Now that it was no longer “the lumber capital of the world,” Bangor was uneasy about its status in the rapidly changing global economy. Fate had decreed some time ago that the Queen City of the East would be relegated to a distant geographic perch increasingly far from major markets. The country’s commercial axis had moved west. Was Bangor still the Queen City of the East, or more likely “a star on the edge of night” as envisioned by Henry David Thoreau?
Bangoreans were constantly taking stock, citing statistics about exports and imports, tonnage and board feet, ships and railroad cars. The slightest upward or downward ticks in local commerce set off ecstatic cheers or agonized moans. Everyone had an opinion about how things were going. These contending commentators at the dawn of 1910 could be divided between optimists and pessimists, boosters and nabobs of negativism.
The pessimists included those who bemoaned the fact the city had no large mills, and the biggest manufacturer, Parker & Peakes Shoe Factory, had closed its doors recently. “Bangor is sadly deficient in manufacturing industries,” complained a Bangor Daily News editorial on Aug. 16, 1909. Yet the city had enough money to support “100 open [illegal] bars” and “more amusement houses [relative] to its population than any other city in Maine.” Even Bangor’s great hope, the Bangor & Aroostook Railroad, had figured out a way to bypass the city by building seaports in Stockton and Searsport and by placing its main hub at Northern Maine Junction in Hermon where it crossed paths with the Maine Central. I quoted from this editorial at length in my column last week.
A few months later, on Jan. 7, 1910, more than a page of the newspaper was devoted to an unusual spread that seemed to be an attempt to refute the editorial in August. RAPID GROWTH OF BANGOR: THE CITY OF HOMES, said a huge headline spread across the top of the page. The copy consisted of three stories, the lead written by the Bangor Daily News and the other two by prominent real estate companies Pearl & Dennett and Louis Kirstein & Sons. The message was simple: If the city’s economy was so badly off, why did it continue to grow? The real estate market was red hot.
“Twenty-five years ago people used to say, with an air of gloomy conviction: Well, the lumber trade is dying, and when it is gone what will become of Bangor,” said the newspaper’s analyst. Those fears were mistaken, however. The lumber trade refused to die. “It is still a big thing in Bangor and all northern and eastern Maine, only the scene of certain of its activities has shifted and different methods are employed.”
More of the lumber was being sawed “up north” and being transferred by rail to many different markets. As many logs as ever were being cut along the Penobscot, but today a large proportion was being transformed into pulp and paper at places like Great Northern Paper Company in Millinocket. That didn’t mean a loss for Ban-gor, but a “substantial gain.”
“Millinocket is not a competitor of Bangor — it is a customer,” explained the newspaper analyst. “So with all the towns, big and little, that have grown up in the wilderness north and east of us. They come here to buy goods, to do business, to enjoy themselves, all of those people in the new empire of Maine.” (This may sound self-evident today, but a century ago it was a Eureka! moment for Bangor.)
All this meant tremendous new prosperity for Bangor in a new kind of service economy. The city had doubled in property valuation in the previous 20 years. In 1909, 116 houses had been built (the paper listed every new address and homeowner). Many new commercial buildings had been built as well including the five-story stone structure on Front Street containing H.L. Day’s bedspring factory. Others were the Cassidy building and the Adams & Day brick warehouse on Columbia Street; the Maine Central Railroad freight office at Main and Railroad streets; the Gem and the Graphic theaters on Exchange Street; major renovations at the Penobscot Exchange Hotel; the Bangor Yacht Club; additions to the Eastern Maine General Hospital and the Eastern Maine Hospital for the Insane. Other major projects under way included a refrigeration plant for Armour Co. at Front and Union streets and a big garage for the new Bangor Motor Co. at Union, Short and Hodgdon streets.
The two real estate company writers in their essays reinforced what the newspaper commentator was saying. The city’s prosperity was being driven by the opening of the area north and east of Bangor by the B&A and the Washington County railroads as well as the trolley lines growing out of Bangor into the surrounding com-munities. Bangor was changing from a lumbering center to a commercial, banking and educational center. The companies in the small towns were not only buying their supplies here, but many of their top executives were living in Bangor and conducting business from there. While Bangor could not be called a manufacturing city, it had numerous small factories, and “it is better to have 25 small industries employing 10 hands each than one large establishment employing 250.”
“The pessimist with the constant inquiry as to why can Bangor grow and what supports the population simply has not cared enough about his city to investigate. If he did investigate he would change immediately from a pessimist to an optimist of the first class,” concluded one of the real estate essays.
Undoubtedly, to boost his case in the future this optimist would cite the new census figures that would be coming out the following year. In 1910, Bangor’s population was 24,803, a remarkable increase of 13.5 percent over 1900. Of course, much of this increase would consist of impoverished immigrants living in the Hancock Street area barely benefiting at all from the prosperity about which Bangor boasted. Nor was there any mention of the unions still demanding an eight-hour day and the other benefits considered essential by modern standards. Only “pessimists” would notice such things.
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.