A sea gull stands on a large rock on the sand bar in Bar Harbor while the Holland America ship Veendam is anchored in Frenchman Bay in this 2016 file photo. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has agreed to spend $6.3 million to raise the height of the local breakwater to better protect the harbor. Credit: Bill Trotter / BDN

When the breakwater was built in Bar Harbor 105 years ago, the project was never finished. Now, faced with rising tides due to climate change, the approved height will finally be reached thanks to a $6.3 million upgrade from the federal government.

Conditions in the local harbor have changed considerably since work on the breakwater was last done in 1917, with the local tourism industry being much more robust now than it was 105 years ago, though it still gets use from fishermen. The breakwater was built to provide shelter to the town’s waterfront and harbor from waves whipped up by winds.

Tour boats coming and going from the downtown waterfront docks are a regular sight from May through October, and the town gets more than 100 cruise ship visits each summer, with most of the ships ferrying passengers to and from shore via tender boats. The Cat ferry to Nova Scotia is also expected to resume service this summer after a 13-year absence from Bar Harbor

Part of the breakwater, however, was not built to its full intended height, which has caused problems as climate change has brought heavier storms along the East Coast and tides have been slowly inching ever higher due to sea level rise. Roughly 90 percent of the original project had been completed when work stopped around the same time World War I broke out, but it never resumed.

“It is shorter than it needs to be,” said Chris Wharff, the town’s harbormaster. “We can get big swells in the harbor, especially at high tide.”

Despite the popularity of the harbor and the presence of a sandbar at the harbor’s western end, which is exposed at low tide and from which gives the town derived its name, the shelter offered by the harbor is not as good as it is in several other nearby harbors.

Because of the swells that roll into Frenchman Bay during storms, the town has started taking in its ramps that connect floats to the town pier, to prevent the ramps from getting damaged by the waves, Wharff said. Two of the hotel firms that operate in town, Ocean Properties Ltd. and Witham Family Hotels, also have docks and floats at the downtown waterfront that will benefit from the breakwater upgrade.

“We’ve been doing that more in recent years,” the harbormaster said. “There’s millions of dollars worth of infrastructure down there. We’ll have a more protected harbor.”

Wharff said that, after some lobbying by the town, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers agreed to fund the improvements as a maintenance project, which means the federal agency will fund the entire cost of the upgrades, without requiring the town to shoulder part of the expense. And because the original project was halted before the breakwater was fully completed, the new project will include building it higher, not just replacing or repairing what is there now.

Wharff said he was not sure what the new height of the breakwater might be, or when the new project might get under way. Officials with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers did not respond to messages seeking more information about the scope of work

Bill Trotter

A news reporter in coastal Maine for more than 20 years, Bill Trotter writes about how the Atlantic Ocean and the state's iconic coastline help to shape the lives of coastal Maine residents and visitors....