New garages in Bangor fueled early motor mania

Posted Jan. 17, 2010, at 6:05 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 30, 2011, at 11:26 a.m.

When the first automobiles arrived in Bangor in 1900, some people laughed while others cursed. Many predicted the “devil carts” would never replace horses. By 1905, however, Maine began requiring the registration of motor vehicles. Four years later, 4,495 autos had been recorded on the books in Augusta, the Bangor Daily News reported on Aug. 5, 1909. (Today there are about 1.4 million motor vehicles registered in Maine.)

“The gasoline motor car is no longer an experiment,” declared an editorial titled “Motor Mania” on April 27 of the same year. “It has demonstrated its usefulness not only as a racing machine for millionaires and cranks to play with, but as a useful vehicle of travel, or for the delivery of packages and mail, for the carrying of passengers for pay, for the transportation of physicians and for so many purposes that in a very wide sense it is now indispensable to modern civilization.”

Of course, there were still a few problems. Autos were expensive. They broke down a lot. Roads were terrible. Most autos were stored for the winter. A nationally syndicated story in the Bangor Daily Commercial on March 13, 1909, estimated that on average it cost $2,400 annually to maintain an auto “for the city man driving a car of good size and power, and keeping it up to the top notch of efficiency and appearance at all times.” That’s nearly $60,000 in today’s dollars. The chauffeurs that most wealthy people hired cost about half of that amount. Garage storage in winter and tires were other major expenses. Tinkerers who drove themselves and had empty barns could get by a lot more cheaply.

Automobiles were rapidly becoming a source of business profit and employment. In 1905, there were only four garages in the Queen City catering to automobile owners, according to the Bangor Business Directory. Four years later the number had more than doubled to nine. Their services were subvided into three categories — dealers, repairers and storage. Only three companies — the Franklin Street Garage at 29 Franklin, J.H. Nash at 23 Palm St. and A.B. Purington at 126 Exchange St. — were included in all three categories.

That would soon change as capitalists saw opportunities. For some businessmen, it was merely the realization they had to adapt to this new form of transportation if they wanted to stay in business. Andrew Kelley Carriage Co., which had manufactured horse-drawn vehicles (including “Bangor buggies”) since 1870, announced it would start repairing automobiles at its new factory at 80 Walter St., the Commercial printed on Oct. 2. Carriages and autos would be serviced under one roof — for a while, anyway.

A bigger operation announced it was setting up shop in a new building in December. The Bangor Motor Co. was erecting “the largest and best fitted garage in the territory east of Boston” at Union, Short and Hodgdon streets, said the Commercial on Dec. 30. Some old stables on Hodgdon were being torn down to make way for this new motor palace.

The company planned to take over the Franklin Street Garage. From its new headquarters on Union Street, it would sell gasoline-powered cars — Locomobiles, Knoxes and Whites — plus “a cheaper automobile” yet to be chosen. It would service motorboats as well as autos, and store them, too.

Back then simply being an avid autoist apparently was considered proof that one was qualified to run a garage. Taber D. Bailey, the president of the new company and a local lawyer, had been an auto owner and enthusiast for several years, newspaper readers were told. In fact, Bailey had owned the third machine in Bangor.

Harry A. Chapman, one of the proprietors of the city’s best-known hotel, the Bangor House, was vice president and treasurer. He owned “a cruising and racing motor boat” as well as an auto. The new garage would be located across Union Street from the hotel. Doubtlessly, an increasing number of patrons were arriving in auto-mobiles in need of service, or else looking for autos to use — or buy — while in Bangor.

The men who would actually manage the day-to-day operations had impressive backgrounds in the mechanical end of the auto business. Benjamin R. Tillson, secretary and sales manager, repaired and sold steam cars before coming to Portland, where he worked for the Portland Co. Tillson had started “an automobile school” to show new owners how their vehicles worked and to train chauffeurs. He had “designed and built a successful automobile,” invented and patented auto accessories and written a book, “The Complete Automobile Instructor.”

George A. Hathorn, assistant treasurer and general manager of the new company, had been the manager of the Franklin Street Garage. He was considered a natural born mechanic. His father, George H., “was the pioneer manufacturer by machinery of balls for ball-bearings and driving calks in this state. He established the Hathorn Mfg. Co. of Brewer.” The two Hathorns had designed and built gasoline engines, said the Commercial.

The Bangor Motor Co.’s building on Union Street remained in business until it was converted into the city’s new Central Fire Station soon after the Great Fire of 1911 destroyed the previous station on Harlow Street. Then the company built an even bigger garage at 225 Main St. on the site where the Bangor House Stables (next to Davenport Park) burned in 1909. By then the company was selling Pierce-Arrows and Cadillacs.

More ambitious young men with money to spend announced plans to open yet another new garage in the beginning of 1910. The Eastern Auto Co. would sell Oldsmobiles, Overlands, Buicks and Oaklands at its garage in the two lower floors of the new Coe Building at 42-46 Columbia St., said a story in the Bangor Daily News on Jan. 18. The operators “were all enthusiastic motorists and nearly all of them have operated cars for several seasons.”

Perhaps the most prominent of these youthful entrepreneurs was Louvie P. Swett (nicknamed Swetty), general manager and salesman. He had been a champion professional bicycle racer in the 1890s. More recently, he was known for setting “hill climbing records” in Bangor in a Buick. “With 10 people aboard, Mr. Swett took State Street hill on the high gear; with seven passengers he went over Highland Avenue on the high gear and with five in the car scaled Prospect Street also on the high gear.” One year he sold 73 cars for another Bangor dealer, S.L. Crosby. “This is more cars than any individual in Maine ever sold,” claimed the newspaper. It was as easy as climbing hills in high gear back then.

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 can be sent to him at wer@bangordailynews.net.

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