July 07, 2020

Past Lives> Kineo resort may be reaching the sad end of its grand legacy

Except for the chittering of swallows that fly in and out of the abandoned buildings, a quiet eeriness prevails at the former Kineo resort located on Moosehead Lake.

Once considered one of the best vacation spots in the country, the resort used to be visted by aristocrats, movie stars and royalty who came for the yacht races, the ballroom dances, a game of golf on well-manicured lawns, and sumptuous meals served by waiters in crisp, starched uniforms, as well as the solitude and beauty of the surrounding landscape.

People still visit the resort, but not to experience its elegance. Many of the buildings have been long abandoned and are open to the elements. The grand, five-story hotel no longer exists, and the remaining hotel annex is such a blight to its surroundings that the owners threatened last year to burn it to the ground.

While the threat wasn’t carried out, the owners have signed a contract with a firm to demolish the building starting July 15.

Today’s visitors travel to the former resort to get a glimpse of history, to play a game of golf, to fish and to hike the imposing Mount Kineo, made famous by Maine Indians who used its flint for arrowheads and chisels. Or they come for a quiet night’s stay and a good, hearty meal at a small lodge operated by Marshall and Lynn Peterson. Unlike yesteryear’s travelers, many now come dressed in sneakers and shorts, carrying bulging backpacks.

Buildings with no future

To reach the former resort, which is located on a small peninsula, visitors must take a short boat ride from the public docks at the town of Rockwood. Shuttle boats are operated on an hourly basis to the peninsula.

Aside from the memories of those who worked or stayed there, little has been preserved of the once-grand resort. The original water tower and brick powerhouse, the yacht club, a 48-room dormitory building and the 54-room wooden hotel annex lie in varying stages of decay. These buildings share space on the peninsula with an operational clubhouse and nine-hole golf course, a few privately owned seasonal cottages and the lodge owned by the Petersons.

The doors to the hotel annex squeak and creak as a breeze moves them back and forth. Visitors who decide to explore the dilapidated building do so at their own risk.

Inside, hardwood floors are littered with debris and plaster. Beautiful winding staircases lead to long hallways filled with empty rooms on each side. A fireplace and enormous wooden columns that anchor the first and second floors are all that remain in the ballroom of the hotel annex.

The tall grass that surrounds the abandoned buildings sways with the breeze. The smell of damp, moldy plaster tingles the nostrils. Carpenter ants crawl in and out of the cracks and feast on the rotted timbers, while spiders scamper across the veranda.

While much interest has been expressed in restoring the property, no one has stepped forward with the necessary cash and guarantees that have been required from the owner, T-M Corp. of Greenville. Work to tear down the hotel annex will begin next month, unless someone comes forward with the funds to preserve the building, according to Bill Holland of Northern Associates Inc. in Greenville, the firm representing the property.

Holland said the hotel annex was to have been demolished last winter, but ice conditions on Moosehead Lake prevented the transportation of heavy equipment to the site.

“The hotel will either go up or down this year,” Holland said. ” … We’ve had no trouble finding people with desire.” Some residents, including the Petersons, would like to see the resort restored for its rich history and are attempting to gather last-minute support.

“It would be shame for them to tear the building down,” said Marshall Peterson.

Much interest has been expressed in the property. In 1993, the owners even concocted a scheme that would have given the hotel, debt-free, to anyone with a good idea and the resources to carry it through. More than 300 people tried to persuade the owners to accept their proposals to turn the hotel annex into either a survivalist camp, a personal residence, a retreat for those afflicted with AIDS, and a gambling casino, but no one could provide the needed resources.

There also have been no takers for the purchase of the former resort and about 200 acres surrounding it, including 20 building lots and a sand beach, which was advertised for sale nationally in 1994.

Looking at the past

Rich in history, the first public lodging was built on the peninsula in 1844. The small tavern was enlarged several times and principally served lumbermen, woodsmen, river drivers and local hunters, according to Sprague’s Journal of Maine History. When fire destroyed it, another lodging facility was built in the same area. That too was destroyed by fire.

Kineo’s actual fame as a summer resort came when the large Mount Kineo House was opened to the public on July 30, 1884. Several additions were added to the building over a period of years, making it into a massive structure that could be seen for miles across the lake. Most of the existing cottages and the yacht club were also constructed during this period. The existing hotel annex was constructed in 1911.

Hannibal Hamlin, former senator and vice president of the United States, and John Appleton, a former U.S. chief justice, were two of the many prominent people who attended the dedication of the main hotel. Much of its success at the turn of the century was given to John H. Eveleth of Greenville, an owner of the Kineo property who was a prominent merchant and lumberman, and to Orrin A. Dennen of Shirley, who served as general manager of the property for 40 years.

In the early 1900s, the Ricker Hotel Co., which also had connections with the Samoset Resort in Rockport, took on the ownership of the Kineo resort before selling out to the Maine Central Railroad, according to local historians. When railroad subsidies became an issue, the railroad sold the resort in the late 1930s to a group that included Louis Oakes, a well-known businessman.

Oakes and his partners agreed to purchase the resort if the railroad removed the old hotel, which it did, according to Louis Hilton, a grandson of Oakes who lives in Greenville. Later, Oakes became the sole owner of the property. Throughout the 1940s, the resort was closed, and it wasn’t reopened until 1950 for operation by Oakes, his son, Max Hilton, and grandson Louis Hilton.

The grand resort sprang to life in 1957, when Louis Hilton and his wife, Birgitt, began operating the facility as a gathering place for an upscale clientele.

“Ninety percent of the business was repeat business,” according to Birgitt Hilton. The facility was operated in a very formal manner; women wore nice dresses and men wore suits and ties for most activities. An American plan of three meals a day was offered, and dances were held twice a week, she said. Each Sunday, the new guests and the old guests were introduced to one another during a formal cocktail party, according to Birgitt Hilton, who served as social director.

Carrying steamer trunks full of dressy outfits, the visitors would stay for two weeks or longer at the hotel, which served up to 125 guests a night during its peak period in July and August, according to Louis Hilton. About 50 employees waited hand and foot on the visitors to make their stay enjoyable.

The long, 18-hour days of managing the hotel finally took their toll on the Hiltons, who sold the resort to Robert Rines, a Boston attorney, who had been a regular guest. Hilton, at that time, was also involved in the development of the Squaw Mountain Ski Resort in Big Squaw Township. “The opportunity came up to sell it, and we did,” said Birgitt Hilton.

Rines attempted to market the facility as a Treadway Inn, but closed it down after three years of operation. All of the furniture, including Tiffany lamps, the porcelain china, embroidered linens and the sterling silverware used at the resort were either sold or ended up among the missing, she said.

The property was then transferred to a couple of other owners before it was purchased by T-M Corp., which intended to burn down the hotel annex to make the property more appealing on the real estate market.

So, until the cranes begin dismantling the structure, visitors can continue to risk walking through the creaking doors, climbing the cluttered stairs to look out one of the windowless holes at the scenery and reflect on Kineo’s past.

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