A President’s Summer Haven
Decades after its creation, Roosevelt Campobello International Park continues to teach and inspire.
In 2012, after I had been nominated to serve as an alternate commissioner for the Roosevelt Campobello International Park Commission, I got a call from a White House lawyer who handles background checks for federal appointments. Before my nomination could be approved, I needed to disclose whether anything I had ever done, written, shared on Facebook, tweeted, or related to news- papers or other media would embarrass the president. Ever? That seemed like a high bar to clear, as a catalog of youthful indiscretions flashed through my mind. After several months of suspense, however, my appointment was approved, and I was excited to become part of an effort to introduce more Maine residents to one of the country’s most unusual and historic parks.
The commissioners of the Roosevelt Campobello International Park oversee the world’s only international park, established and funded by two governments. On the Canadian side, a distinguished group of federal and provincial senators and New Brunswick’s top business leaders have served, and continue to do so. On the American side, the commissioners include two grandchildren of Elea- nor and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Senator Angus King currently serves on the commission, among other notables who share an ad- miration for the mark the Roosevelts left on American life.
A treaty between the United States and Canada established the Roosevelt Campobello International Park in 1964, almost three-quarters of a century after the Roosevelt family first arrived on the Canadian is- land and began inviting their friends to join them. Shunning Newport and Bar Harbor as overly social, Franklin Roosevelt’s parents, James and Sara, went looking for a family retreat in 1891 to escape the heat and threat of disease in New York. A group of wealthy investors had established a hotel resort on Campobello Island, and the Roosevelts liked what they found there. Two years later they established a family-oriented compound on Campobello, which Sara referred to as “our beloved island.” For the first two decades of his life, Franklin Roosevelt spent all or part of nearly every summer on Campobello and brought his fifth cousin, Eleanor, there to meet his mother in 1905.
Roosevelt Campobello International Park attracted 180,000 visitors in 2017, more than in any other year in the park’s history. Still, that number is a small fraction of the more than two million tourists who visit Acadia Na- tional Park, where visitors tend to end their journeys up the coast instead of venturing two hours farther northeast to Campobello. During the Gilded Age, when the titans of in- dustry and the professionals who supported them were apt to carve out great slices of time to rusticate and renew themselves, it was not uncommon to travel to remote places like Campobello. Today, however, time seems to be split into smaller and smaller increments, no matter how deep one’s pockets, and a far-away location like Campobello sees fewer guests.
During the long summers when Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt ensconced themselves on Campobello with their children, the big red house was the family’s common denominator. The Roosevelts’ island house was their refuge and a symbol of their pride and perseverance. Franklin’s self-esteem, many said, grew out of his nautical experiences handling small boats in Passamaquoddy Bay’s supreme- ly challenging conditions. Franklin’s experiences with Passamaquoddy tribe members informed his presidential policies on Native American affairs. At Hyde Park, servants and retainers surrounded the Roosevelt family, but on Campobel- lo, they enjoyed easy contact with the islanders, not exactly as equals but with mutual respect, and Campobello islanders became friends and teachers.
It was in the red house that Eleanor first had her own household independent of her mother-in-law, and learned how to balance child-rearing activities while also enter- taining her husband’s political and military associates. Eleanor said Campobello’s fogs comforted her as she was finding her own voice and independence during Franklin’s long absences, which threatened to devas- tate her. She took time to write and reflect, including drafting both volumes of her memoirs on Campobello. She became an early advocate for human rights, and with the New Brunswick leader John Peters Humphrey, she helped draft the Univer- sal Declaration of Human Rights. Finally, faced with her impending death, Eleanor journeyed to Campobello one last time in 1962 to connect with the island’s “mystic chords of memory,” to borrow a phrase of another great American, Abraham Lincoln.
Although the Roosevelt cottage left the family’s hands in 1952, President John Kennedy, at Eleanor Roosevelt’s suggestion, initiated a discussion with the Canadian government to acquire the property as a memorial to Franklin Roosevelt. The result was the 1964 treaty between the governments to establish the park “to honor the memory of Franklin Roosevelt and to serve as a legacy of friendship between two great nations,” according to the terms of the treaty.
Campobello Island is the largest island in Passamaquoddy Bay, across from Maine’s seacoast village of Lubec. Passamaquoddy Bay is famous for its swirling tides, powerful whirlpools, razor-toothed ledges, and dungeon-thick fogs. As a young boy, Franklin Roosevelt was taken under the wing of Captain Eddie Lank of Campobello, who taught him small-boat handling and navigation skills that were a source of pride for the future president for the remainder of his life. After Franklin first showed symptoms of polio on Campobello in 1921, he returned to then island only three times. But each time, he did so at the helm of a vessel he piloted through the treacherous stretch of Lubec Narrows into Passamaquoddy Bay. He was especially proud of this accomplishment on the two occasions when the vessel was a U.S. naval warship.
