The Coast Walk Project

Coast Walk 10: East Side of Otter Cove, part 1

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May 20, 2015: 6:30am. 55 degrees, chilly, light breeze, sun and clouds. 9 Herring Gulls, 1 Crow, 1 Loon, 2 male Eider Ducks, 4 Black Scoters (2 male, 2 female), 3 Wild Turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo), 2 female Common Merganser (Mergus merganser), 2 Laughing Gulls (Leucophaeus atricilla), 1 Lesser Yellowlegs (Tringa flavipes) [although I’m not totally sure; it might have been a Solitary Sandpiper.]

Laughing Gulls (Leucophaeus atricilla)

Clockwise from top left: Laughing Gull, Lesser Yellowlegs, Common Merganser, Wild Turkey.

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I walked down the Fish House Road awfully early on a bright, cool morning in late May, and headed south along the shore of Otter Cove.

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The terrain underfoot changed quickly from gravelly pink granite to small boulders so covered in periwinkles it was hard to know where to step, to similarly-sized boulders completely covered in rockweed. It was slow, wobbly going over the rockweed.

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My side of the cove was still in shadow, and I watched the west side gradually get brighter as the sun rose higher in the sky.

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The fish house across the way looked tiny against the hill. (We’ll be visiting it soon!)

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I stumbled across an enormous tide pool, shallow now at dead low tide. The morning light hit it at an angle, lighting up the interior like an aquarium. Notice that there’s a sandy-looking bottom, very exotic around here.

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Because it was so shallow and perfectly lit, I was able to get some great photos with minimal distortion. I think these little tube worms are Spirorbis borealis.

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I tried to get a shot showing the worms feeding, but they were harder to photograph than barnacles! If you look closely, you can just make out the feathery arms of one at the top right, and another like a little star at bottom left:

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The Coralline and its crustose cousin were wearing matching shades of pink:

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There are three Slipper Shells piled on top of one another here:

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OK, this was new. A periwinkle had rolled over, and had to pull itself upright. I always wondered how they would do that – turns out they can come a long way out of the shell, then suction on to the nearest solid surface and just pull themselves over. This one must have had half its body-length out of the shell by the time it found something to hold onto. I didn’t get a photo of that, I was too fascinated watching. But I did notice those little orangy-green clusters near the eyestalks. I spent some time hunting down diagrams of periwinkle anatomy and parasites online but couldn’t figure out what those are.

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A closer look at that “sandy” bottom shows it’s actually finely crushed shells:

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This is probably the native Sea Cauliflower (Leathesia marina), but it might possibly be Colpomenia peregrina, a newcomer to the area. They look like little olive-green balloons:

Colpomenia peregrina or Leathesia marina

Colpomenia peregrina or Leathesia marina?

The day warmed up a bit as the sun rose higher over the hills, and I came to an outcrop of pink granite that blocked my way.

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Climbing up, I found a decaying stairway and realized I must be below the Fabbri Memorial.

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I’ve known the area for years as a picnic spot with convenient bathrooms, and never paid much attention to the memorial itself, which is the standard rock-with-a-plaque: pretty boring, even if you take the time to read the tiny text.

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I felt sort of obliged to at least find a photo of Fabbri for this blog, and stumbled across several resources that made me look not only at the memorial but at the whole of Otter Cove with fresh eyes. [Specifically: The Fabulous Radio NBD, Brandon Wentworth, 1990; Archaeological Investigations at Fabbri Memorial, Diane Lee Rhodes, Denver, Colorado, National Park Service, 1985; this wikipedia entry about the radio station, Karen Zimmerman’s essay about the lookout tower, and Fabbri’s obituary in the New York Times.]

It looks so wild and untouched here, except for the causeway, but standing at the memorial, to your right the town of Otter Creek is just beyond the trees at the head of the cove, the forest across the cove screens busy Blackwoods Campground, and somewhere close by was once a submarine refueling station with a substantial steel pier. You would be standing in front of the main administration building of the “radio station” mentioned in the plaque, which was a large naval communications station that included barracks, medical offices, at least 5 radio receiving stations, two 185′ tall steel antennae, that at its peak during World War I employed about 100 men. All of that is either deliberately hidden or  has been equally deliberately wiped away. My mind did the usual bit of boggling, and I started to understand just how directly and actively the conservationist philosophy guiding the establishment of the National Parks had affected this landscape right here. It was one thing to wander around the ruins of George B. Dorr’s estate in Compass Harbor – the presence of the ruins and the access roads signal that this was once an inhabited landscape that has been allowed to naturalize. Otter Creek, Fabbri’s radio station, and the campground are invisible, as if the cove is pretending to be wilderness. Which it is, because there are trends in conservation and in historic preservation, and until recently, wilderness was more highly valued than vernacular history. For many people it still is.

