Trolley, bridge plan electrified Bangor a century ago

Posted March 08, 2009, at 4:19 p.m.
Last modified Feb. 13, 2011, at 10:38 a.m.

Trolleys revolutionized transportation in cities, making it possible for the population to expand into the suburbs wherever tracks ran. Bangor never had one of the horse-drawn lines, but it became one of the first cities in the nation with an electric trolley system shortly after the first was built in Richmond, Va., in 1888. The Bangor Daily Commercial commemorated this event on June 22, 1908. From the paper’s benign editorial no one would have believed that in a few months a bitter struggle over the future of the trolley company would electrify Bangor, causing one of the most memorable political train wrecks in the Queen City’s history.

The original trolley company evolved into the Bangor Railway & Electric Co. headed by prominent mover-and-shaker John R. Graham, whose legacy years later would become the Bangor Hydro-Electric Co. By 1909, the system included lines stretching from Hampden to Old Town and from downtown Bangor to Charleston.

A line through Brewer remained disconnected from the rest of the system. The Bangor-Brewer Bridge, then the only bridge between the two cities, had been knocked out in a freshet in 1902 and never adequately repaired. It crossed the river where the Penobscot Bridge is today.

The bridge had been covered before the disaster. In 1909 it consisted of an uncovered steel span in the middle with the original wooden, covered stretches at each end.

Graham’s trolley company couldn’t connect Brewer to Bangor until the bridge was repaired and modernized. The company offered to rebuild it, if Bangor would extend its franchise for 50 years — no strings attached. Bangor voters were set to decide the matter March 8, 1909, a century ago this week.

This was the progressive era. All monopolies were suspect. Was the company’s offer a gift or was it a shrewd attempt to send even more of its expanding profits to the out-of-state stockholders who owned most of the system. The city’s two newspapers took sides. The Bangor Daily News, the voice of Republicans, represented proponents, while the Commercial, a Democratic organ, represented opponents.

“If Mr. Graham’s offer is accepted Posterity will have the bridge at the end of fifty years and in the meantime Bangor and Brewer will have the continuous benefits resulting from uninterrupted communication,” argued the Daily News on March 2. “If Mr. Graham’s offer is NOT accepted and the cities build the bridge, the time of building will be uncertain — and we may well be apprehensive of the qualities of a bridge left to the divided advice and politics of two cities … and if bonds are issued for its construction by the two cities, Posterity will have to pay the bonds. What do you think Posterity would say if it could answer now?”

The newspaper estimated that more than 100 Bangoreans, who worked in the tannery, the sawmills, the brickyards and the paper and pulp mill in Brewer, walked across the bridge and took the trolley to their workplace each day. Hundreds more came from Brewer to Bangor to work. If these people could take “the cars” across the bridge, they would on average be able to remain at home a half-hour extra each morning and get home a half-hour earlier each night. This was back when laborers often worked nine- or 10-hour days, six days a week.

The Commercial’s most brilliant tactic in opposing the deal was to recruit University of Maine economics professor Robert J. Sprague and Bangor Theological Seminary President David N. Beach to write clearly argued essays in opposition. They were published Feb. 27. In summing up the newspapers’ opposition on March 2, the Commercial borrowed the arguments of both men.

The newspaper accused the Daily News of having “taken its stand by the side of unrestrained monopoly …” The editorial charged, “… the Daily News virtually favors the taking of thousands of dollars from the people of this city and from their children and children’s children, of placing them under the yoke of rich foreign [out-of-state] capitalists who own four-fifths of all the stock …; of the … out-of-date practice of granting long-term franchises to street railway and other public service corporations — a practice against which President Roosevelt has led the fight for eight long years; and it also commits itself to the policy of what [the] Rev. Dr. Beach has well named ‘Municipal Gambling’ and ‘Essential Bribery;’ to giving the people’s rights over to the grasping corporations, surrendering forever, so far as this generation goes, the last hold that this city has on this corporation …”

On election day, people turned out and defeated the trolley company’s plan 2,340 to 1,843, or by 497 votes, clearly an embarrassment for progressive Republicans — the party of reputed trust-buster Teddy Roosevelt. “The result greatly surprised those who favored the contract, for they had all day expressed confidence of success,” noted the reporter for the Daily News the next morning.

Negotiations continued. A new steel bridge opened between Bangor and Brewer in February 1912, the costs shared by the two cities. A year later, the Bangor Railway & Electric Company signed a 25-year franchise with the city. It agreed to make various payments and received permission to use the new bridge for its Brewer connector line.

In September 1914, the first electric trolley car crossed the new bridge between Bangor and Brewer. John R. Graham and various other dignitaries were on board a special car. Speeches were given to mark the beginning of 20-minute service between West Market Square in Bangor and South Brewer, noted the Commercial on Sept. 28. Of greater interest today, however, is the fact that within 50 years, trolley service no longer would exist at all.

Wayne E. Reilly can be reached at wer@bangordailynews.net.

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