This year the island of Campobello is taking a spin in the spotlight.

It’s the 50th anniversary of the establishing of Roosevelt Campobello International Park. And this year Ken Burns’ documentary series about three influential Roosevelts—Theodore, Franklin, and Eleanor—premieres in the fall on PBS. Campobello figures prominently in the seven-part documentary.

The small Canandian island, nine miles by three miles at its longest and widest, has been home to plenty of activity for centuries, providing sustenance and shelter for descendants of Welsh seaman settlers since the early 18th century. Fishing is its biggest industry, with lobster, scallops, urchins, clams and wrinkles (the local name for escargots) the sought-after products. Tourism takes a close second. The international park is the island’s largest employer.

Campobello, in New Brunswick, sits less than a minute’s drive over the bridge from Lubec, Maine. David Ortiz could hit a baseball across this water of Cobscook Bay and reach the United States. But the speed-limit signs in kilometers remind that you’re in another country, as does the need the show your passport to go to and from the picturesque isle.

Despite their proximity, Campobello and Lubec are intertwined in a complicated relationship, said Vern McKimmey, marketing and communications administrator for Roosevelt Campobello International Park. Islanders rely on Lubec’s services, but bureaucracy and the border keep the two communities from working closely together to shore up their shared challenged economy. Members of the same families often live on different sides of the border. Crossing is more difficult than it used to be, and passports can be prohibitively expensive for some. Many islanders are dual citizens.

In the late Victorian era, part of Campobello was developed as a vacation destination. A summer colony sprouted on its southern side. Travel from New York or Boston took two days of train travel and a boat ride, with luggage for a stay of several weeks in tow. The James and Sara Roosevelt family, from Hyde Park, N.Y., purchased property on the island and began staying there in 1885, continuing as summer residents for most of the colony’s 80 years.

After Franklin Roosevelt was elected president of the U.S. in 1932, remote Campobello was on everyone’s lips, if not in their sights. The casual colony on this island was far removed in style as well as distance from the gilded Newport, R.I., and Bar Harbor communities where well-heeled city folks went to “rusticate.”

As a boy, Franklin freely wandered about Campobello. He hiked the trails, learned to sail, swam in the coves and played with the island children, many of whose parents served as staff to the summer residents. His “beloved island” is also where he first succumbed to polio, just shy of his 40th birthday. That and his political career curtailed his visits, but Eleanor and their five children continued to visit off and on. The first lady’s last trip was in 1962, when the bridge connecting the island to Maine was dedicated.

In 1964 the United States and Canada created an international park, unique in the world because it is jointly owned and managed by two nations, to honor the memory of FDR and the friendship between the two countries. 


First-timers should head to the park’s Visitor Centre for orientation and a short film about the Roosevelts at Campobello. Then, join a guide for a walk outdoors among the manicured grounds and buildings. The 34-room, red-shingled Roosevelt Cottage, a gift to Franklin and Eleanor and the park’s centerpiece, captures their spirit and the era. Walk on your own through the house, decorated exclusively with period items, including the megaphone Eleanor used to call the children to dinner. Docents are on hand to introduce the rooms and answer questions on all aspects of the family’s life.

Don’t overlook the island’s exquisite natural beauty, which so captivated the Roosevelts. The 2,800-acre park includes coastal picnic sites, observation decks, hiking trails, and gravel carriage roads for cars and bikes. These gorgeous spaces are open year round. Maps are available in the Visitor Centre.

An easy hike to Friar’s Head guides you through forest, meadow and an old orchard to an overlook where you can spy Lubec and Eastport, several small islands in the bay and many salmon aquaculture pens. From Liberty Point, view the cliffs of Grand Manan Island and Maine’s West Quoddy Head Light across the bay.

Located just outside of the park boundaries on the island, Herring Cove Provincial Park offers a broad crescent beach, forest and salt marshes, camping, and a nine-hole golf course. A couple of whale watch and sightseeing tour boats operate from Campobello in high season.

Drive out to Head Harbour Light Station (known as East Quoddy Head Light in the U.S.), which is perched on rocks at the island’s end, but don’t venture out to its base unless you are sure-footed and have plenty time to beat the tide on the return trip. Two island women recently rallied for the restoration of this lighthouse, and worked with volunteers to complete it, carrying paint pots, ladders and other equipment over the hazardous and slippery passage for a few hours worth of work between tides.

Many visitors to the park vie for a spot at “Tea with Eleanor,” an event in its fourth season. A few docents hatched the idea and developed it with the park management’s blessing. They pour a bottomless cup of tea, pass cookies and chat about the First Lady in depth, making the occasional connection to their own island ancestors.

No one anticipated that genteel afternoons nibbling cookies and gossiping about a former first lady and her role in advocating for the less fortunate would prove so popular. This summer, Tea with Eleanor grew to accommodate more visitors, who can now reserve ahead. Also new this year—imbibers depart with a booklet of cookie recipes.

The park opened its first restaurant, The Fireside, this summer, filling a need to expand dining choices on the island. It’s off to a great start, said McKimmey. The facility, housed in the restored Lupine Lodge, a massive log cabin summer home belonging to an FDR relative, created 14 new jobs.