CAMPOBELLO ISLAND, New Brunswick — Long before President Franklin D. Roosevelt led the United States out of economic collapse and almost all the way through a world war, he
traveled to Campobello Island to sail, hike and swim.
The 2,800-acre island, once a playground for the rich and still home to about 1,200 residents who depend on tourism and fishing to propel the local economy, also was Roosevelt’s earliest crucible.
The future president was stricken with polio at Campobello in 1921 and was carried helplessly off the island to a waiting boat and medical treatment in New York.
Campobello, which Eleanor Roosevelt called “this quietest of places,” remains a remote and tranquil spot in the Bay of Fundy just off the Maine coast, where even the water — hemmed in by inlets, bays and coves — noiselessly pushes against the island’s rocky coast.
“Even at the height of the tourism season, we’re pretty quiet,” says Harry Newman, 59, an island resident for most of his life. “There are no whistles and bells.”
For the Roosevelts and other wealthy families of the 19th and early 20th centuries, vacationing on the island provided an alternative to the social whirl of places such as Newport, R.I. But while the appeal of Campobello’s scenic bogs, beaches and woods is timeless, the main draw for the 150,000 tourists who come here each year is the Roosevelt home.
The 34-room cottage (so-called because of its rustic style, not its size) was built 107 years ago in the arts-and-crafts style. It offers vistas of coastlines and harbors, and it provides a glimpse into the lives of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt before the two products of privilege became engines of social change on the national stage.
FDR, who was born to wealth and privilege at his parents’ estate in Hyde Park, N.Y., was brought to Campobello for summer vacations beginning when he was a year old.
It was where he wooed Eleanor and where, later, the young parents brought their growing family for long summer vacations.
And it was at Campobello where Roosevelt in 1910 first decided to seek public office, a New York state Senate seat that ultimately led to the most significant U.S. political career in the 20th century.
FDR’s visits tapered off after he left the island when he was stricken. He returned only three times during his 12-year presidency, the final trip in 1939. Eleanor’s last visit was in summer 1962, a few months before her death.
The cottage — which did not get electric power until 1952, seven years after FDR’s death and 10 years before Eleanor died — contrasts sharply with the opulence of the Hyde Park estate that was furnished over several decades by Roosevelt’s mother, Sarah.
“Neither FDR nor Eleanor cared very much about wealth,” says Skip Cole, superintendent and executive secretary of the Roosevelt Campobello International Park, the U.S.-Canadian agency that operates the home.
But the house is no shack. It has 18 bedrooms — six for family members, six for guests and six for servants — as well as a kitchen with a wood- and coal-burning stove and a porch that offers sweeping views of the grounds and coastline beyond.
The Roosevelt home and four neighboring cottages built about 1900 are the island’s manmade attractions. Adjacent bogs, beaches and hiking paths were purchased by the Roosevelt Campobello International Park Commission to protect the area from development.
The island’s shoreline is rugged and rocky, and its beaches are covered with stones, not sand. Heath, leatherleaf, sheep laurel, Labrador tea, winterberry and cranberries grow in the bogs. Offshore, sea birds, whales, porpoises and dolphins call Campobello’s waters home. And harbor seals sun themselves on rocky ledges.
Although the passage of time has thinned the ranks of Americans who remember FDR’s years in power firsthand, visitors keep coming — just as they continue to be drawn to John Adams’ house in Quincy, Mass., and the Lincoln homestead in Springfield, Ill., Mr. Cole says.
Campobello, he says, has an additional draw for those interested in Eleanor Roosevelt’s life.
An official survey in the 1990s showed 87 percent of visitors to Campobello were from the United States, the remainder from Canada. A more recent unofficial survey shows the proportion of Canadian tourists has risen to 25 percent, perhaps due in part to a new exhibit at the Roosevelt home’s visitor center highlighting U.S.-Canadian relations.
Close to home, however, Campobello residents take for granted their island’s best-known attraction, says Mr. Newman, a commercial fisherman.
“I’ve been in once in my life,” he says. “I’d say (most of) the people on the island have never been in it.”
Campobello Island, in New Brunswick, Canada, can be reached by crossing the Roosevelt International Bridge from Lubec, Maine. During summer, visitors can also reach Campobello by car ferry from Eastport, Maine, or by the Deer Island ferry. For details, visit www.eastcoastferries.nb.ca or call 506/747-2159.
Campobello is about six hours from Boston, via Interstate 95 to Bangor, Maine. Take U.S. Route 1A to Ellsworth and Route 1 to Whiting. Turn right onto state Route 189 to Lubec. Cross the International Bridge to Campobello.
The Roosevelt home is open to the public from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. EDT the Saturday before Memorial Day through Columbus Day. The grounds and park are open daily year-round, a half-hour before sunrise to a half-hour after sunset. Admission is free.
Visitors must pass through customs going to and from Campobello. Bring photo identification and a passport or birth certificate. Naturalized citizens without passports should bring naturalization certificates. Single parents, grandparents or guardians traveling with children may need proof of custody or notarized letters from the other parent authorizing travel.
Pets may not be left unattended and must be on a six-foot leash. Except for service dogs, pets are not allowed in park buildings or shelters but are allowed on park grounds.
Camping is prohibited in the park. Nearby Herring Cove Provincial Park is available for overnight camping at its campground.
For more information, visit www.campobello.com or www.fdr.net, or call 506/752-2922.