Remembering a ‘tornado of flame’ on Bangor’s harbor

Posted July 12, 2009, at 4:56 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 30, 2011, at 11:26 a.m.

The Bangor waterfront a century ago was a tinderbox of decaying wooden warehouses piled high with coal, lumber, hay, tarpaper and other combustibles. The only thing remarkable about the Great Fire of 1911 is that it didn’t happen sooner. One of the most spectacular of its precursors — resulting in a “tornado of flame,” according to one newspaper headline — destroyed the Annie L. Henderson, an event that has been immortalized in striking photographs of the doomed schooner’s last moments in Bangor’s harbor.

At 8:30 a.m., Saturday, Sept. 1, 1906, stevedores were at work unloading the last of the coal from the hold of the three-masted Annie L. Henderson at Bacon & Robinson Co. on Front Street. Suddenly, they were engulfed by a wind-whipped rush of smoke and flames from the street end of the coal shed. Some of the men thought they heard an explosion of burning coal dust in the shed.

Later it was thought the fire had started in a small building between the coal company’s office and its coal sheds— possibly started by a live cinder from a passing locomotive or an electric wire, said the Bangor Daily Commercial on the day of the blaze. The men on the coal stage ran for their lives, and five shovelers and trimmers in the 363-ton vessel’s hold made a break for shore. One man escaped in only the drawers and shoes and stockings in which he was working

Also on board the schooner were Capt. Frank P. Hardy and Mate Clausen of Bangor and Chester Brown, the cook, from Deer Isle. Capt. Hardy bounded on deck to find “the fire was sweeping like a hurricane through the top of the coal sheds even with the schooner’s crosstrees, and its gaff topsails had already been ignited,” said the Bangor Daily News on Monday morning. “Burning brands” and “blazing shingles” from the sheds were finding their way into the ship’s open hatches and setting fire to the rigging. Brown, the cook, cast off the half dozen lines holding the schooner to pilings along the wharf, but a barge was blocking the vessel from leaving its berth.

Signals were made to the tug Bismarck to come and move the schooner, or to use its fire pump to save the burning vessel. Instead, the tug captain wet down the barge, which was not on fire and in no immediate danger, according to the Bangor Daily News. Finally, he moved the barge, but it was too late: The burning coal stage fell across the schooner’s deck, and the wreckage held it in her berth some time longer. “Then while she was ablaze aloft and on deck, the wind set her directly across to Brewer, where she poked her blazing jib boom into a shed used for storing sand at the rear of the Hathorne Mfg. Co.’s works, setting the building on fire.”

Capt. Hardy, a part owner of the vessel, chased it in a small boat. When he got to the Brewer side, he found a hose, but no nozzle, further frustrating him in his efforts to save it. Then, despite his protests that the fire could be put out in 20 minutes with the right equipment, the tug Bismarck reappeared to tow the schooner into midstream reportedly on orders from Brewer officials. After an ineffectual effort to put out the flames, the tug took the burning vessel “to the flats below the [Maine Central Rail Road] station, where she burned all day and night” after being secured against drifting down on the ebb tide among the vessels moored at High Head. On Sunday morning, nothing could be seen of the three-master but a few charred timbers and the stumps of her masts. The Annie L. Henderson had “finished her career in a fine big blaze on the flats,” noted the Bangor Daily News.

Hundreds of people lined the banks on both sides of the river, some standing on railroad cars, to watch the thrilling battle to save the vessel and to prevent her from causing more damage. Black smoke towered hundreds of feet in the air. Showers of sparks were carried by the wind as far as Brewer. The little Bon Ton Ferry was seen towing away small motor boats tied along the Brewer shore in the path of flying embers. Brewer property owners were out hosing down their buildings.

In Bangor, a “bad mixup” had delayed firefighting efforts on land. Alarms had been sent in from fire boxes on opposite sides of the Kenduskeag Stream, one at Broad and Union streets and one at Union Station at the end of Exchange Street, confusing firefighters as to where to take their horse-drawn equipment. Back then, the only span across the stream between Front and Washington streets was a railroad bridge.

Bangor had been lucky this time. “The fire made rapid progress in the coal sheds and at one time threatened to sweep the entire waterfront. Fortunately, the wind was offshore, and this circumstance, with the fine work of the fire department, saved the new and expensive wharf buildings of the Eastern Steamship Co. and other wooden structures in the vicinity,” said the Bangor Daily News.

Bacon & Robinson’s two coal sheds and office building were destroyed. So was a salt storehouse owned by Morse & Co., the lumber and home furnishings manufacturer. The shed of another coal company, J.F. Woodman, was slightly damaged. Much of the damage was covered by insurance. The fire in Brewer resulted in little damage thanks to quick work by the fire department.

The Annie L. Henderson was uninsured. Many individuals and financial interests from Bangor and other ports owned shares of the vessel. Capt. Hardy lost many of his belongings, along with his financial interest in his vessel, but he managed to save his freight check for $268. Chester Brown, the cook who cast off the lines, lost $60 in bills he had left in his berth, about $1,200 today.

Three years later Bangor’s harbor channel was being dredged and widened by the federal government. The remains of the Annie L. Henderson were in the way of the dredger. Nat Gordon, a diver from Portland, was employed by James Spellman & Sons to raise the Annie L. Henderson from its grave and take it to shore to be broken up and disposed of, said the Commercial on July 9, 1909 — a century ago last week. The job was completed on Nov. 20, according to the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers in its report the next year. Doubtlessly, there were many spectators on hand who remembered that fiery day three years before when Bangor’s waterfront had been saved once again by the vagaries of the summer breeze.

An illustrated collection of Wayne E. Reilly’s columns titled “Remembering Bangor: The Queen City Before the Great Fire” is available at bookstores. He will be signing books at Borders at the Bangor Mall beginning at 2 p.m. Saturday, July 18. Comments about this column can be sent to him at wer@bangordailynews.net.

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