Bar Harbor has long been a place of inspiration, relaxation, and outdoor activities. In the mid-1800s artists of the Hudson Valley School, most notably Thomas Cole and Frederic Church, travelled to Mount Desert Island and to Bar Harbor in particular to paint seascapes and landscapes. The paintings then taken back to the cities of America were well received and the patrons of the art wanted to see those places depicted in the paintings for themselves. At first the "rusticators" as the first visitors were called, boarded with the locals. But as they wanted more and more amenities, it was clear that they needed different lodging choices.
During the 1850s, the number of visitors began to increase. The numbers had increased so much that it was about this time that Church wondered why "some shrewd Bostonian" had not yet recognized the resort potential of Bar Harbor. So it was left to the initiative of the Bar Harborites to respond to the needs of its visitors. It was, in fact, the other side of the island at Southwest Harbor that first had the steamboat wharves and the hotels. But it was to Bar Harbor that the travellers wished to journey. It was Bar Harbor businessman Tobias Roberts who built the first hotel, Agamont House, in 1855 and the first wharf. It was Mr. Robert's foresight which was the key to Bar Harbor's future resort development. While the white wooden structure may not have really deserved the name "hotel," it was intended to be a hotel and that is what is important. The first step had been taken. The hotel was crude, but to the early travellers it did not matter. Part of Bar Harbor's charm at that time was its rusticity.
In the beginning, it was mostly artists, scholars, scientists, and writers who journeyed to Bar Harbor for inspiration and tranquility. With only a slight interruption by the Civil War, more and more visitors came to the rugged coastal community. Now and then even theater troupes stopped by and concerts were becoming more frequent. More and more local citizens ventured into the tourism business and more hotels were built. It wasn't until after the war that building really took off. In 1875 David Rodick, amidst some ridicule, expanded their small lodging facility by building the enormous Rodick House, Bar Harbor's largest hotel at that time. The hotel could accommodate 275 guests. By 1870 there were sixteen hotels in Bar Harbor. At one point though, reservations for rooms had to be done two years in advance. So in 1881 Rodick decided to expand again. This time he built 400 rooms, with not one private bathroom, a huge dining room, and a 500-foot-long, 25-foot-wide porch running along the front and one side of the building. The dining room could serve 1000 guests, though reportedly not well. The main attraction to the hotel seemed to be the lobby, known as the Fish Pond, and the porch where young ladies dallied "fishing" for husbands. The hotel era dominated the resort for about two decades. Ultimately, the "cottages" built by America's rich and famous took over the landscape.
All of the old hotels are gone, either torn down or burned down by the great fire of 1947. Many of the "cottages" burned also, but some remain. Today many of the cottages are still private homes with many more converted to welcoming inns, guest homes, and bed & breakfasts. For more background on some of these former "cottages", click here.