Crossing Borders

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New Brunswick, the oldest province in Eastern Canada, shares a long border and just as long a history with the state of Maine. Over centuries, the region saw plots, raids, and wars, as France and Britain and later the nascent United States fought for control of a land rich in the bounties of forest and the sea.

Roosevelt Campobello International Park, on Campobello Island at the southwestern tip of the province, reflects the more harmonious Canadian-American relations of the last century. At the heart of the park, the carefully preserved summer home of Franklin Roosevelt draws about 150,000 visitors each year to a patch of “Canadian soil that has become part of America’s heritage,” as the late Sen. Edmund Muskie once put it.

You can reach Campobello by ferry or automobile from either country. My route took me from the Canadian resort community of St. Andrews, along a fragrantly spruce-fringed route with vistas of Passamaquoddy Bay gleaming at every turn. This involved four border crossings: from Canada to the United States, then back to Canada as we crossed the bridge to Campobello, then the same trip in reverse. Each time we showed our passports and fielded a different set of questions: 1. Any alcohol, tobacco, or firearms? 2. Where are you going, and did you make any purchases in the United States? 3. Is this your car? 4. How many passengers in your car?

One wonders if the original investors in Campobello from Gilded Age America, Roosevelt’s father among them, encountered even as much as this mild interrogation when they traveled by rail and ship to the island they planned to develop as a luxurious resort. Roosevelt was a one-year-old when he first came here in 1883, and he returned almost every summer after that until polio struck him here in 1921. By then, he and Eleanor had moved from his mother’s house on the island to one of their own, which was called a “cottage” despite its 34 rooms.

This is a place of eclectic and rambling comfort, unpretentious in its simply furnished bedrooms, some 17 in all, its splotchy flowered wallpaper, and its airy living room where chintz-covered easy chairs cluster to provide magnificent vistas of the bay.

As a boy, FDR learned from the local fishermen to love and manage the moods of the wild tides that pour into the Bay of Fundy. When he was Assistant Secretary of the Navy, he sometimes arrived aboard a destroyer. Presenting an image that reads like a metaphor for Roosevelt’s Presidency, Stephen Muskie, the senator’s elder son and the author of a book about the island, writes, “Although it was against naval regulations, he persuaded the captain to let him take the helm and piloted the ship at full speed ahead through fog-bound waters.”

BRITISH SYMPATHIZERS IN MAINE PUT THEIR HOUSES ABOARD SCHOONERS AND SAILED WITH THEM TO ST. ANDREWS.

During one day in August of 1921 that echoes the manic energy of his cousin Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin had sailed with visitors and fallen into the bay, remembering later that he had “never felt any- thing so cold as that water.” He tried to shake off a sudden malaise by leading his children on a two-mile jog through the woods to swim in a lake, and then they all helped put out a fire on a deserted island. That night he collapsed into a painful, paralytic illness that was only diagnosed as polio at the end of several awful weeks. After that, FDR revisited his beloved island only three times.

A good information center at the park gives an overview of the life and times of Franklin and Eleanor through photograph and film, and, at the house, docents stand by to explain (or interpret , as modern terminology has it) each room. They urge visitors not to restrict themselves to the house but to explore the length of the nine-mile island and get a sense of the natural splendors that remain virtually as they were when Roosevelt roamed its beaches, wetlands, and wooded paths. It was the island’s physical self as much as the house he lived in that shaped the character of the future President and, writes Stephen Muskie, “helped Franklin Roosevelt gain the courage and self-reliance which scorned the handicaps of a great affliction.” Eleanor, who loved the place as passionately as her husband did, remembered that he “was always on vacation when he came to Campobello.”

Campobello, only a mile or so off the coast of Maine, belongs to Canada as a result of a tangle of border squabbles between the two countries that officially ended with the Webster-Ashburton Treaty of 1842. This fixed boundaries and allowed for free navigation along the St. John River, the province’s main artery. British sympathizers who had settled in Castine, Maine, before 1776 had felt sure their turf would remain British soil, but in 1783, at the end of the war, they dismantled their houses, put them on schooners, and sailed with them from Penobscot Bay to St. Andrews, where they reassembled them. Many of these structures survive to this day, forming the historic kernel of St. Andrews.