Listening to echoes from the past

Posted July 12, 2009, at 5:04 p.m.

“REMEMBERING BANGOR: THE QUEEN CITY BEFORE THE GREAT FIRE” by Wayne E. Reilly. The History Press. May 2009, paperback, 128 pages.

Longtime readers of Wayne E. Reilly’s column, published Mondays in the Lifestyle section of the Bangor Daily News, know that he has had plenty to say about the events and times leading up to the Great Fire of 1911.

So, would-be historians should cheer, since Reilly recently revisited more than 30 of his best columns on that period, first published between 2003 and 2008, and recast them in a slim, new paperback.

To his credit, Reilly does far more than brush the dust off some old yarns. Bangor history devotees will be grateful for this new contribution to their knowledge of the events that captivated the Queen City during these bygone days, many of which have current connections.

As time marches on, we would do well to slow down occasionally, as Reilly has done, and listen for the echoes from the past that still resonate.

For instance, the taxpayer bailout of the beleaguered U.S. auto industry has been top news recently in the BDN.

Reilly also examines the growing concern about the impact of the “devil carts” on the river city.

In his May 21, 2007 column, Reilly transports readers back 100 years, this time to “the auto craze” that swept through Maine and found horses and automobiles competing for space in downtown Bangor.

Soon after the city adopted speed limits, it issued its first speeding ticket, to chauffeur Joseph Foster, who was driving for lumber dealer Waldo P. Lowell on May 24, 1907.

At Foster’s trial in Bangor Municipal Court the very next day, two witnesses said they saw Foster “going like a streak” on Exchange Street. The two men concurred that he was going well over the 8 mph speed limit.

More past-present connections abound in Reilly’s new offering. Did you know that the namesake of the John R. Graham Elementary School in Veazie was a “trolley magnate and electrical wizard, who helped point the way to Bangor’s future”?

“Remembering” also documents the pleasures and pains associated with living in proximity to the Penobscot River and its tributaries, long before throngs were lured to the Bangor Waterfront during both the National and American folk festivals.

Near the turn of the 20th century, few Bangor residents could imagine how a move to employ the power of a Penobscot tributary to quell a raging blaze in Millinocket would end up fouling the once-pure water that their families drank from, swam in and skated on downriver.

That misstep actually sparked the typhoid epidemic of 1904.

On a lighter note, imagine hitting the jackpot at Hollywood Slots and receiving 50 cigars, not 50 bucks.

Was that gambling when slot machines dispensed cigars in 1905? If so, the “forces of virtue” would swoop in and shut the place down. Good thing for the Bangor slots parlor that it is 2009, not 1905.

Many more vignettes await curious readers. To read them yourself, pick up a copy, pick a spot in one of the city’s parks or the waterfront and learn about what the river city was like when “Bangor was still a gaudy show town where you could see Broadway plays with the original casts at the opera house.”

Middle-school-age readers will impress their Maine studies teachers and classmates with their knowledge of Bangor history.

Longtime Bangor residents can test their own knowledge of the origins of the Queen City.

Others surely will enjoy the simple pleasure of Reilly’s crisp storytelling style that buoys this entertaining, informative narrative.

Reilly will be signing copies of “Remembering Bangor: The Queen City Before the Great Fire” 2-4 p.m. Saturday, July 18, at Borders on Bangor Mall Boulevard.

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