New boats took to Penobscot in 1908

Posted Aug. 04, 2008, at 12 a.m.
Last modified Jan. 30, 2011, at 11:26 a.m.

A signal event in the transportation history of eastern Maine occurred a century ago this spring. A locally built gasoline-powered motorboat tore out of Belfast Harbor and glided up beside the City of Bangor, one of the giant steamboats that carried passengers between Boston and the Queen City. The little boat cut around the stern of the powerful steamer, scooted by it “almost as if she was fast aground,” and left it behind in the run for the dock, “literally sailing rings around her,” said the Bangor Daily News on June 17, 1908.

The passengers on the steamboat were “wildly interested.” The big crowd at the dock “cheered the little flyer lustily.” The message was clear, but who would have thought it?

In the dust left behind by the automobile craze came the motorboat craze. As Bangor’ s commercial fleet of sailing ships and steamships slowly dwindled, its gas-guzzling mosquito fleet exploded, sometimes quite literally as a few landlubbers learned to their chagrin.

“BANGOR THE HOME PORT OF BIG MOTORBOAT FLEET,” declared a proud headline in the Bangor Daily Commercial on April 18, 1908. “Of all the summer recreation there is, no other … has grown with as rapid strides among the people of Bangor as that of motor boating. … There will be more speed craft and pleasure craft on the river [this summer] and gasoline will be the prevailing odor.”

At least 75 pleasure craft now were owned by Bangoreans, about double the number of the previous season. Fifty or so were used in the Penobscot River, while the rest were kept at increasingly popular resort spots from Pushaw to Islesboro. The newspaper published a list of these owners plus the names and dimensions of their boats. By far the biggest, at 50 feet in length, was jeweler W. C. Bryant’ s Natawa, like many of these sleek craft fitted out in mahogany and brass.

There was much talk about starting an organization of pleasure boat owners with a clubhouse. While Bangor Harbor still had commercial wharves for merchant vessels, places where pleasure boaters could tie up were lacking. George McNelly had arranged a mooring place “with stalls” and boat supplies on the waterfront, but it was hardly big enough to accommodate the growing demand. The city directory said McNelly operated a boat and canoe livery business at the ferry slip, which was near where the Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain Bridge is today.

Speed was the underlying theme of much of the boating news that summer. Everyone wanted to know who had the fastest boat. The Bangor Daily News on May 25 named William McCrillis Sawyer’ s Dorine, John Webster’ s Kora, Irving Swett’ s Ariel and Fred W. Ayer’ s tender for his yacht Helena as the speediest boats in the neighborhood.

By July 6, the Dorine had beaten all comers including the bigger and more powerful Fairbanks B owned by the Fairbanks Co., whose store on Exchange Street backed up to Kenduskeag Stream. The two boats had been seen racing down the river “like a couple of shadows,” reported the Bangor Daily News. The Dorine was “certainly as slippery a piece of wood as has ever churned the Penobscot.”

On Aug. 18, however, the Bangor Daily News reported that the Dorine, operated by Sawyer, and the Fairbanks B, operated by J.H. Dickinson and Charles P. Wood, had raced again and this time the results were different. “In a hot race from the Bangor ferry slip to the mills of Eastern Manufacturing Co. in South Brewer, the Fairbanks B … beat the Dorine … which has beaten everything in the Penobscot for more than a year.”

Both boats took a circle under the Bangor-Brewer bridge and came downriver abreast at moderate speed. They opened up their throttles at the ferry slip and “started a racing clip down towards High Head. Both boats were churning the water furiously and throwing showers of spray. … It was a picture to stir the most sluggish of hearts and motor boat owners who had hurriedly assembled in response to telephone calls almost fell overboard in their delight and excitement.”

But before readers get too excited, they should remember that the 35-foot Fairbanks was powered with a measly 35 hp inboard engine, while the 19.5-foot Dorine possessed only 10 horsepower of throbbing power. By today’ s standards, these boats were moving in slow motion. This was back in the days before Ole Evinrude had finished perfecting the outboard motor.

Both newspapers crowned the Fairbanks B the “speed queen” of the mosquito fleet. But the subject of who had the fastest boat was far from settled. The Bangor Daily News asserted that the Farbanks had finished up 100 yards ahead of the Dorine, but there seemed to be something wrong with the latter boat’ s engine. The war between these speed demons sounded far from over.

As more and more people with absolutely no experience on the water purchased boats, safety suddenly joined speed as a dominant issue that summer. Newspaper stories about collisions and fires became more common.

The City of Bangor, for example, nearly collided with a small boat containing three young men who couldn’ t get their engine started after they had pushed away from the ferry slip in Bangor Harbor, the Commercial reported on May 5. “With a piece of apparatus as little to be depended upon as a gasoline engine it is a mighty good plan to carry a pair of oars … and to have oar locks into which to fit them,” the newspaper reporter advised.

Leaking gas lines or sloppiness in handling gasoline caused several near-fatal experiences. In one such incident, grocer’ s clerk Edward Holland was forced to jump into the river near the ferry slip after he threw a lighted match into a puddle of gasoline on the floor of his motorboat and it “exploded,” the Commercial reported June 26.

On July 16, the Commercial announced that federal steamboat officials in Bangor had been ordered to enforce requirements for small pleasure boats including mandatory foghorns, whistles, bells and lights. They were not required to carry life preservers, however. Not yet.

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