Photo Credit: Ken Jordan

Percival Baxter’s Vision

The following material is excerpted from Governor Baxter's Magnificent Obsession, A Documentary History of Baxter State Park 1931 - 2006, by Howard R. Whitcomb. Copyright 2008, Friends of Baxter State Park.

On an August day in 1920, Percival P. Baxter found himself crawling across a knifed-edge arete as he approached the summit of Katahdin, which rises out of the great north woods of Maine. He was part of an expedition of friends and political figures determined to preserve the highest peak in the State of Maine. The expedition’s itinerary included crossings of both the East Branch of the Penobscot and the Wassataquoik Stream, and then the trek from Katahdin Lake to Chimney Pond. From Chimney Pond, Baxter’s party ascended the mountain via Pamola Peak and headed for the summit via the aforementioned arete. In those moments, on what came to be known as the Knife Edge, the magnificence of the mountain and its surrounding region was reaffirmed in the mind of the future governor of Maine, a sense that never left him. Upon reaching the summit, Baxter said, “I wouldn’t do it again for a million; I wouldn’t have missed it for a million.”

The indefatigable efforts of this twentieth-century visionary to preserve Katahdin as a wilderness area for the people of Maine covered the span of a half-century. Several years prior to Baxter’s death in 1969, Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, himself one of that century’s leading environmentalists, wrote this tribute:

Percival P. Baxter is our foremost conservationist. He was a pioneer whose voice pleaded for wilderness values when exploitation was the theme of the day. Biologist, botanist, ecologist—he has helped educate two generations of Americans on the spiritual values of the outdoors, of free flowing rivers, of alpine meadows, of cold pure springs.

Percival P. Baxter’s Family, Education, and Political Career

Percival P. Baxter was born in Portland, Maine on November 22, 1876, the son of James Phinney Baxter and Mehitabel (Hetty) Cummings Proctor Baxter. His father was a prominent businessman (most notably with the Portland Packing Company), philanthropist, and six-term mayor of Portland. Neil Rolde stated in his joint biography, that James Phinney’s son, Percival, “not only inherited the wealth of his father. . . but also his father’s sense of public duty, philanthropic munificence, historic perspective, love of nature, and intellectual curiosity.” On his mother’s side, he was the lineal descendant of several colonial governors of Massachusetts and of John Proctor, a Salem witchcraft martyr.

Baxter, a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Bowdoin College, Class of 1898, studied law at Harvard, Class of 1901, but never practiced. He devoted himself to family business matters and public affairs. He served in both the state House of Representatives (1905-1906 and 1917-1920) and the state Senate (1909-1910 and 1921). As President of the Senate on January 31,1921, he acceded to the governorship on the death of Frederick Hale Parkhurst, who had served only twenty-five days in office.

Governor Baxter was best known as a fiscal conservative and advocate of the state’s natural resources. When he left office, his most significant legacy was perceived to have been the protection of the state’s waterpower resources. In a poignant letter that had been placed in a time capsule in November 1924 and not opened until 2001, he lamented that he had not done more for his state:

“I leave office in a few weeks, cheerful and happy, but with regret that I can not do all the things I would like to do for my State and her People… What I am to do after retiring from the governorship is doubtful. I hope to continue to be useful, and to do my part as a citizen. With health, position and experience I ought to find some niche into which I will fit.”

Governor Baxter made no reference in this letter to his frustration with the legislature for its failure to create a park at Katahdin. However, it was that failed legislative proposal during his brief term as President of the Senate, and subsequently as governor, that charted the course for the remainder of Percival Baxter’s life. As a private citizen, he was determined to rectify what he had been unable to accomplish while in public office.

Initial Manifestation of a Vision for a Park at Katahdin

It is reported that Baxter first visited Katahdin in 1903. While the details of that visit are not known, it had a formative impact on the recent Bowdoin and Harvard graduate. The following year, he ran successfully as a Republican candidate for the state House of Representatives, beginning a career in public office that spanned much of the next two decades. By his own account, his interest in having the state acquire Katahdin as a park dates to his legislative service in the House of Representative during 1917-1920.

In a preliminary draft of a speech delivered on January 27, 1921, Senator Baxter referred to an act for the establishment of the Mount Katahdin Centennial State Park that he had introduced in 1919. According to Baxter, that bill would have provided appropriations “sufficient for the immediate purchase of the mountain itself together with Katahdin Lake, a beautiful lake six miles away.” In that draft, he characterized the area in the vicinity of the proposed 115,000-acre park as consisting of 53% burned over timberland, 15% bare rock/stunted growth, 15% cut over, 12% virgin growth being cut, and 5% timberland under 100 years old.

The final text of the “Mount Katahdin State Park” address to the Annual Meeting of the Maine Sportsmen’s Fish and Game Association in Augusta on January 27, 1921 contained a detailed recounting of the sale of vast portions of the state’s “wild lands”, including the notorious “State Steal,” during the administration of Governor Joshua L. Chamberlain in 1868. This segment of the speech provided Baxter with an opportunity to present his park proposal as a means of addressing this egregious loss of public land.

A much later characterization of these early legislative initiatives can be found in an article that appeared on the front page of the Portland Sunday Telegram and Sunday Press Herald on November 30, 1941:

"In 1905 as one of the younger members of the State Legislature I began to learn something of my native State, its people, its resources and its possibilities for the future. It was not, however, until 1917 that I attempted to induce the State Legislature to acquire by purchase the mountainous regions around Mt. Katahdin."

Similar remarks appeared in an article he wrote for the National Park Magazine in which he stated that upon becoming a member of the House of Representative in 1917 “[m]y plans began to crystallize and then and there I determined to have the State purchase what I consider the most spectacular and beautiful part of Maine, Mt. Katahdin and the surrounding mountainous territory.”

It is necessary to digress briefly and point out that the adoption of a substitute bill to that of Baxter’s park proposal in the 1919 legislative term, “An Act to Provide for the Acceptance by the State of Gifts of Land and for the Establishment of a State Park and Forest within the State of Maine,” proved to be fortuitous. The substitute bill allowed for donations of land to the state of Maine for public parks. That statutory provision would become the vehicle for the state’s acceptance of former Governor Baxter’s initial gift in 1931 of 5,960 acres, constituting much of the Katahdin massif.

Additional evidence of Baxter’s intentions of having the state acquire land for a park at Katahdin can be found in his personal correspondence. An early indication of Representative Baxter’s intentions is found in a letter of October 25, 1918 he received from an Acting Assistant Forester listing the largest landowners in the region of Mt. Katahdin. Also, in February and March of 1919 Baxter and Garrett Schenck, President of the Great Northern Paper Company, exchanged letters regarding the possible sale of lands to the state for the creation of a public reserve at Katahdin. Even though Baxter’s overtures to Schenck were spurned, Baxter remained determined to establish a park at Katahdin.

Continue reading the story >>