March 19, 2018
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Spring revived the river, Bangor

Contributed | BDN
Contributed | BDN
By Wayne E. Reilly, Special to the BDN

When spring came to Bangor a century ago, the Penobscot River reawakened. But first, after the skating and the horse racing came to an end and before the first Boston boat steamed upriver sounding its mighty whistle, old accounts had to be settled. The public wanted to know how the export ice business had done.

In good years hundreds of men found employment cutting and shipping ice to cities. The best year had been 1890, when nearly 450,000 tons of ice was cut. Those days were over, however, thanks to competition from manufactured ice and increasing river pollution. “Maine is never thought of until it is found impossible to get ice elsewhere,” said a Bangor Daily News story on March 2, 1909.

The American Ice Co., the trust that controlled the ice industry, was almost done cutting about 37,500 tons on the Penobscot, the BDN announced on March 5. The ice would be stored in the American Ice House, located just above Sterns Mill in Hampden, and in the Orrington Ice House. The Dirigo icehouses in East Hampden were leased to a Pennsylvania company that planned to cut and ship 9,000 tons of ice.

These gargantuan icehouses were fast disappearing. The Arctic House was blown down in a gale on Dec. 9, and the upper Ayer House “gradually fell to pieces,” said the BDN on Jan. 23. In a decade not an icehouse would be left.

Now, with the ice business over, the river could serve the Queen City’s other interests. First the rest of the ice had to clear out of the river. To write about this complex subject, a reporter had to know all of the landmarks, the impact of weather conditions and past ice outs. There was money riding on it in some circles.

A storm touched off an elaborate story on this subject in the Bangor Daily Commercial on March 29. “This storm broke up the ice practically as far up river as Clark’s wharf, above the Hampden wharf, and about five miles below Bangor. Those who watched it go and inspected the ice reported Monday that, in their opinion, the river would be clear as far as Crosby’s narrows, just above Riverside by Monday night or Tuesday morning,” the reporter wrote. “The river was ice-bound this winter down as far as Rooster rock, three miles below Hampden. … During the past week [the ice] has been rotting very fast … it will not be many days now before the steamers, coasters and barges once more move along the Bangor wharves.”

“PORT IS CLEAR,” a headline in the paper said two days later. The Penobscot was free of ice from the Bangor dam to the ocean except for jams off South Brewer. That morning as the tide went out, “there was a crunching sound that made the waterfront mariners sit up and look around a bit. They rushed to the wharves and sure enough the field of ice between the toll bridge and High Head was on the way to the sea as fast as a strong current could move it along,” the reporter wrote. “The first steamer will undoubtedly be pushing its nose around High Head by Thursday or Friday.”

The little Bon Ton Ferry was cruising back and forth between Bangor and Brewer by noon Thursday, April 1, while the first Boston boat, the Bay State, came up to Bangor two days later. “The sound of the big steamer’s whistle was a welcome one,” the Commercial reporter wrote. Meanwhile, a few coal-laden schooners and barges already were waiting at Fort Point to be towed upriver to the city.

Within a short time the steam whistles would be calling men to work at the sawmills, the Commercial said on April 16. The first would be Lowell & Engel in East Hampden followed by Morse & Co. on the Kenduskeag, the Eastern Manufacturing Co. in Brewer, Sterns Co. in Hampden and James Walker Co. at Basin Mills. They would all be “running full blast.”

The rebirth of the river brought some fun with it as well as work. The salmon season opened April 1. Adventuresome souls braved high water and ice floes to catch the first salmon. The fish were getting scarce even then. The Commercial predicted no more than 100 salmon would be caught at the Bangor pools that season. No one was certain whether the downriver weirs or upriver pollution from the new paper mills caused the decline.

The members of the newly formed Bangor Yacht Club, meanwhile, were lobbying the city to provide a public landing. The Queen City’s waterfront was all business — dilapidated docks and commerce-bound shipping — with hardly any place to tie up a few small boats. With leisure time on the rise and the mosquito fleet expanding phenomenally, it was time to think about such matters. The motorboat men pointed out that they paid taxes just like the automobilists tearing up the roads these days, and they deserved a landing in return.

One other sign of spring, related directly to the river, were the hundreds of woodsmen arriving in Bangor after the winter logging season. By the beginning of April, they were coming into Bangor by the trainload, settling in the cheap hotel district amidst the saloons and employment agencies around Exchange Street. By night they drank their fill of illegal liquor and by day they loafed about the street, waiting for new jobs on the river drives or in some other line of work or until their money ran out and their hangovers wore off. Bangoreans were a tolerant lot, but things had gone a bit too far.

“Although the nuisance has been unabated for years, the opening of the new union station at the foot of Exchange Street and the consequent added importance of that thoroughfare has finally shown the city officials that something has got to be done … with throngs of men … hanging about the numerous employment agencies … passers-by often have difficulty in making their way and oftentimes are insulted by intoxicated men. The police cannot well handle the difficulty at present because the men claim they are waiting at the agencies for work.”

Such were the joys and perils of spring in Bangor a century ago.

Wayne E. Reilly can be reached at


The Bon Ton began shuttling passengers between Bangor and Brewer as soon as the ice was out of the Penobscot. Sometimes the little ferry had to dodge ice floes. This image was taken from a postcard mailed in 1909.

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