May 25, 2018
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New Great White Flyers kept up rhythm

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

SWIFT TWIN TURBINERS FOR FAMOUS OLD BOSTON-BANGOR LINE, announced a large headline in the Bangor Daily News on June 14, 1909. “Camden and Belfast, Handsome Sister Ships of Steel, Succeed The Wooden Sidewheelers Next Week — Down East Steamboat History.”

The Eastern Steamship Company was replacing its old sidewheelers the City of Bangor and the City of Rockland with two bigger, faster turbine-powered, propeller-driven, steel-hulled vessels. The change marked “another epoch in the history of a service famous for nearly a century,” said the newspaper. Nothing much caused more excitement in Bangor, save the arrival of the circus, than the inauguration of a new Boston boat.

The sister ships were built at Bath Iron Works. They were the first Boston boats to boast steel hulls and turbine engines. The Camden had made the Bangor-to-Boston run two years before for a few months, but had been withdrawn because of handling difficulties at some of the route’s smaller landings. Wharves had been straightened and expanded to accommodate the bigger vessels, and now it was time to make the transition. The Belfast had been launched only recently. She was making her maiden voyage from Boston to Bangor on June 21.

During the summer, the boats left Boston at 5 p.m. on alternating days, making a direct run to Rockland, then stopping at Camden, Northport, Belfast, Searsport, Bucksport, Winterport and Bangor the next day. They left Bangor at 2 p.m., retracing the route.

The “Cities” weren’t being mothballed. The City of Rockland was going to work on the St. John-to-Boston run, while the City of Bangor had been assigned to the Kennebec River.

Bangoreans were enthusiastic at the thought of new Boston boats, more baubles to decorate the majestic Penobscot and their little harbor. Naturally a great deal of reminiscing was underway. “Steamboating down east is a different thing now from what it was in the old days,” mused the Bangor Daily News. “It is related by old travellers that before the war, and even later, the bill of fare on the boats consisted chiefly of ham and eggs. There was nothing much to eat, but plenty to drink. Now there is a great variety to eat, and not so much drinking.”

The 321-foot Belfast was a commodious luxury liner as described by the Bangor Daily News on June 23. A large “social hall” furnished with mahogany armchairs was located on the main deck. Attached was a dining hall that would seat 100 people at small tables instead of the “usual long tables” of yore. Furnishings and decorations “are in silver gray with a touch of gold.”

A women’s social hall sat aft of the dining saloon, furnished in “rattan and plush.” A similar room for men was located toward the bow. The Belfast had 186 staterooms on the saloon and gallery decks. There also were 102 berths in the men’s cabin and 61 in the women’s. The saloon and promenade decks afforded a traveler a most enjoyable opportuntity to “take the air” once at sea.

In an age when average men were as interested in horsepower as they were in horses, the power source was described in exacting detail. “The Belfast is driven by turbine engines. There are three of these turbines, one receiving the high-pressure steam and the two others operating on the exhaust steam from the first. Each turbine drives its own separate propeller shaft, with a five-foot phosphorbronze propeller, making 500 revolutions per minute. In all, the three turbines deliver 4,000 horsepower to the propellers. This power is generated in a battery of four great Scotch boilers, the standard marine type for big ships. Each boiler is of over 1,000 horsepower and is fed through three furnaces, the ship therefore requiring in all 12 furnaces to furnish power for her turbines and auxiliary machinery.”

“Gloom prophets” were already questioning a few things before the Belfast set out on her maiden Bangor voyage. Not having taken any time trials between various islands and other landmarks, how would the Belfast do if she encountered heavy fog along the way? Would her big turbines be too powerful for the delicate twists and turns in the river?

The newspapers answered with soothing reassurances: “This ship is the delight of even the most timid passengers, for she possesses the same strength of hull, the same ratio of power and the same elements of safety that are possessed by trans-Atlantic liners.” And in fact, “Quartermasters who brought her through said she steered like a rowboat,” reported the Bangor Daily News after the Belfast navigated the river. Capt. Ezra W. Curtis, who had taken over the Belfast with his entire crew from the City of Rockland, pronounced the run a success in every way.

The arrival of the Belfast in Bangor just after noon on July 22 was a scene of noisy exuberance. Smaller boats blew their horns in salute, and the Belfast saluted back. Mill whistles added to the din. Bands played on deck and on shore. More than 1,000 people cheered from the deck, large crowds having gotten on at river ports beginning in Belfast. A cheering Bangor crowd greeted them at the steamboat wharf.

By 2 p.m. the Belfast was ready for her return trip. A raft of logs floating through the harbor held her up for 15 minutes, reminding everyone the Queen City, once the “Lumber Capital of the World,” was still fully deserving of the best steamboats money could buy.

The next morning, the Camden, skippered by Capt. Frank Brown, arrived in Bangor, having passed the Belfast after midnight a short distance to the west of Monhegan headed for Boston. The rhythm of the Great White Flyers, as the Boston boats also were known, had been established for yet another summer. The average viewer of that event a century ago would have been shocked to learn that 26 years later, in 1935, the Belfast would make the last voyage from Bangor to Boston for the Eastern Steamship Company, and the Boston boats would pass into history, the victim of competition from trains, planes and automobiles.

Background information for this column came from John M. Richardson’s Steamboat Lore of the Penobscot. A collection of Wayne E. Reilly’s columns titled “Remembering Bangor: The Queen City Before the Great Fire” is available at bookstores. Comments about this column can be sent to

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