Destination South Freeport, Maine - Part III

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Explore an explorer's Eagle Island home

The summer home of Adm. Robert E. Peary rises like a ship’s pilothouse on the northeast end of Eagle Island, one of Casco Bay’s outermost isles. On April 6, 1909, Peary became the first and only person to lead a party of men to the North Pole without mechanical or electrical devices. The Maine native’s claim to be the first man to reach the North Pole was accepted in 1911 only after another explorer’s claim that he had reached the pole in 1908 was deemed fraudulent.

Eagle Island memorializes both Peary’s achievements and the isolated lifestyle of Maine in the early 20th century. A State Historic Site reachable only by boat, the island is open to visitors from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., June 15 through Labor Day (adults $3, children $1). Visitors are limited to 75 at a time until mid-July. After the seabirds nesting on the island have fledged, the trails are opened and 125 people can visit.

You can land passengers at the floating dock, then pick up a mooring for a two-hour stay or anchor outside the mooring field for a longer visit. With ledges surrounding the landing area, some prefer to take the daily Atlantic Seal Cruises boat from South Freeport. Call (207) 865-6112.

Peary’s house — built of driftwood, fallen trees, beach stones, sand and quarried rock from the 17-acre island — seems to grow out of the highest bluff. Walking the wooded trails or standing on the porch, amid the surf-swept rocky shore and ocean panorama, you can see why Peary fell in love with Eagle Island.

“I used to sit and look across [from South Harpswell] … at what seemed to be the most beautiful island in all the world … like an island … in one of the fairy stories [my mother] sometimes put me to sleep with,” he wrote.

He purchased Eagle Island in 1881 for $200 (the earnings from his first job), but work pressures prevented him from building his cottage until 1904. Peary, his wife and two children camped on the lawn during construction. In 1911 he expanded the “Big House” to its present size, and summered here until his death in 1920. The “Little Cottage,” where the caretaker lived during the Peary era, is park manager Jeanie Dorrington’s residence.

While on the island, Peary designed his sail-assisted steam-powered Arctic exploration vessel, the Roosevelt. Boats from South Harpswell would later bring telegrams to his family announcing that Peary had reached the North Pole.

The family continued to summer here until Mrs. Peary died in 1955. In 1967 the explorer’s descendants donated the property to the state of Maine “so all could enjoy its rich heritage.” You can take a self-guided tour of the house, and Peary’s 90-plus-year-old grandson, Edward Stafford, occasionally leads informal tours.

Inside, the house is vintage Victorian: wrought-iron bedsteads, wicker chairs, turn-of-the-century toys and clothing, and no electricity. Peary’s books fill the bookcases. The original cast-iron range dominates the kitchen. Exhibits in the library, on the porch and around the living room’s three-sided fieldstone fireplace detail Peary’s more than 20 Arctic expeditions, the problems he had proving his claim, and the life the family enjoyed in Washington. (The press dubbed Peary’s daughter Maria the “Snow Baby” because she was born in Greenland in 1893 on his second voyage.)

The lawn and picnic area adjoin a small sandy beach. At the edge of the woods are heirloom flower gardens tended by three generations of Peary women. Trails continue through the woods to the southern shore.

Other stories in this package:

Destination Freeport, Maine – Part I

Destination Freeport, Maine - Part II