Photo Credit: Billy Fay

Percival Baxter’s Vision - Part 2

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.

The Vision Crystallizes

During the summer of 1920, Baxter participated in an expedition to Katahdin organized by Patten lumberman Burton W. Howe. The trip was conceived as a way to promote Baxter’s proposal to create a state park at Katahdin commemorating the centennial of Maine’s statehood. The expedition included not only Baxter, the presumptive choice for President of the Senate, but also Charles P. Barnes, who was widely regarded as the leading candidate for Speaker of the House of Representatives when it convened in January. The expedition’s guide was Roy Dudley, the long-time game warden at Chimney Pond.

As noted earlier, the expedition involved the lengthy trek from Patten to Chimney Pond and the ascent of the mountain from two directions, via the Saddle Trail and Pamola Peak, respectively. Arthur G. Staples, the chronicler of the expedition, described Dudley’s party that included Baxter, as it crossed the “knife edge” toward the summit:

"These men of ours looked like pigmy figures, against the sky. They stood out on the ridge of that mountain just as they do sometimes in the 'movies' against a setting sun. Some were being led by the hand. Others were on their hands and knees. A strange picture that I will never forget."

After reaching the summit and musing about the prospects for Baxter’s Katahdin State Park proposal, the entire group returned via the Saddle Trail:

Our trip back to camp was wearisome—very. The exhilaration was over; the way deemed long; the flies larger; the brambles pricklier; the blow-downs more numerous. We passed a deserted cabin and rounded at last into the camp-fire's evening glow at Chimney pond, in the shadow darker and gloomier, under the spell of that mystic mountain that brooded over our little tentamong the scrub growth.

Little did Percival P. Baxter know as he left Katahdin that mid-August day that the remainder of his life would be indelibly affected by this expedition. In the near term, he would return to Augusta where he would assume the presidency of the Senate when the 80th Legislature convened in January. What could not be foreseen was what was to happen almost immediately thereafter.

In anticipation of the re-introduction of his legislation creating a park at Katahdin, Baxter made two tactical moves designed to improve its prospects. First, using his prerogative as presiding officer of the Senate, he appointed his brother Rupert, a Senator from Sagadahoc County, to the Committee on State Lands and Forest Preservation, which would be considering the legislation. Baxter also facilitated arrangements for an illustrated lecture on Katahdin by William F. Dawson of Lynn, Massachusetts to be delivered on February 2, 1921. Furthermore, the proposal had received the endorsement of the state Republican Party in 1920 and Governor Parkhurst in his inaugural address in early January of 1921.

As planned, Baxter introduced on January 25, 1921 “AN ACT to Establish the Mt. Katahdin State Park” (80th Legislature, Senate No. 19). Two days later, in an address to the annual meeting of the Maine Sportsmen’s Fish and Game Association in the Hall of Representatives, he stated that:

The proposed park covers an area of 57,232 acres and comprises the whole of Mount Katahdin, and Katahdin Lake, of itself one of the most beautiful of all Maine's lakes,... The park will bring health and recreation to those who journey there, and the wild life of the woods will find refuge from their pursuers, for the park will be made a bird and game sanctuary for the protection of its forest inhabitants.

He concluded the address with a ringing challenge to the corporate interests controlling the Katahdin region:

Maine is famous for its 2500 miles of seacoast with its countless islands, for its myriad lakes and ponds, and for its forest and rivers, but Mount Katahdin Park will be the State's crowning glory, a worthy memorial to commemorate the end of the first and the beginning of the second century of Maine's statehood. This park will prove a blessing to those who follow us, and they will see that we built for them more wisely than our forefathers did for us. Shall any great timberland or paper-making corporation, or group of such corporations, themselves the owners of millions of acres of Maine forests, say to the People of this State, “You shall not have Mount Katahdin, either as a memorial of your past or as a heritage for your future?''

The unexpected death of Governor Frederick H. Parkhurst on January 31, 1921 triggered Senate President Baxter’s elevation to the governorship. This unforeseen development dramatically changed the political fortunes of his park proposal. Dawson’s illustrated lecture scheduled for February 2, 1921 was cancelled, and in its stead legislators were filing past Parkhurst’s coffin laid out in the Capitol’s rotunda. Baxter, the newly inaugurated governor, was no longer in a preferred position from which he could orchestrate legislative deliberations on his bill.

Even though the proposal was rejected in the two legislative sessions that ran concurrently with his four years as governor, Baxter remained resolute in the years immediately after he left office that a state park should be established at Katahdin.

Baxter, the Private Philanthropist - (1931) Initial Gift of 5,960 Acres

In 1930, with Great Northern Paper Company under the new leadership of William A. Whitcomb, Baxter was able to acquire, with his personal funds, a 5,960-acre parcel in T3 R9 that embraced the major part of Katahdin itself. This would become the first of the twenty-eight parcels that Baxter would deed to the State of Maine. The deed of gift for the parcel, dated March 3, 1931, provides the first expression of Baxter’s intent:

... said premises shall forever be used for public park and recreational purposes, shall forever be left in the natural wild state, shall forever be kept as a sanctuary for wild beasts and birds, that no roads or ways for motor vehicles shall hereafter ever be constructed thereon or therein, and that the grantor, during his lifetime, retains the right to determine, and to place whatever markers or inscriptions shall be maintained or erected on or within the area thereby conveyed.

