CAMDEN, Maine — As seaside mountains go, 780-foot Mount Battie is little more than a topographical speed bump as the Appalachian mountain chain plunges into the Atlantic Ocean. It’s not even the tallest point in Camden Hills State Park. That would be 1,385-foot Mount Megunticook. But Battie is clearly more famous and certainly easier to pronounce.
We can probably thank Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950) for Mount Battie’s primacy. The 18-year-old Camden resident was so inspired by the views from the summit that she ultimately penned ‶Renascence.″ The poem launched her celebrated literary career when it was published in 1912. Generations of Maine schoolchildren could recite the opening lines by heart: ‶All I could see from where I stood / Was three long mountains and a wood; / I turned and looked another way, / And saw three islands in a bay.″
She was hardly the first to take note of the view. That amazing overlook and its strategic significance prompted the locals to construct an artillery battery atop Mount Battie a century earlier during the War of 1812. They armed it with heavy cannons that had to be dragged through the woods to the summit. There’s no evidence that the guns were ever fired, but the battery visible on the mountaintop apparently kept the British fleet at bay.
By Millay’s time, the heights of Mount Battie were a good bit more peaceful. The Summit House, constructed in 1898 as a hotel, was known as a spot for serene contemplation of the wonders of nature. While neither history nor verse records exactly how Millay climbed to the summit that early morning recounted in her poem, we suspect that she probably followed the 1897 carriage road that led up to the Summit House. She was clearly as smitten with the mountaintop as the urban rusticators summering in Camden.
Those Bostonians, New Yorkers, and Philadelphians who didn’t want to lodge at the summit might have instead chosen Whitehall, an inn that opened in downtown Camden in 1901 in a former sea captain’s home. The Whitehall played a crucial role in launching Millay’s career. On Aug. 29, 1912, her sister Norma convinced Vincent (as the poet had taken to calling herself) to recite ‶Renascence″ to a gathering of the wealthy guests. Caroline B. Dow, an arts patron and school dean, was so impressed that she arranged for Millay to attend Vassar College.
Under the Lark Hotels group, Whitehall has enjoyed a revival as a luxury boutique inn, evoking the pampered rusticity of the prewar age when Millay was discovered. The room where she gave her recital marks the occasion with several volumes of her verse, photographs, portrait paintings, and even her high school diploma. Whitehall fondly recalls the frail, ginger-haired poet who got away and became an artistic and literary sensation in the more cosmopolitan and bohemian world of Greenwich Village.
Millay had already won a Pulitzer Prize, married, and settled on her estate in Austerlitz, N.Y., by the time the federal government turned its attention to the Camden Hills. The Civilian Conservation Corps established a camp adjacent to Route 1 in 1935, and the CCC workers built trails, shelters, picnic areas, and campgrounds over the next six years. During World War II, the camp was transformed into an Army base. In 1947, the federal government left and the sprawling parkland became Camden Hills State Park.
The 5,700-acre park extends a considerable distance inland and encompasses several peaks besides Mount Battie. In fact, many of the 30-plus miles of trails are on the slopes of Mount Megunticook (the Penobscot name for the whole group of mountains). Giving a taste of the varied Maine landscape, the trails wind through deep woods, open meadows of historic farmland, and blueberry barrens. They emerge on exposed cliffs and mountain summits with spectacular views. While the Summit Hotel on Mount Battie is long gone, the park does boast more than 100 mostly wooded campsites just off Route 1. The campground also has a playground and modern bathrooms with hot showers. A small strip of the park continues across Route 1 down to the scenic Penobscot Bay shoreline, where there are group shelters and picnic areas.
The moderately difficult Carriage Road Trail — which is probably the route Millay took — meanders 1.2 miles up Mount Battie from the trailhead parking lot on Route 52. It’s one of the most popular hikes in the park. Far more people take an even easier route. They drive up the Mount Battie Auto Road. It winds through woodlands to the same summit overlook where Millay made her memorable observations. Finished in 1965, the road was cleverly engineered to be invisible from the highway, with the intention of preserving the illusion of the park as forested wilderness.
At the summit, a stone tower dedicated to Camden’s men and women who served in World War I stands on the rocky bald. A weathered bronze plaque placed in 1967 takes note of Millay’s visit and subsequent poem with a florid inscription quite the opposite of the poet’s own economical, even terse style. But the view that inspired her is still there and utterly unspoiled. On a clear day with no haze, Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park pops up as a pinpoint peak on the eastern horizon and the extensive archipelago of Penobscot Bay spreads out below like a dotted carpet of sea. Even on a more typical murky day, a rocky outcrop just off the summit is an excellent place to sit and enjoy the eagle’s eye view of Camden harbor.
Pen and paper are optional.
If you go . . .
Camden Hills State Park
280 Belfast Road, Camden, Maine
Open year-round. Day use areas and campground open through mid-October; auto road open at least through October. Maine adults $4, non-residents $6, Maine seniors free, non-resident seniors $2, ages 5-11 $1. Campsites $27.25-$38.15/night Maine residents, $38.15-$49.05 nonresidents; higher prices include power and water. Reserve at www.campwithme.com.
52 High St., Camden, Maine
Open May-Oct. 36 guest rooms and suites from $169.