The Bangor waterfront at night was a dark maze a century ago. Along the Penobscot River and up the Kenduskeag Stream were unlit alleyways leading from the main thoroughfares to wharves that abruptly ended at the black water’s edge. They were an invitation to a deadly dunking. A man strolling along one minute might find himself struggling to keep his head above icy water the next. It didn’t help his case with the Grim Reaper if he had been tippling in one of the numerous barrooms in the area.
CITY DEATH-TRAPS, proclaimed the Bangor Daily Commercial in a headline over a story describing this menace on Nov. 12, 1906. Over the years dozens of men had died in this manner. Here was another such story almost as old as it was chilling.
“The death by drowning Sunday night of Thomas Cain in Kenduskeag Stream brings forcibly to mind again the death traps that are always open to catch the unwary stranger around Bangor’s wharves,” wrote the reporter. “Time and again the police have been called upon in the darkness of night by the cries of some poor unfortunate who has been led by a blind alley running from one of the main business thoroughfares and ending at the edge of the wharf with the waters of the Kenduskeag to catch him at the next step.”
Since the ice had left the river in spring, there had been a number of these cases, recounted the reporter. Thomas Angherton of South Brewer, whose body was found floating in the river the previous summer, undoubtedly had walked off a wharf. John Sullivan, a woodsman, had walked off the Bangor & Bar Harbor steamboat wharf. Some of these victims went unnamed including a man that spring who had walked off the wharf near Union Station and broken his neck when he struck a scow.
Some men had survived these falls, including a man the previous winter who had walked off a wharf off Exchange Street and wandered around on the ice until rescued. During the summer, about a dozen men had been pulled from the water during late-night forays.
Thomas Cain had died on an extension of York Street running from Exchange Street to the Kenduskeag. It was a foggy night. A big gate was supposed to be closed at night. The patrolman on the beat was supposed to close it if he found it open. “But you can’t close it,” a “prominent member of the police department” related to the reporter. “The gate is off the tracks, and there are old boxes, barrels and rubbish of all kinds piled up against it.”
The police source continued, “The gate at the lower end of Hancock Street is in about the same condition. … Down on Broad Street things are about the same. … There are a couple of gates down there which are sometimes closed but more often are not. Then there are a dozen places where there are no gates at all. Down around the coal wharves and around the steamboat wharves, the way is open for anybody who is unacquainted with the locality to walk to his death in the stream or the river.”
The policeman said a city ordinance was needed to force owners to install gates and keep them closed. “Half a hundred people” would still be alive if something had been done “a long time ago,” he said. “The way these wharves are left unguarded at night is nothing less than criminal.”
In fact, there was an ordinance, the Commercial revealed in its next issue. Owners and tenants were required to erect gates at least 6 feet high, and keep them locked between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m. unless they were being used. No one was allowed to enter these thoroughfares after 6 p.m. without permission. The ordinance was enforced “spasmodically,” commented the reporter even though nearly every year, city government had passed an order calling for enforcement.
The newspaper stories continued to document this public-safety scandal. Two weeks later, an unidentified sailor almost walked off the end of the wharf where Thomas Cain drowned. The unidentified man had been shopping at the foot of Exchange Street and was carrying some bundles, said the Bangor Daily News on Nov. 22. He was trying to get back to his ship, which was tied up on Broad Street. A passerby told him to walk up Exchange and go left on State. (The only bridge across the Kenduskeag between Washington and Front streets was for trains.) Thinking he had reached State Street, the sailor headed down the blind alley, which still had no gate across it. Only a policeman’s repeated shouts stopped him.
A group of policemen working on both sides of the Kenduskeag rescued William Beck in a boat after he wandered down an alley from lower Exchange Street and fell into the stream around 10 p.m. Then they arrested him for drunkenness, related the Bangor Daily News on May 31, 1907.
Michael O’Brien was not so lucky. His body was found floating near the railroad bridge one morning and it was surmised that he had fallen off an open wharf, said the Commercial on June 14. O’Brien, “a man of good habits,” worked for the Maine Central. The reporter guessed that another body found in the river at Hampden a few days before was that of a man who had died in a similar fashion.
John McKean, a Scotsman and a sailor on the schooner Rosa E., drowned after he fell off the wharf of the Brooksville & Bangor Steamboat Co., the BDN reported on Aug. 26. Another Scotsman, John Burns, was rescued from the Kenduskeag, “where ice cakes were floating like Ivory Soap,” on Dec. 10 after he walked off an open wharf down an alley on Exchange Street and bellowed for help. Burns was “under the fever of alcohol.” This was the second time in two days such an event had occurred. The BDN story urged that ropes and ladders be kept along the waterfront for such events.
Perhaps the Queen City finally dealt with this increasingly embarrassing situation. Reading the old newspapers, I’ve seen no other incidents involving “city death-traps” for a year and a half.
A collection of Wayne E. Reilly’s columns, “Remembering Bangor: The Queen City Before the Great Fire,” is available at bookstores. Comments about this column may be sent to him at firstname.lastname@example.org