Bangor residents of the early 1900s loved steamboats’ link to the world

Posted May 03, 2009, at 9:17 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 30, 2011, at 11:26 a.m.

Bangor residents valued their mass transportation system in a way that we can only imagine in the era of the automobile. Steam-powered trains left the Queen City at all hours of the day and night to Boston, New Brunswick, Fort Kent and points in between and far beyond. Electric trolleys plugged along between Hampden and Old Town and Bangor and Corinth, allowing country folk to come to the city to work and shop.

The most beloved links in this impressive system, however, were the steamboats that started roiling the waters of the Penobscot with their giant paddle wheels each spring, whistles blasting, bells clanging and horns bellowing if fog was thick. The Eastern Steamship Co.’s new terminal on Front Street had given the city “a decidedly metropolitan appearance” when it opened in 1906, said the Bangor Daily News.

A brand-new steamboat coming to town, a whole new steamboat route, or a steamboat accident that sent shivers up the spines of timid travelers — Bangor had all these maritime adventures to look forward to that spring a century ago. This column will be about the latter two events.

First off was the new river line devised by Capt. George H. Barbour to run between Bangor and Manset on Mount Desert Island. Ever since the Bangor and Bar Harbor Steam Ship Co. had gone out of business, merchants had been calling for such a line to reconnect Bangor with the little ports along Eggemoggin Reach. They had been losing business to smaller communities such as Rockland. People along the route, including 50 who signed a petition in Sedgwick, wanted better connections with the Queen City.

Barbour secured an option on the steamer Tremont, a few thousand dollars’ investment from Bangor merchants such as A. Langdon Freese, the department store entrepreneur, and the Bangor and Manset Line was launched. Beginning April 8, the Tremont left Bangor for Manset at 7:30 a.m. every Tuesday, Thursday and Satur-day with stops at Winterport, Bucksport, Sandy Point, Castine, Islesboro, Eggemoggin, Sargentville, Deer Isle, Sedgwick, Atlantic and McKinley. The return cruise began at 6:30 a.m. every Monday, Wednesday and Friday and ended in Bangor at 3:30 p.m. A one-way ticket cost $1.50.

The new steamboat company joined several other small lines that connected the harbors of Penobscot Bay with Bangor (or with trains from Bangor). They included the Brooksville & Bangor Steam Ship Co. and the Penobscot Bay and River Steamboat Co. The Eastern Steamship Co. ran the mighty Boston boats, or great white flyers, as they were sometimes called.

Crisis hit the new Manset line early, however. A brief Bangor Daily News item gave details. “With the engines running wild, and the main steam pipe broken a few minutes later, the lives of the crew of eight men on the passenger steamer Tremont … were imperiled for 10 minutes until the engineer, William Hall of Brewer suc-ceeded at considerable personal risk in reaching and closing the main valve on the boiler late last night [April 29]. There were no passengers aboard.”

Two days later, Barbour told the Bangor Daily Commercial that the dangers of the accident and the extent of the damage had been exaggerated in the first report. “A little blacksmith work” would fix things, he assured the reporter. As of May 11, however, the Tremont was still undergoing repairs in Bangor, while another steam-boat had been placed on the route.

A much bigger event in the annals of Bangor’s steamboat history occurred May 5 when one of the Boston boats, the City of Bangor, ran down and sank a two-masted fishing vessel while approaching Rockland in thick fog. All 12 men aboard the fishing vessel survived, most by climbing into the rigging and jumping aboard the much bigger steamboat. The captain, who broke his foot, and two other men lowered a dory and were rescued. The schooner, the Dorothy from Beverly, Mass., sank in 15 minutes.

The fishermen were anchored in the middle of the Muscle Ridge Channel near Ash Island after becoming becalmed the night before. Capt. James O’Brien warned the approaching steamer with a “patent fog horn.” When the City of Bangor was about 300 feet away and showed no signs of turning, the captain roused the crew.

The 277-foot City of Bangor reversed its engines and the wheel was thrown hard over after the watch saw the Dorothy, but it was too late to avoid hitting her “on the port quarter abreast the after end of the cabin,” according to the Bangor Daily News. The “wash under her bows” and the “pounding of her paddles” had prevented the pilot from hearing the fishing boat’s horn.

Shipwrecks were common back then. Hardly a week went by without an account of a vessel built in Maine or crewed by Maine men running aground or sinking, usually on some far-off coast. Usually the results were limited to property loss, but occasionally people were killed or severely injured. Bangorians felt the risks were worth it to maintain their connection with the rest of the world.

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

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