HARPSWELL — Visitors who flock to Eagle Island, the retirement home of Arctic explorer Adm. Robert Peary, could be greeted by a new welcome center if voters approve and a group of Harpswell residents have their way.
The Friends of Eagle Island, a nonprofit group based on Bailey Island, are proposing to build a new visitors center on the island pier, where visitors could learn about Peary’s life and watch a documentary about the famous explorer.
“A lot of people (who) come out to Eagle Island don’t have a clue about Adm. Peary,” said Ned Dewey, the group’s executive vice president. He said many visitors simply want to get out into Casco Bay, and don’t realize the importance of the island, which is listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places.
In 1909, Peary became the first known person to reach the North Pole. Upon returning to the United States, he retired to Eagle Island, which he had purchased 30 years earlier after graduating from Bowdoin College.
The house retains many of Peary’s original furnishings, except in the dining room, which is used to orient visitors to the island. A flat-screen TV in that room plays a documentary about the explorer’s life, something that Dewey said disrupts the flow of traffic through the house and its museum-like atmosphere.
To remedy the situation, The Friends of Eagle Island would like to build a replica of Peary’s son’s workshop near the pier, allowing the dining room to be restored to its original use. The workshop would be based on an earlier building that stood near the edge of a cliff, and was used by the Pearys to store sails, boat parts, and food, according to Bureau of Parks and Lands historian Tom Desjardin.
In order for the visitor’s center to be constructed, several state agencies must sign off on the project. According to Dewey, the plan has already received initial approval from the Department of Environmental Protection and a local engineer.
The Maine Historic Preservation Commission must also approve the plan, and on June 14, Harpswell voters must amend the island’s zoning to allow the visitor’s center to be built.
All the bureaucratic hoops have made Dewey unsure if the project will get off the ground. But regardless of whether the visitors center becomes reality, he’s still enthusiastic about the island.
“(Peary) built a rather unique house out there,” he said. “… You have to go there to know why it’s a magical place.”