Did political procrastination doom Bangor’s library trove?

Posted Oct. 18, 2009, at 9:18 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 30, 2011, at 11:26 a.m.

The destruction of the Bangor Public Library in the Great Fire of 1911 was one of the Queen City’s great tragedies. Nearly 70,000 books along with irreplaceable newspapers and documents were lost. Bangoreans knew the building where the library was located, on the second story of a commercial block next to the Kenduskeag Stream on State Street, was a fire trap. Yet they fought bitterly for most of a decade over where to place a “fireproof” successor. If they had solved the matter sooner, would they have saved the collection?

Between 1905 and 1909 there were three major rounds in the battle over the library site. They reflected the Queen City’s political and social divisions as well as the difficulty in reaching consensus in a hilly community with a large stream running through its middle.

Round one centered on a plan that had been percolating since before the turn of the century. The library board of trustees wanted to place the building on the brow of State Street hill between Broadway and French Street — where All Souls Congregational Church is today — on a site donated by N.C. Ayer, a Broadway mansion owner, next to the First Parish Church. Powerful opponents, including the Bangor Daily Commercial, the Bangor Board of Trade and The Citizens League of Bangor, quickly emerged, arguing the site was too small and steep. Many people would find it difficult to walk there. The discussion was tainted as well by the accusation that the plan had been cooked up by a clique of wealthy insiders.

Several other sites were thrown into the discussion. They included the corner of Hammond and Franklin streets; Harlow street, across from Bangor High School, then located in Abbott Square; Center Park, where City Hall is today; and Park Street at its intersection with Penobscot Street, behind today’s City Hall. Every site had its drawbacks. Harlow Street, for example, was considered by many to be a slum where women and children would be afraid to walk at night. Center Park, a little green space just up the street, was “the people’s park” and should be preserved, it was argued.

The matter reached an impasse in June 1905, when the Common Council and the Board of Alderman split on whether to donate part of the park for the project. The Bangor Daily News predicted a “delay of years.” The trustees reportedly were “disgusted” and “discouraged.”

Round two was over the site at Hammond and Franklin streets, known as the Hayford Lot, which had been advocated by the Commercial. The plan generated widespread public support. But when the city tried to take the land by eminent domain, the owner refused to accept the financial offer. The issue became bogged down in a long, complicated lawsuit.

The struggle took a comic turn when city officials tried several times to deliver the city’s offer in a large bag to Mrs. Anna T. Peirce at her home on Cedar Street. “There was $30,000 in gold and $15,000 in bills and the weight of it was such that it took two bank clerks to carry it to the carriage. It weighed about 80 pounds to be exact,” reported the Commercial on June 11, 1908. The maid told the officials that Mrs. Peirce was not at home or indisposed even though they saw her on the porch or in the backyard. The reporter who accompanied the procession had great fun describing these antics.

Meanwhile, the suit dragged on as did the newspaper’s efforts to discredit the Hayford heirs with reports that the buildings on the lot were a health hazard and inhabited by prostitutes. A court decision unfavorable to the city on May 28, 1909, brought the effort to a sudden end.

Round Three began almost immediately. The result was a citywide referendum on Oct. 18, 1909, a century ago Sunday. Bangoreans were given six sites to choose from. They included the Harlow Street lot bounded by Spring and Prospect streets on the sides and Lincoln Court in back; the Broadway and State Street lot still fa-vored by library trustees; a Main Street lot where the Bangor House stable was located next to Davenport Park; the Merrill Lot on Union Street, where the Isaac Farrar Mansion is located; Center Park and East Market Square; and a spot “opposite” the U.S. post office in the Kenduskeag Stream. (The Post Office and Custom House were located in what is today known as Kenduskeag Parkway, between Central and State streets.)

The Commercial unleashed a propaganda campaign of extraordinary proportions in favor of the Harlow Street location on the grounds that it was centrally located and it would benefit the high school. Whole pages of the newspaper were devoted to petitions and testimonials from dozens of resident. One prominent Bangorean, Dr. T.U. Coe, suggested placing the library and a new high school side by side on the lot. After the fire that happened on a slightly bigger lot.

The Bangor Daily News did not take an official position in its editorials, but it became a conduit for the arguments of Charles F. Bragg of the library trustees and others, including a petition with many names, supporting the original proposal next to the First Parish Church at Broadway and State. The plan this time included moving the church over to make more space for the library. The site was in a good neighborhood, “quiet, light, airy and free from dust and objectionable surroundings,” where women and children would feel safe at night. The spot would give the building “an imposing appearance.” And it was accessible.

The other four locations did not have large constituencies. The Commercial said the Center Park site had been placed on the ballot only to divert votes from the nearby Harlow Street location. The Main Street and Union Street sites would never receive support from people living on the east side of the Kenduskeag. The Ken-duskeag Stream sight “opposite” the Post Office might have satisfied Bangoreans’ geographical biases once, but it would cost too much money to build and maintain, and the dampness would damage the books.

On voting day, the Harlow Street site won easily with 978 votes, while proponents of the Broadway site managed only 575 votes. In fact, the Harlow Street site received 47 votes more than all the rest of the sites put together.

Despite this victory, however, the city still had not started construction of the new library by the time the fire struck on April 30, 1911. Delay after delay stalled the process. The Commercial regularly complained in its columns. The trustees held three meetings as late as April to explain to the City Council why events were mov-ing so slowly, according to the library’s official history.

The neighborhood where the new library was to be built was badly burned in the fire. The high school was demolished, but was later rebuilt across the street next to the new library. Whether a new “fireproof” library would have survived had it been built earlier on the Harlow Street site, possibly helped out by efforts from fire-fighting volunteers, we can only speculate.

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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