As would be the case in subsequent Acts of Acceptance pertaining to the twenty-seven parcels gifted to the State from 1939 to 1963, the Deeds of Trust were incorporated in the Private and Special Laws of the State. The deeds were invariably accompanied by formal communications between former Governor Baxter and the governors and legislatures at the time of the respective gifts.

These Private and Special Laws and Formal Communications, consisting of 147 pages, are the primary sources used by the state’s appellate courts and attorneys general interpreting Baxter’s intent in creating Baxter State Park. They also provide guidance to the Baxter State Park Authority and park personnel in its management. Academics, journalists, and citizens will also find in them valuable insights as to Baxter’s vision as he progressively built the park over the course of one-third of a century. All of the Deeds of Trust, and their respective annotations, appear elsewhere in this volume. In addition, maps showing the progressive evolution of the park from 1931 to 1963 accompany the aforementioned annotations of the Deeds of Trust.

The National Park Controversy 

Before Baxter was to deed his second and third parcels to the state in 1939, there arose a very serious threat to the newly established Baxter State Park. The election results of 1932 complicated the situation for the former Republican governor. With Democratic administrations in power in both Augusta (Governor Louis J. Brann) and Washington, D.C. (President Franklin D. Roosevelt), there was renewed interest in creating a national park at Katahdin. Despite Baxter’s aversion to federal interference, he accepted the assistance of what was to become the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), which set up a camp in the Millinocket area. The State Park Division of the National Park Service (NPS), U.S. Department of the Interior, coordinated the work of the CCC in the Katahdin area.

In 1934, the NPS undertook an exhaustive study of the recreational development of the Mount Katahdin region. The final report, completed in April 1935, rekindled the debate, dating back to the beginning of the twentieth century, over the creation of a national park at Katahdin. As Park historian John Hakola stated, “along the way, the National Park Service became deeply involved in plans for the creation of a second national park in Maine.” The general scheme for developing the Katahdin region, according to the report, “should consist of motor roads skirting the base of the mountain for entrance, foot and horse trails for penetrating the interior, and adequate accommodations at studied locations.” Ambitious features included a motor road through the valley between Katahdin and the Turner mountains, a horse trail from Katahdin Stream up the valley between Barren Mountain and The Owl to the Northwest Plateau, and a lodge at Basin Ponds just outside the existing park boundary.

It is important to recognize that while this report was prepared under the auspices of the NPS, it did not recommend the creation of a national park. Rather, it foresaw supervision of a recreational area by state officials whose responsibilities would be similar to those of national park rangers. The costs of operation and maintenance were to be in large part offset by user fees. However, the development of the region was to be federally funded and the labor provided by the CCC. 

During a 1936 visit to Maine, Dr. E. A. Pritchard, an Associate Recreational Planner at the NPS, asked Baxter his views about either the NPS acquiring land contiguous to Katahdin or taking over Baxter State Park as a portion of a larger area to be made into a national park. Baxter responded by letter: 

If your Park Service wants a National Park in Maine there is available much land and many lakes and streams in Washington and other counties, with no state Park to restrict and limit your purchases. . . . Do allow me, with the assistance of old “Father Time," to handle this matter as I have planned, for what has been accomplished here has been done only after a long and tiresome contest, absolutely single-handed and in the face of abuse and bitterness that you would not believe possible where a man is merely trying to do something worthwhile for his Native State. 

An even more damaging development during Baxter’s overseas trip in the winter of 1937 was the introduction of legislation by U.S. Representative Owen Brewster to create a Katahdin National Park. The enabling legislation provided a ten-year window during which the federal government could secure these lands with public or private donations. The legislation prohibited the purchase of land with public funds. A literal firestorm ensued upon the former governor’s return; and for the next year, he engaged in a determined lobbying effort to defeat the legislation. Brewster, sympathetic to the concerns of Myron Avery and the Appalachian Trail Conference, wrote Baxter on April 19, 1937 and spoke of the “increasing influx of visitors” and stated that the NPS was more appropriately suited than the state to provide proper protection and development of the Katahdin region.

Baxter left no stone unturned as he doggedly lobbied the other members of Maine’s congressional delegation, personnel in the Department of Interior, including Secretary Harold Ickes, and leaders in the environmental community to insure that his deeds of trust were not violated. Baxter was quick to confide in John L. Baxter of Brunswick. In a precautionary letter of April 14, 1937, he entrusted his nephew with the relevant correspondence. He stated: “Nothing has disturbed me for a long time as much as this and although I feel confident that while I am alive and well nothing can be done, of course something might happen to me and then Brewster might accomplish his purpose.” Governor Baxter attributed Brewster’s motives as “first to injure me and second to get some political advantage by being instrumental in having a National Park in Maine.” 

In an interview with the Portland Press Herald on May 3, 1937, Baxter went public with his objections to Brewster’s “national park” proposal: 

Katahdin should and must always remain the wild, storm-swept, untouched-by-man region it now is; that is its great charm. Only small cabins for mountain climbers should be allowed there, only trails for those who travel on foot or on horseback, a place where nature rules and where the creatures of the forest hold undisputed dominion. As modern civilization with its trailers and hot dog stands, its radio and jazz, encroaches on the Maine wilderness, the tune yet may come when only the Katahdin region remains undefiled by man. 

Baxter prevailed. The legislation died without action being taken in the 75th Congress, and the Brewster bill was never reintroduced in subsequent congresses. Several years later, in a letter to William A. Whitcomb, President of GNP Company, Baxter asserted: “In all modesty I can say that had it not been for my opposition, Brewster’s bill would have become law.” 

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