CAMPOBELLO ISLAND, New Brunswick – It was, as Franklin Delano Roosevelt would have said, a day that would live in infamy.

Park staffer Ron Beckwith was in his office here at the Roosevelt Campobello International Park when American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into the World Trade Center. A bus tour full of tourists from the New York City area had just pulled into the visitor’s center. By the time the second plane hit, everyone was in shock and the Gothamites were desperate for information about their city, friends and loved ones.

“We have poor cell reception now, and it was even worse then, so we were starved for information,” recalls Beckwith, who is now the superintendent of the park, which is built around FDR’s summer home on this Canadian island, located a stone’s throw from Lubec, Maine. “We set a portable television up in the visitor’s center and did our best to get everyone a chance to use our (landline) telephones.”

“We’d hear rumors about how the border was going to close, so we all scrambled around to get all the tourists back over the border before that could potentially happen,” he says. Rangers fanned out over the park’s 2,800 acres of forest, beach and rocky headlands, looking for visitors, telling them what had happened to the Twin Towers and Pentagon and advising them they might consider getting back to their cars and heading back to Maine.

The visitors back on their own side of the border, the park turned eerily quiet. After all, if the borders are sealed it’s extremely difficult to get to the island from the rest of Canada — and impossible to drive here outside of high summer, because the tiny passenger ferry to the rest of New Brunswick stops running and the only bridge leads to Maine. “At the time we didn’t think too much about what the long-term impact would be,” Beckwith adds. “And it turned out to be a very big impact.”

The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 — the most deadly foreign incursion on U.S. soil since Pearl Harbor — transformed all sorts of North American institutions, from airports to subways to banks. Because of its peculiar geographical location — on an island isolated behind border posts from both the U.S. and Canada — the Roosevelt Campobello park was hit particularly hard. Like the president whom it honors, the park was partially paralyzed, and has had to shift and refocus its energies in the wake of an unexpected catastrophe. 

OUT OF THE BLUE

FDR led the country through the Great Depression, Pearl Harbor, and World War II, but his personal tragedy began on Campobello 91 years ago this month. Franklin Delano Roosevelt awoke one morning in his family’s 34-room, 7,200-square-foot summer cottage, and knew something wasn’t right. The athletic 39-year-old had spent the previous day fighting a forest fire on the island, but had been surprised how tired he’d been afterward, barely able to muster the energy to read a book. Now as he swung out of bed his left leg lagged. Assuming he’d pulled a muscle, he hobbled over to his wash basin to shave. By evening he was confined to bed, feverish and unable to move.

The future president had contracted polio. He would never walk again.

The crippling disease, which Roosevelt contracted visiting a Boy Scout camp in the New York Palisades a few weeks earlier, marked the end of his annual pilgrimages to what he called his “beloved island” but the beginning of his drive to the White House. A driven outdoorsman would divert his energy and ambition into the world of policy and politics, ultimately transforming the U.S. and the world at one of the most pivotal moments in national and modern world history.

Today the red-shingled cottage where his life changed is the centerpiece of what is believed to be the world’s only jointly funded and administered international park, and one dedicated to both the memory of the 34th president and the friendship of two nations. It, too, is transforming to meet new, mobility-challenging conditions.

In the aftermath of 9/11, the U.S. has progressively tightened border controls on what had been a laxly defended northern frontier. Locals accustomed to being waved through the Lubec checkpoint were suddenly subject to regular questioning and occasional searches, while tourists were often interrogated. Since New Year’s Day 2008, every person driving from the U.S. to Canada — or Lubec to Campobello — has needed a passport, rather than a photo ID, representing a substantial expense to vacationing families who didn’t otherwise have a need for the documents.

Add to that the tripling of gasoline prices since the invasion of Iraq and the fall in the value of the U.S. dollar against its Canadian counterpart and it’s no wonder that visitor numbers continued to unwind. In 2001 154,174 people visited the park. By 2009 the number was down more than one-third to 92,241. If the park were to be seen as a symbol of the U.S.-Canadian relationship, the regular, face-to-face relationship between the countries would appear to have eroded.

The power of FDR’s legacy may be on the wane as well. The generation that remembers his three-term presidency is passing on, and each year those who remain are less and less likely to be traveling to this relatively remote corner of the continent. FDR’s signature achievement — the New Deal — is under fire by the national Republican leadership, egged on by libertarian and tea party constituencies hostile to the social spending and counter-cyclical infrastructure investments that were at its core.

The effect of the downturn on Campobello and Lubec is hard to understate. The park is the area’s biggest attraction, and the island’s largest employer, with 35 islanders and 15 Mainers on the payroll in midsummer. “With the decline of the fisheries, we’re embracing the tourist economy to a much greater degree than we’ve had to, say, 25 years ago,” says the island’s mayor, Stephen Smart, who is gardener at the park.

The park — which is jointly funded by the National Park Service and the Canadian External Affairs Ministry and administered by a binational board — is fighting back. “We decided we couldn’t just sit back and hope,” says Beckwith, who oversaw the commissioning of a marketing study and the promotional drive that grew out of it. The park now advertises on Maine Public Broadcasting, sends staff to travel shows as far afield as Ontario, and works to attract visitors to the Passamaquoddy Bay region at large.

“We don’t exist in a vacuum, and we promote a ‘two-nation vacation’ with the park as its centerpiece, because it’s obviously a great gateway between the two countries,” says Vern McKimmey, who was hired as the park’s first marketing director two years ago. “We had the weather, the border, and the economy all against us, but we’re on our way back.”