Confession: I’m a landscape architect with training in historic preservation, so I appreciate a pretty view, a functional native ecosystem, and a cultural landscape. As you can tell from any entry in this blog, I thoroughly enjoy the traces of history. Whether they are left as mysterious ruins, as at Dorr’s estate, or whether they are explicitly interpreted, as in the excellent “Museum in the Streets” program that has finally reached Bar Harbor, I find they add enormously to a sense of place. I understand why the old radio station was erased – in the 30s it was so recent it wasn’t considered history yet, and the prevailing philosophy was the preservation of natural beauty. Why not remove all trace of a utilitarian military complex?

I’ve got a meeting scheduled with the Chief of Resource Management at the park next week, and am really looking forward to learning about current park management philosophy, and how on earth they find a balance – any given stretch of coastline might be a resource for fishermen, historians, rock-climbers, botanists, geologists, artists, or plain old tourists, so how do you decide what access to provide and what information to present? But let’s turn our attention back to the memorial.

Rhodes, Diane Lee, Archaeological Investigations at Fabbri Memorial, Denver, Colorado, National Park Service, 1985.

photo from Rhodes, Diane Lee, Archaeological Investigations at Fabbri Memorial, Denver, Colorado, National Park Service, 1985.

Alessandro Fabbri was the son of one of the ‘Morgan Men’ (partners in J.P. Morgan’s company) who were a large part of Bar Harbor’s summer colony around the turn of the 19th century.  Although he was born in New York City, he spent most of his childhood in Italy. Fabbri’s home in Bar Harbor was an Italianate villa called ‘Buonriposo’ on Eden Street. [It was demolished in 1963, and in a year or two when we Coast Walk that area we’ll visit whatever’s left of it.] Around 1912 he developed an interest in radio transmission, and with help from Ralph Tabbut of Bar Harbor built a wireless station here.  When the US declared war on Germany in April of 1917, Fabbri donated his yacht to the US Navy, and offered to donate the wireless station as well if he could be named station manager, as he didn’t want it manned by novices. The Navy refused on the grounds that civilians could not manage a military station, so Fabbri became an ensign in the Naval Reserve and after searching for a site with good potential reception for European radio signals, he leased a property known as ‘Otter’s Nest’ which was located where the memorial is now.

photo from The Fabulous Radio NBD, Brandon Wentworth, 1990

photo from The Fabulous Radio NBD, Brandon Wentworth, 1990

Otter’s Nest had been the property of the Palmer family of Washington, D.C. Purchased in 1883 by Aulick Palmer, in 1910 it became the “Country Club of Mount Desert.” Members included John D. Rockefeller, George Dorr, and Robert Abbe. The club was successful for a time, but closed by 1917. The archaeological report I mentioned includes a few intriguing bits of early history: it cites a prior survey listing a “contact period Indian settlement in the vicinity of Otter Creek Point,” and a 1688 census listing one Indian family living on the east side of the cove (p.20), mentions that Samuel Champlain may have anchored in the cove, and includes a history of the land ownership (p.21-22). (It’s a really interesting and very thorough document, 214 pages including illustrations and maps, and it is online here, if you’d like to read the whole thing.)

Rhodes, Diane Lee, Archaeological Investigations at Fabbri Memorial, Denver, Colorado, National Park Service, 1985.

Station Commissioning Ceremony. (photo from Rhodes, Diane Lee, Archaeological Investigations at Fabbri Memorial, Denver, Colorado, National Park Service, 1985.)

In addition to the Otter’s Nest property, Fabbri leased a 5-acre tract to the north, providing 12 acres total for the Otter Cliffs Radio Station, which was officially commissioned in August of 1917. The Otter’s Nest cottage became the receiving station and quarters for the radio operators. The station had outstanding reception capabilities and by 1918 it was the “pre-eminent receiving station in the US of over-seas transmissions.” (Rhodes, p.32)  This was the radio station the Germans contacted to initiate peace overtures in 1918, and the station that received the declaration of Armistice.

photo from The Fabulous Radio NBD, Brandon Wentworth, 1990

photo from The Fabulous Radio NBD, Brandon Wentworth, 1990

Other buildings were constructed – barracks, medical facilities, mess hall, etc –

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photo from Rhodes, Diane Lee, Archaeological Investigations at Fabbri Memorial, Denver, Colorado, National Park Service, 1985.

and in 1918 the whole point was made a secure area by the Navy, in part due to fear of submarine attacks. An electric fence sealed off the point:

Rhodes, Diane Lee, Archaeological Investigations at Fabbri Memorial, Denver, Colorado, National Park Service, 1985.

photo from Rhodes, Diane Lee, Archaeological Investigations at Fabbri Memorial, Denver, Colorado, National Park Service, 1985.

