On June 30, 1970, a small Piper single-engine airplane with only a pilot on board disappeared while en route from Boston to Newfoundland in Canada. For three months, no one knew what happened to the plane or the pilot, retired Air Force Capt. Robert McGaunn.
But that fall, a local pilot spotted the wreckage of the plane near the top of a mountain in Acadia National Park, and McGaunn’s body was recovered. Scattered parts of the plane have remained strewn about the crash site ever since.
The site has become a hidden attraction of sorts for people who know of it, even though the park does nothing to promote or maintain it. Visitors who seek out the debris have come to see the site as a quasi- , though unsanctioned, memorial for McGaunn, with the wreckage serving as a reminder of his death. But with the rise in popularity of social media usage by park visitors, the site could end up getting more traffic than some people think it should.
There is no record of park officials ever making a long-term decision one way or the other about how the park should manage the site, according to Acadia spokeswoman Christie Anastasia.
Park officials did not ask the Bangor Daily News not to disclose the location of the crash site but because the park does not publicize the site, and because many repeat visitors view the wreckage as a de facto memorial, the BDN is not revealing where it is located.
Anastasia said the park removed some of the larger pieces of wreckage not long after the downed plane was found, but that removing the smaller pieces was not a high priority. A compelling reason to fully clean up the site has never materialized, she added, and park officials figured the remaining pieces probably would be overgrown by vegetation and that the site would blend into the landscape.
“We’re still working off the decision the park made in 1970,” Anastasia said. “Nothing has made it a front-burner decision that we need to look at.”
In the decades that have followed the crash, however, the remaining wreckage has not been swallowed up by the forest. In more recent years, it has become a minor destination for curiosity seekers eager to see the wreckage of McGaunn’s fatal crash — and has become quite easy to find among the trees and boulders thanks to the internet, which has allowed people to post information, photos, videos and even maps of the site on blogs and social media.
“Fast-forward 49 years — it is a whole different world,” Anastasia said.
Anastasia emphasized that the fact that someone died in the plane crash has not played a role in the park’s laissez-faire approach to the wreckage.
More than 60 people have perished in the park since the plane crash — some by suicide and others from accidents involving motor vehicles or bicycles, drowning, or falling from cliffs — and, in keeping with park policy, there aren’t memorial sites in Acadia for any of them. Memorial ceremonies are allowed in the park, with a proper permit, Anastasia said, but allowing memorial sites likely would become overly burdensome and conflict with the park’s conservation mission.
Anastasia acknowledged that social media use, and what park visitors post about their experiences online, has affected how people use the park and which park sites people visit — some of which, such as the crash site, are not promoted or otherwise identified by the park, and which regular park users try to prevent from becoming widely known. Still, despite what has been posted online about the crash site, she added, the mountain where it is located gets relatively few visitors.
Anastasia noted that, in the broader conservation community, some people have advocated for extending the philosophy of “leave no trace” to the digital realm, to minimize the impact that social media might have on special places — though she added the park does not discourage people from digitally recording their visits to Acadia, as long as they do not use drones, which are banned in national parks. The thinking goes that if sites or outdoor features such as the plane wreckage, or Native American petroglyphs, or abandoned quarries are not identified, pictured and described online, she said, it will help limit their use and preserve those spaces.
Nina St. Germain, a Bar Harbor resident who frequently visits Acadia, has been to the plane crash site multiple times, and even posted video of the site on a blog.
She said the wreckage and the story behind it draw people to the site, but that most people who visit are careful not to disturb it. The fact that so many pieces of the plane remain among the trees and have not been carried off shows that people want to preserve it.
“People who make it all the way up there seem to be very respectful,” St. Germain said. “It’s very somber. You’re like a witness to a major catastrophe.”
St. Germain said she hopes the site remains a relative secret, visited by a limited number of people and unpublicized by the park. If the park drew attention to the crash site, she said, it would have to devote its limited resources to protecting and maintaining it.
“I think they should leave it as it is,” St. Germain said. “It’s very much a memorial.”
Related: See the site where a B-52 crashed near Moosehead Lake in 1963