On April 6, 1909, a scant 105 years ago, Robert E. Peary became the first man to reach the North Pole. Several months later, on a beautiful September autumn day, two motorboats left South Harpswell to deliver the news in the form of a telegram to his wife, Josephine, who was summering at the home Peary built in 1904 on the northeast end of Eagle Island in Casco Bay.
It took two full years for his record to be authenticated, confirming he was the first and only man to reach the North Pole, and the nation expressed its gratitude by promoting civil engineer Robert E. Peary and retiring him from the Navy with the rank of rear admiral.
This allowed him to spend the time between then and his death some 11 years later from pernicious anemia at his beloved Eagle Island.
His love affair with Eagle Island, and all of the islands of Casco Bay for that matter (he would eventually purchase nine), began when, as a Bowdoin undergraduate, he rowed the three miles from South Harpswell to explore it.
He was studying civil engineering following his graduation from Portland High, attracted to Bowdoin because its president, Joshua Chamberlain, had introduced that field of study into the curriculum and Peary wanted to become a surveyor.
Following his graduation and enlistment in the Navy, he played a key role in the engineering of the Panama Canal. But Maine and Eagle Island were in his blood, and he was determined to return.
His spectacular house, located on a dramatic promontory on the northeast end of the island, features one room built to feel like the wheel house of a seagoing vessel, with views of South Harpswell to the north, South Freeport to the east and Chebeague Island to the west.
The dwelling has been almost completely restored to its original configuration by the Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands, which manages the entire 17-acre island as a state historic site, and Zane Wallace, the manager, and his small crew of summer Park Rangers manicure the grounds.
His advice to visitors:
1. Don’t remove any stones.
2. Don’t use a flash camera inside the house.
3. Wear the “booties” provided over your shoes when inside the house.
A nice little network of hiking trails – visitors are encouraged to preserve the island’s priceless environment – allows you to easily explore the island in an hour or less. On our recent visit, a portion of the westerly Sunset Trail was closed to protect a family of osprey discovered the preceding day. All the trails are closed each year until July 15 to protect nesting birds; the island is also a state sanctuary.
The island has benefited from grant-giving organizations, but the most important contribution is provided by the voluntary Friends of Peary’s Eagle Island. Two docents arrive daily by boat to assist visitors in their understanding of the island and the remarkable accomplishments of Robert Peary. An eight-minute orientation video is shown in a newly constructed (all by volunteers from lumber donated by Friends member Steve Ingraham) visitors center,
Docent Gay Miller not only provided important insights during our recent visit, but regaled us with anecdotes about the Peary family and their summers on Eagle Island.
She even convinced us to purchase for $10 a fascinating 48-minute DVD, “Admiral Robert E. Peary: The Man and His Island,” produced by The Friends, which is a must-see for anyone interested in the story of one man’s first-ever visit to the North Pole, and his love affair with a special Maine island.
Our recent visit was made even more enjoyable by Tom Ring, who captained his boat, The Atlantic Seal, out of Cook’s Lobster House wharf on Bailey Island, which he does each Tuesday and Friday at 9:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. all summer (www.atlanticsealcruises.com for more information). On Monday, Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday, he leaves on the same schedule from the Freeport Town Wharf in South Freeport.
Ring’s local knowledge was boundless and fascinating; he pointed out sights and landmarks of which we would have been unaware if we’d gone out in our kayaks, as many do. For example, the nearly perfect but smaller version of Franconia, New Hampshire’s former rock formation, the Old Man’s Head, is clearly discernible on the south end of Haskell Island.
If you’re into history or simply want to spend a beautiful day out on the bay, put Eagle Island on your list.
John Christie is an author and year-round Maine explorer. He and his son Josh write in Outdoors about places to enjoy the beauty that only Maine has to offer. He can be contacted at