerned three Desert Island younsters who took the wheels off a harness-racing sulky, made a gear from a saw blade, added the seat from a carriage, created a body from wood and metal and added a motor boat engine to power their “car.” Somehow, they got the thing licensed — Maine plate No. 3214. What’s left of their vehicle is part of the Seal Cove Auto Museum’s collection.
Nearly every car in the museum has such a story. If possible, get curator Robert Rodriguez to give you a tour and to share those stories.
See the museum’s website for more information.
Photos by Larry Edsall