Perhaps because so many islanders have fond personal memories of Roosevelt family mem- bers, visitors experience the friendly interactions of neighbors when they meet any of the park’s 24 interpretive guides. The guides, most of whom reside on Campobello, lead visitors on tours past brilliantly pastel flower gardens to the archetypal red-shingled Roosevelt Cottage, a short walk from the Visitor Centre. In the cottage, restored as closely as possible to its condition when Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt occupied it, visitors get glimpses of the family’s day-to-day life during the almost four decades of summers the Roosevelts spent there.
Honoring the historical legacy of Franklin Roosevelt is becoming a steeper challenge as the Roosevelt era begins to dissolve into the mists of time. As Angus King recently put it, “What about the Roosevelts and the Depression is not what someone who is 35 and from Iowa may know about them.” There are fewer people who lived through the Great Depression or World War II, and more and more young families, who are not inherently fa- miliar with its cultural and historical context, are vis- iting the park. Millennial visitors may be more inter- ested in interactive media and the outdoors than in, say, FDR’s famous pipe and fedora.
One recent approach developed by the park’s staff to help visitors appreciate the Roosevelts’ domes- tic life is called Tea with Eleanor. A guide serves tea and cookies while describing Eleanor Roos- evelt’s life on Campobello and her role as an ear- ly feminist and human rights campaigner. These interactive programs personalize Eleanor Roosevelt’s contributions, not simply through the abundant artifacts but through lively exchanges with groups that sign up for the twice-daily events: one free tea and one paid tea. In 2017 over 7,500 visitors signed up for the teas.
The park has recently appointed new leaders who are committed to helping visitors connect with its historic legacy. James Carr, who became the park’s superintendent in 2016, has an extensive background in financial management and education. In 2017 he hired Will Kernohan to lead an expansion and reinvigoration of the park’s interpreta- tion programs. Kernohan comes to the park with an unusual combination of training in both theater and museum studies. He has encouraged guides to interact directly with visitors through theater techniques in what he describes as “fun tours.” “I’ll admit that the guides thought I was from Mars when I first arrived,” Kernohan says. With encouragement from Kernohan, the guides now share their personal stories of living on Campobello and how they see that relating to Eleanor’s life. This might seem intimidating, but perhaps the guides recall something their subject is reported to have said: “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”
Beyond the “historic core” of cottages clustered around the Visitor Centre, the com- missioners and park staff are planning a major expansion of hiking and biking trails throughout the park’s largely undeveloped natural areas. The park’s 2,800 acres of natural areas, adjacent to the Herring Cove Provincial Park’s 1,200 acres of additional natural areas, represent an enormous untapped resource for adventure tourism experiences. Like his famous cousin, Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin extolled the virtues of a vigorous outdoor life. As a young man, Franklin Roosevelt enjoyed leading treks around the perimeter of Campobello, climbing rocky headlands, wading across tidal flats, and swimming across coves while observing the island’s abundant seabirds and wildlife. In the days before kayaking became a common sport, Franklin circumnavigated the nine-mile-long by three-mile-wide is- land by birch-bark canoe, stopping for lunch at Head Harbor on Campobello’s north end.
Enabling greater access for visitors to the natural areas where Franklin Roosevelt once challenged himself is an ambitious and expensive undertaking. To lead this effort, Carr promoted Stephen Smart to a new position as the park’s operations man- ager. Smart, who is also the island’s mayor, knows the undeveloped portions of Campobello as well as anyone on the staff, having worked at the park for 24 years, beginning with trail maintenance and carpentry work and gradually assuming greater responsibility for maintaining the park’s extensive infrastructure.
For decades, the Bay of Fundy’s enormous tides have stymied trail crews’ efforts to provide access to the park’s beautiful south- ern shores with views of the bay entrance and across to the bold cliffs of Grand Manan Island. Low tide exposes hundreds of acres of productive mudflats that are dif- ficult to cross on foot. But when the tides turn, seawater fingers its way far up into the large wetland areas of Upper and Lower Duck Ponds, often washing away sections of coastal trails built by staff and cutting off an ecologically rich part of the park. Carefully engineered trails will be required to provide access to these stunning natural areas.
Working with a team of consultants, Carr and Smart have come up with a plan to in- vest several million dollars over the next several years to build over 20 miles of hik- ing, biking, and multiuse trails. The park’s Visitor Centre at the northwest end of the park will be one hub of the expanded hiking and biking trails, creating new access along the western edge of the park, past the scenic promontory of Friar’s Head, which provides expansive views of Passamaquoddy Bay. The park has also recently acquired a building at its southern end, located where visitors arrive from the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Bridge. Dubbed the Adventure Centre, it will become a hub for the new multiuse trails along the southern edge of the park. Other strategically located trails will meander through lichen-clad spruced forests and cross streams, bogs, and coastal marches before linking up with existing trails and roads on the park’s eastern coastline. Unlike the young Franklin Roosevelt, visitors will be able to access Campobello’s natural wonders without having to wade, swim, or scale rocky headlands.
It is difficult to think of another couple whose contributions to the history of both the United States and Canada can match those of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. They left an indelible imprint on the twentieth century’s economic, military, and political history, now ex- tending into a new century. For us in Maine, this gem of a park enriches our understanding of this exceptional pair of leaders and the island that left a pro- found mark on their identities.