To increase the station’s capabilities, the Navy built a remote transmitter site at Seawall, linked to the Otter Cliffs station by a submarine cable. [We’ll visit the site when the Coast Walk reaches Seawall.]

Rhodes, Diane Lee, Archaeological Investigations at Fabbri Memorial, Denver, Colorado, National Park Service, 1985.

photo from Rhodes, Diane Lee, Archaeological Investigations at Fabbri Memorial, Denver, Colorado, National Park Service, 1985.

Fabbri resigned in 1919 after the war’s end, and was awarded the Navy Cross in 1920. He developed pneumonia after catching cold on a duck-hunting trip in 1922, and died three days later. He was only 44.

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After the war’s end, the station’s workload fell off sharply and by 1920 there were only about 60 men stationed there. In 1929, Rockefeller announced plans for what would become the Park Loop Road, but it took several years to negotiate an agreement with the Navy.  The process began in 1934. The station was dismantled and all the buildings were razed by 1935. Rockefeller had the radio compass facility moved over to National Park Service land at Schoodic. The Loop Road was built shortly after, and runs between what used to be Otter’s Nest and Barracks A. The Fabbri Memorial rock was dedicated in 1939.

The archaeology report mapped the foundations, dump sites, sewer pipes, and stone-lined wells they found, and has photos of lots of refuse including early 19th century china shards as well as electrical wire, batteries, and other debris from the radio station. The report recommended the park develop interpretive displays – “We have many areas in the NPS system that illustrate and commemorate the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, but very few representative examples of World War I activities, especially communication technology. Acadia’s Fabbri area is a unique and eloquent tribute to the technology and military defenses of the period, and the to dedicated men who served here.” Still a cool idea, if you ask me.

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After all that research on the radio station, I think I’ll hold off on the Otter Creek history until next post. All of that came later, anyway. After I noticed the stairs leading up the bluffs, I turned back to the pools on top of the ledges. I’ve been looking at them even more carefully since finding the salamander eggs, and today I noticed little black swimmy things (top) that looked like slimy commas when I caught them (bottom.) After some research, I think these are mosquito pupae. Oh joy. There was an adult stalking me, too:

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Then there were these odd little things:

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They were so small I couldn’t see any detail on them, and too far down to use my iPhone macro lens on. They looked like tiny seeds, but they were swimming. (That black stuff is dead leaves at the bottom of the pool.) I hunted around among ephemeral pool references, and I think they must be something like a clam shrimp or a seed shrimp:

Seed shrimp (from E Ray Lankester (A Treatise of zoology) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

 And I have no idea what this is! It was a little narrower than my thumb, and seemed to have a lot of crushed crab shells in it. Seagulls eat crabs, but seagull poo is a lot wetter than this:

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Eventually I reached a point where I could go no further along the ledge, and couldn’t climb down. I didn’t much want to climb up the bluff, so I retraced my steps.

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Picking my way back through the rockweed, I almost missed this:

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Can you see it? How about now:

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We’ve got a Common Sea Star (Asterias rubens) and a Sea Cucumber (Cucumaria frondosa). The Sea Cucumber is particularly cool; they are deep water animals and I never expected to find one in a tide pool!

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Aren’t the colors amazing?

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This particular wildlife took advantage of me being precariously balanced and holding an expensive camera over a tide pool to bite me on the wrist:

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My first black fly (Simulium sp.) bite of the season. Probably not the last!

 

Next week: cod, granite, lobster, and a National Park: the history of Otter Creek and why you can’t see the town from the water.

 

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6 thoughts on “Coast Walk 10: East Side of Otter Cove, part 1

  1. Luann Yetter

    I love your blog! This entry was so helpful to me today. I was hoping I could find the site of the naval station this week when I visit Bar Harbor. I wrote about it in my book Bar Harbor in the Roaring Twenties (just out). Now I know exactly where to look!

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  4. Beth Whitney

    This is so fantastic! I’ve long wondered about Otter’s Nest. I’ve only seen one shady photo of the cottage and have never been able to find more, much less learn about its history beyond the Palmer’s owning it. I wish I had realized the NPS had such great archives when I was local. Thank you for this wonderful blog.

    1. Jenn Post author

      Hi Beth,
      You are most welcome! If you want to read more, many of the resources I used are online. I listed them right under the photo of the memorial plaque, and you can click on links to the text there.
      Jenn

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