BANGOR, Maine — It started on a windy afternoon just like Thursday, 98 years ago to the day.
The Great Fire of 1911 tore through downtown Bangor, destroying or crippling nearly half the city’s buildings and displacing 75 families in its wake.
In some way, though, the fire created the foundation for Bangor as it is today. It was in that spirit that city leaders and members of the Fire Department unveiled a plaque on Broad Street, identifying and commemorating the precise location where the fire began.
“There was quite a bit of detective work to find out exactly where it started,” city historian Dick Shaw said Thursday at the site. “It really transformed the downtown.”
As the story goes, two “idlers” playing poker in an abandoned hay shed discarded a cigarette that sparked the flames. The fire destroyed that building, then skipped across Kenduskeag Stream and spread to other structures. By the time it was over more than eight hours later, some 250 buildings were affected. The headline in the Bangor Daily News on May 1, 1911, read “Bangor Swept By Historic Fire.”
On Thursday, Mayor Gerry Palmer recounted the event, which remains one of the biggest disasters Maine has ever seen. “There was a lot of loss that day,” he said.
Firefighters from all over the state helped douse the flames with 1 million gallons of water. They couldn’t save the post office, the library, a handful of churches or many homes. But, as Palmer said, “a few years later, Bangor rose once again.”
City leaders have been paying tribute to Bangor’s history throughout 2009, which is the city’s 175th anniversary.