The historic flood of 1909

Posted Sept. 27, 2009, at 5:07 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 30, 2011, at 11:26 a.m.

FLOOD SWEEPS DOWN ON KATAHDIN IRON WORKS, said the lead headline in the Bangor Daily News on Wednesday, Sept. 29, 1909.

“The Inhabitants, Which Include Several Bangor People, Prepare to Flee For Their Lives to the Highlands.”

The rain had begun falling on Sunday morning. On Tuesday night, a “deluge” touched off the disasters to follow. The scare at Katahdin Iron Works was just the beginning of several days of catastrophic events in northern and eastern Maine. Before it was over towns had been shut off from the outside world, mills closed, lumbering operations disrupted and potato fields washed away in what the Bangor Daily News declared “one of the worst floods in the history of the state.”

At Katahdin Iron Works, the raging torrent threatened to wash out the Silver Lake Dam and sweep away the railroad station, the entire settlement of 15 houses and the Silver Lake Hotel. Proprietor A.L. Green summoned his guests Tuesday night for a conference. “Ladies and gentlemen I can’t tell what will happen before morning,” he said. The “wildest scene” ensued until two guests from Bangor, the Rev. E.F. Pember and Gen. A.B. Farnham, organized an evacuation plan. When darkness fell, the water was “within a foot of the bottom of the hotel piazza.”

Next to that story was the first of many accounts of the impact of the downpour on railway lines throughout eastern Maine. Engineer Charles F. Shaw and Firefighter Raymond Alley had to swim for their lives when their locomotive toppled into Belfast harbor after a 75-foot-long section of the roadbed washed away. The next morning, Thursday, Sept. 30, the newspaper reported that Charles F. Keefe of Bangor, a Bangor & Aroostook engineer, had been killed after being caught under his engine when his train derailed in a washout at West Seboeis. Fireman Fred Bartlett of Houlton was badly injured.

The worst damage so far had been recorded along the smaller rivers such as the St. Croix, Pleasant and Piscataquis, said the newspaper. Many communities, such as Calais, found themselves without rail transportation, electricity or communications through telegraph or telephone.

The mostly dirt roads, of course, were nearly impassable. Automobiles going through Bangor were worthy of news coverage. The chauffeur of a Knox runabout, completely covered with mud and sporting three “crippled” tires, said water had washed over his running boards in many spots on the roads from Grand Lake Stream. The owner, a New York doctor, took the train. When a second automobile carrying tourists from Ohio passed through town headed down the Airline to Calais, the reporter commented “it is doubted they can get through.”

Log booms were breaking sending millions of feet of logs down many rivers. The logs were piling up against dams and bridges, threatening untold destruction. At Brownville, town officials protested the use of dynamite to free up a huge logjam behind the railroad bridge over the Pleasant River, fearing the resulting flood would destroy the town bridge downstream.

Bangoreans wondered what was in store for them. They remembered the spring freshet of 1902, which washed out the middle of the bridge to Brewer. Would the booms along the river hold up against the heaving currents? They got their answer that afternoon. The headline in the Bangor Daily Commercial said, “OVER A MILLION LOGS GO DOWN THE PENOBSCOT: Boom Above Pumping Station Dam Broke Thursday Night [early morning] — Conditions Worst Ever Seen, Say Rivermen….”

The next day, Friday, Oct. 1, the Bangor Daily News summed up the mess. About 3 million feet of logs had broken free from booms at Bangor, Costigan and South Brewer. About 2 million feet had escaped down the river “and are now scattered all the way from Mill Creek to the bay.” The biggest loser was the Eastern Manufacturing Co. Other log owners included Lowell & Engel, Sterns Lumber Company and Morse & Company. Three tugs with a large crew of rafters had worked all day Thursday between Orrington and Buck’s Ledge stopping the running logs and booming them along the shores. John Kelley and a crew of expert drivers was headed downriver that morning to get the logs that had been rounded up ready to tow back to Bangor.

Meanwhile, the lower Bangor boom, where logs for the steam mills were rafted, was jammed to the river bottom, a million feet or more from the broken log booms farther up river. The mass was “literally covered with 8-inch hawsers” to prevent it from being swept down river. If this great mass of timber broke free, the debate over rebuilding the bridge to Brewer “would probably be settled in about five minutes,” commented the reporter. The 250,000 feet of logs already jammed against the span had given it “a savage shaking.”

Otherwise, the impact of the flooding around Bangor was relatively minor. Water overflowed the docks. It washed away some of the slips at the Bangor Yacht Club along with a few motor boats. Merchants hustled to move goods away from the rising water along the Kenduskeag Stream along Broad and Exchange streets. The steamer Camden, one of the Boston boats, had tied up in Bucksport, rather than risk the swift currents and torpedo logs coming down from Bangor.

By the weekend, the waters were receding. A Boston boat would arrive in Bangor on Sunday. The Washington County train line had been reopened with a transfer at Whitneyville where a washout had yet to be repaired. The Princeton line was still closed, however, as was the Katahdin Iron Works branch. But “the guests of the Silver Lake Hotel … have recovered from their fright,” the Bangor Daily News assured readers.

An illustrated 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 may be sent to him at wer@bangordailynews.net.

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