By Cathy Genthner
Henry David Thoreau visited the Moosehead region in 1852, climbing Mount Kineo along with an American Indian guide. The beauty of the mountain in the lake summons people to explore its natural and rugged beauty following in Thoreau’s footsteps.
Thoreau’s guide told him many legends about the area including the story of how Mount Kineo got its name. According to lore, a very harsh, cruel and unrepentant American Indian chief was exiled from his tribe to live out the rest of his life – and redemptive afterlife – on the mountain. His name was – you guessed it – Kineo.
Mount Kineo sits on a peninsula on the eastside of Moosehead Lake with 900-foot high granite cliffs shooting up from the water’s edge. The 1,789-foot mountain was made by a massive glacier over a million years ago as it flowed south across the landscape toward the Atlantic Ocean.
One of the best views of Moosehead is gained by hiking the fire tower – a hike that takes about four hours. Other trails take less time. From the fire tower, hikers are rewarded for their labors with views of Little Kineo, Big and Little Spencer mountains in the northeast, the Lily Bay Mountains in the southeast, Moose Mountain in the south, the peak of Coburn Mountain in the southwest behind Blue Ridge and Misery Ridge and Boundary Bald Mountain in the west.
Shuttle boats take off from the Rockwood Landing on the west shore of Moosehead and the crossing takes 10 to 15 minutes, depending on conditions. Or one can drive along the east shore of the lake that takes you to Little Spencer Mountain, through Maine Public Reserved Lands, until you reach some privately-owned land on which vehicles are not allowed.
You can park your vehicle and walk the rest of the way, with landowner’s permission. Once at Kineo, there are a number of guides and housekeeping cottages in the area for visitors who want to stay a while. Rockwood is less than a half hour’s drive to the village of Greenville, where there are accommodations as well. While small camps dot the area today, it was quite different in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when Mount Kineo was home to several grand hotels.
“In the early days, tourists would come by train from the cities and stay for months on end by taking a steamboat from Greenville. Later, they could travel by train to Rockwood and then catch a boat shuttle to Kineo,” said Candy Russell, the executive director of the Moosehead Society and Museum. “Kineo was also known for its flint by Native Americans who used it for arrowheads.”
American Indians were the first to inhabit the area more than 10,000 years ago, after the end of the most recent ice age. This tribe known as the “Red Paint People” made the area their home because of the abundance of fish, game and flint or rhyolite, which came from the exposed granite cliffs.
The first Mount Kineo House was a mansion that evolved from a small tavern initially constructed in 1844, improved upon greatly in 1848 and destroyed by fire in 1868. A second Mount Kineo House was built in 1871 and destroyed by fire in 1882. A youthful Teddy Roosevelt stayed there in 1870. Legend has it that he lost a fist fight with some young men from Greenville. The third and final Mount Kineo House opened in 1884 and was more grand and spectacular than the first two. The third house was significantly larger and had everything its guests could ask for (at that time in history). There were steam elevators that transported guests to all six floors and views of the lake and mountains from every room. During its operation, it was the largest inland water hotel in America. The hotel was bought by the Maine Central Railroad in 1911 and was operated by the Hiram Ricker Hotel Co.
The grand hotel had a slow death. In the 1930s, the growing interest in automobiles meant fewer people traveled by rail for vacations. Subsidies ended for rail companies, and the Maine Central Railroad was forced to sell the hotel. The hotel was destroyed by a fire as it was being torn down.
Skye Hinkley, who works at the Moosehead Lake Chamber of Commerce, grew up in the area and knows the history as well opportunities for people to enjoy the area today.
“I was spoiled growing up in a place like this. Not only is the region absolutely gorgeous, but no matter what season you are here, you will never be bored. There is always something to do; hiking, boating, swimming, canoeing, kayaking, ATVing, birding, moosin’ (a family colloquialism for looking for moose), fishing, seaplane rides – the list goes on and on – and this is just summer activities. Every season has a list like this,” Hinkley said.
“Also, the history of this area is well-preserved by the Moosehead Historical Society. I think we’re a town that wants to remember where we came from, and we work hard at it. The historical society is phenomenal at this.”
The small town atmosphere is special for residents and visitors. A visit to the area, whether it is to the lakeside community of Greenville or a trip to historic Mount Kineo, is life-changing.
“Another beautiful thing about this area is the people. I’ve lived in a few places in Maine, and there is nothing like living in a small town; it really highlights how little people pay attention to you when you’re in a big city,” Hinkley said.
“I remember it was 40 below zero and someone saw me struggling with my gas cap at the pump, and they hopped right out of their warm car and helped me with it. That never happened to me anywhere else and is just one example of kindnesses that I’ve experienced throughout my life in this area. When you visit this area, you leave changed for the better.”