by Richard Sassaman
Visitors to Acadia National Park often concentrate on the few miles of Mount Desert Island’s rocky coast from Sand Beach to Otter Point. A glance at the map, however, reveals that most of the park is found inland, where forests and glacially carved valleys lie beneath granite mountaintops.
Acadia’s true crossroads is the area just south of Jordan Pond, where for more than 125 years the Jordan Pond House property has anchored a network of roads, carriage roads, and hiking trails. The national park’s Wildwood Stables, which provide visitors with a variety of carriage rides, also are nearby.
The Jordan Pond House, the only restaurant in the national park, takes its name of course from the pond. The pond was named for George and John Jordan of nearby Seal Harbor, who built a farmhouse, dam, and sawmill at its south end in 1847. In 1864, Melvan Tibbetts bought the house and began renting boats and canoes to visitors, as well as caring for their horses.
In 1888 Tibbetts also began serving food, and added a small dining room two years later, but even before that Jordan Pond was a popular picnic site. Its view north from the Pond House’s Tea Lawn, past the sole paper birch known as ‘The One Tree’ to the two small mountains called the Bubbles, is rivaled on Mount Desert Island only by the panoramas available at the Cadillac Mountain summit.
As one 19th-century guidebook noted: “We come out on Jordan’s Pond, the loveliest of all the Mount-Desert lakes. It is but a mile and a quarter long, with a width of about a quarter of a mile, but the shores are mantled with the richest green frondage, and on all sides rise noble and picturesque mountains.” Another correspondent in October 1888 called it “a place of entertainment for man and beast” and added that “last year 5,000 guests registered there… The attraction was the beautiful scenery.”
The couple who truly created the traditional style of the Jordan Pond House was Mr. and Mrs. Thomas McIntire, who took over in 1895 and remained in charge for the next 50 years. During their entire first summer, the couple served only about 50 guests, but more than 800 people showed up in one night alone for the McIntire’s farewell dinner in August 1945. By then the Pond House restaurant, with its massive fieldstone fireplaces and birch bark wallpaper, had become world famous. The original menu relied heavily on chicken dinners, but over time visitors had started asking for lobsters, which until then had been known as trash food for poor people.
The gracious Nellie McIntire also added popovers and homemade ice cream to the menu, while her more brusque husband Thomas, a skilled carpenter born on Prince Edward Island, worked hard to keep the place going.
In the 1920’s, fearing that the property would be lost, summer resident John D. Rockefeller, Jr. bought the Jordan Pond House, and presented it to the National Park Service in 1940. Since 1946 the restaurant has been run by the locally owned Acadia Corporation, a park concessionaire that also operates gift shops at Thunder Hole and atop Cadillac Mountain.
The original farm house had survived an area fire in 1864, then the Jordan Pond House had been spared by the famous October 1947 fire that burned over 17,000 acres on Mount Desert Island. Unfortunately, the building’s luck ran out in June 1979 when it caught fire and quickly burned to the ground. (Birch bark is not a highly rated flame retardant.) After some discussion about whether it should be rebuilt, tradition won the day, and following a round of private funding, the current Pond House opened in 1982.
Also in the early 1980s, the Acadia Corporation asked local gardener Scott Hadley to create a collection of gardens on the restored property. Hadley’s family has a long history with the National Park Service — his grandfather was superintendent of Acadia, and his father superintendent of Yosemite National Park and Cape Cod National Seashore. He worked for a decade with about a dozen helpers to brighten the area, and today the Arrival Garden, Cut Garden, Gas Garden, Hello Garden, Mediterranean Garden, and White Garden, plus several borders between the Pond House and the tea lawn, bear colorful witness to their years of dedication.
Much has changed over the last 25 years, let alone the last 125 years, in Acadia National Park. But it still is possible to take afternoon tea on the lawn by Jordan Pond, eating popovers with strawberry jam or homemade ice cream, surrounded by the magnificent scenery, much as summer visitors did in the late 19th century.From mid-June through mid-October, the Jordan Pond House area can be reached in about 20 minutes from Bar Harbor, or 15 minutes from Northeast Harbor, via Route #5 of the free Island Explorer bus. Buses depart every 45 minutes from the Village Green in Bar Harbor, beginning at 8:25 a.m.; the last bus returns from Northeast Harbor at 8:30 p.m.
The Jordan Pond House operates from mid-May through mid-October, serving luncheon and tea from 11:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., and dinner from 5:30 p.m. until closing. For reservations, call 207-276-3316 or visit their website.