Explorer's Harpswell home gets national historic status

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HARPSWELL — The island home of Arctic explorer Adm. Robert Peary has been recognized as a national historic landmark by the federal government, one of fewer than 50 such sites in Maine. 

The state’s Bureau of Parks and Land, which owns the 17-acre island and summer home about 2 1/2 miles off Pott’s Harbor, has been working for several years to achieve the designation.

U.S. Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Angus King, I-Maine, announced in a joint press release issued Tuesday that Peary’s summer home on Eagle Island and the Francis Perkins homestead, in Newcastle, were designated by the National Parks Service.

Peary, who grew up in the Portland area and graduated from Bowdoin College in Brunswick, purchased the island in 1881 and built his house on it in 1904. He spent most summers with his family on the island until his death in 1920.

He is best known as the man who first reached the North Pole, but spent decades exploring the arctic circle in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Members of his family and descendants continued to visit the island until it was gifted to the state in 1970, according to Gary Best, the bureau’s assistant manager for the southern region of the state. 

“We are absolutely thrilled,” Best said of the designation in an interview Wednesday. “It’s much deserving. Anyone who goes out there, it becomes immediately apparent that it’s a magical place.”

Since Maine took over ownership, the house has been converted into a museum, which includes Peary family items, and artifacts from his expeditions, like a polar bear pelt and a working player piano carried aboard the Roosevelt, the ship Peary used to reach the North Pole in 1909.

Eagles Island is only accessible by water and has no mechanical devices. About 6,000 annual visitors come to the island during its short summer season, from mid-June to Labor Day. 

The state applied for the national designation several years ago, but its application languished until it began moving through the approval process last year, Best said.

Designation as a historic landmark gives the Peary house elevated prestige, but also affords it more opportunities for grant funding and additional conservation protections, he said. 

The bureau and the nonprofit Friends of Eagle Island, which has built a welcome center on the island, are planning events for next year to celebrate the designation.

According to the National Parks Service, there are only 43 National Historic Sites in the state. Eagle Island is one of only two on publicly-owned land in Maine’s southern region, Best said. 

“It’s a big deal,” he said. “It’s the highest designation of a historic site that there is.” 

Peter L. McGuire can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or pmcguire@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter @mcguiremidcoast.

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The Adm. Robert Peary home on Eagle Island, off Harpswell, is now a national historic landmark.

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