The strategy appears to be paying off. Visits have crept up since 2009, hitting 113,074 last year, and McKimmey expects 2012 figures to grow by another 10 percent by the time the visitor’s center closes for the season Oct. 31.

The red-shingled cottage, built in 1887, has long been the park’s centerpiece, but many visitors have discovered the staggering beauty of the natural areas, which take up the lower third of the island. Mount Desert Island has the mountains and a fjord, but on Campobello one often has the trails, beaches, cliffs and carriage roads entirely to oneself, or must share them with bald eagles. (Adjacent Herring Cover Provincial Park has a sweeping beach, oceanfront campground and golf course.) The sweeping views of Passamaquoddy Bay, West Quoddy Head, and the cliffs of Grand Manan rival anything in the Gulf of Maine region. 

RUSTICATOR TURNED PRESIDENT

It was the island’s combination of tranquility and natural beauty that first drew the Roosevelts to the island. The southern part of the island had been groomed for wealthy families by developers from Boston and New York who, in 1881, built three large resort hotels to lure guests. Once there, the investors counted on the leisure class falling in love with the place and hoped to sell them seaside lots on which to construct their rambling cottages.

In 1882, 1-year-old FDR stayed at one of the resort hotels while his father dutifully purchased a lot. At age 3, his parents’ cottage was complete, and the family started an annual tradition of spending a month or two each year on the island. They would travel by train from New York to Bar Harbor and, later, Ayer’s Junction and Eastport, and proceed the rest of the way by steamship or ferry. (The bridge to Lubec wouldn’t be built until 1962.)

“They were looking for a place away from everyday life, but they traveled with a retinue of servants, so they weren’t exactly roughing it,” says FDR biographer Jean Edward Smith, professor of political science at Marshall University in West Virginia. “It was a fairly formal manner of relaxation with afternoon teas and formal meals in a beautiful, secluded, and exclusive place where they would associate with people of their own class.”

FDR hiked, sailed, walked cliffs, rode horses, visited the nearby fishing villages of Lubec and Welshpool and swam in the cold waters of the Bay of Fundy. “The island was Franklin’s playground,” says McKimmey. “He could run wild all over it.”

Franklin took Eleanor Roosevelt to the island in 1903, when they were still courting, and they returned regularly after their marriage the following year. In 1909, his mother gave the young couple their own cottage — the one standing today — where their son, Franklin Jr., was born.

FDR’s summer residency would transform life in Eastport, and nearly triggered an ecological disaster. In 1919, one of his seasonal neighbors, the engineer Dexter Cooper, shared an audacious scheme to harness the staggering power of the 20-foot tides that swept through the passages around and near Campobello. One could dam up Passamaquoddy and Cobscook bays in their entirety, and install a series of power dams across the channels between the bays to generate power.

A decade later, when FDR was president, he allocated $10 million in Depression relief funds to start construction on a scaled-back version of the project. (Canada thought the destruction of the region’s fisheries unwise, nixing work involving their islands.) Congress ultimately panned the project, but not before the first dike was completed connecting Eastport (on Moose Island) to the mainland for the first time. 

BUILDING A BINATIONAL PARK

By that time, FDR had been paralyzed by polio and visited the island only infrequently, though Eleanor and the children continued to summer there. After his death, the house slowly fell into disrepair and in 1952 Eleanor sold it to oil tycoon Armand Hammer and his brother, who soon found himself looking to sell.

“As I recall, the Hammers were sending out feelers for getting someone to take over the house for them and for a tax benefit,” says Don Nicoll, who was on the staff of then-Sen. Edmund Muskie, who would play a key role in creating the park. “At the same time, there were people in Down East Maine and within New Brunswick’s government interested in promoting some kind of development at the cottage, though it was never clear where the idea came from originally.”

In a 1989 interview that’s part of the Muskie papers at Bates College, Muskie said he mentioned the idea of a park to President John F. Kennedy while they flew to Maine for a 1962 retreat. Kennedy mentioned the idea in his remarks on the tarmac of Brunswick Naval Air Station before the entourage boarded a helicopter for boxer Gene Tunney’s home on John’s Island, near Pemaquid.

A few months later, Muskie said, he took a call from Kennedy, who was in Hyannisport with Canadian Prime Minister Lester Pearson and wanted to know how to get in touch with Hammer. A deal was brokered and Muskie helped guide legislation creating the park through Congress. “It sailed through,” he recalled.

Muskie would later be appointed chair of the park’s commission, which was largely left to its own devices to rehabilitate the cottage, expand the park from 10 acres to 2,800 (through a purchase of land from the Dead River Company), and manage the natural areas. “They had very little guidance and there was very limited interest from the National Park Service or Parks Canada, because it was neither a Canadian nor a U.S. entity,” Nicoll said. “Since neither of them could control it, they had limited interest in getting bogged down in the intricacies of a two-country operation.”

Today those intricacies continue, but the park carries on, and Beckwith is certain it will continue to do so, regardless of the border issue. “It’s not just a national treasure,” he said. “It’s an international one.”

Colin Woodard is state and national affairs writer for The Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram and author of “The Lobster Coast: Rebels, Rusticators, and the Struggle for a Forgotten Frontier.” Woodard can be contacted at 791-6317 or at:

[email protected]