The terrible Main Street fire that killed more than 50 horses at the Bangor House Stables a century ago is beyond the comprehension of those of us who have never owned or even ridden a horse in this modern age. Horses were man’s best friend back then as well as his best beast of burden. Despite trains, steamboats and auto-mobiles, horses still provided a major form of transportation. Horse racing was still one of the most popular sports as well, whether at Maplewood Park in warm weather or on the frozen Penobscot River in winter.
Horses were an important part of the Queen City’s economy. Residents owned 1,815 horses, more than any other community in northern or eastern Maine, according to the state assessor’s office. (That wasn’t true for cows or pigs.) Many people — probably hundreds — were employed taking care of these horses and putting them to work.
The Bangor Business Directory in 1907 noted 22 stables that boarded horses and provided livery and hack service. Nine hackmen and six horse traders also were listed under the category of stables. Additional entrepreneurial activities were listed under the categories of horse clipping, horse clothing, horseshoeing and horse dealing. It would be several years before the number of automobiles would eclipse the number of horses trotting through the streets.
The fire that destroyed the Bangor House Stables, located next to Davenport Park diagonally across the street from the Queen City’s most famous hotel, began shortly before 1 a.m. Dec. 21, 1909. The hard-working staff at the Bangor Daily News got most of the story in the newspaper for readers later that morning.
The fire was discovered by Mrs. William L. Mountaine, who lived nearby. After she smelled smoke and “saw a tiny tongue of crimson in the dark mass of the stables,” she called the central telephone office and asked the operator to call the fire department. She called again in a few minutes when she didn’t hear the fire alarm go off across the street at the Bangor House. This five-minute delay later generated a good deal of controversy. Would some of the horses have been saved if someone had run across the street and rung the alarm at the Bangor House instead of calling the telephone company?
When the firefighters arrived, it was clear they were up against “the bitterest fight of the year.” Fanned by a smart northwest wind, the flames had engulfed the entire building, “lapping up with fearful rapidity the dry, well-seasoned wood.”
Guests jammed the windows and the corridors of the Bangor House and spilled out into the street. The flames shot high into the sky, attracting spectators from all over the city and across the river in Brewer.
Words were not enough to describe the conflagration. It was “a seething, roaring cauldron,” wrote the flustered reporter. “A volcano of flames bursting through the roof spurted high into the air and threw into vivid relief the black throngs in the street.”
The reporter for the Bangor Daily Commercial, the afternoon paper, had more time to collect information, so I will rely on his story for the details. “It was a sad sight that daylight brought, and Tuesday morning hundreds viewed the remains of the stable, and the charred carcasses of half a hundred horses which were trapped in the flames … ,” he wrote.
The building was owned by Albert Wheelden, who used part of it as a stable. He leased the rest to W.D. Smith, who conducted a livery business. Wheelden lost three horses of his own and four horses that belonged to other people. “He had the mare May Day, the gelding Ralph Shedd and the old gelding Gray Henry, which at one time was a well known racer in Maine … Hon. F.O. Beal lost his bay gelding Billy Button. Henry McLaughlin and Harry D. Benson both had driving horses that were being kept there. E.F. Kelley also had a horse quartered in the stable … ,” wrote the reporter.
Smith lost 29 livery horses as well as a large number of boarded horses and his own private driving mare, Lady Mary. Others who lost one, two or even three horses were John Cassidy, James McGuire, William McGuire, Dr. T.J. Murphy, Dr. Daniel McCann, Oscar Goodwin, P.J. Byrnes, Charles Winchester, Frank P. Wood and Edward F. Kelley. John E. Kelley lost his valuable racing gelding Powder, valued at $1,000. Fifty buggies, several sleighs and a large assortment of harnesses, robes, blankets and other horse furnishings went up in flames.
Only two horses survived, led to safety at a nearby shed belonging to James McCann. Night watchman John Prescott, apparently asleep until firefighters arrived, was rescued by a Patrolman Kennedy, who broke the window to his office and pulled him out of the smoke.
People a century ago were used to witnessing up close the deaths of human beings to a large assortment of diseases, accidents and even old age on occasion. They did not romanticize the deaths of animals. The sudden deaths of so many horses, however, came as a terrible shock. People flocked to view the aftermath.
On Dec. 30 an editorial writer for the Bangor Daily News revealed his thoughts under the heading “Some Finer Sentiments.” He wished “the age of automobiles and flying machines might not delay its coming.” He wished that horses and dogs “were immortal and endowed with the Divine majesty of triumphing over pain and death … .”
He was particularly upset, however, by the fact that the dead horses were left “for day after day” (apparently awaiting an insurance appraisal) within the blackened walls of the “grinning” stable building to be viewed by schoolchildren.
“How the highest results of Bangor’s culture and refinement hovered about those skeletons of a former stable and peered and poked about among the distorted and deformed horse cadavers, and investigated fire-blinded eyes and scorched hair and protruding entrails with all the apparent joy of trained artists inspecting a famous picture gallery … came as a decided shock …” he wrote. “Maybe it is possible to get children inured to gruesome and abhorrent sights, just as men become hardened to sin. But do such experiences pay?”
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.