Horses raced on frozen Penobscot in 1909

Posted Feb. 28, 2010, at 6:17 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 30, 2011, at 11:26 a.m.

The freezing of the Penobscot River each winter a century ago was presented in the newspapers as a great epic. The ice industry may have been melting away, but thousands of people were looking forward to having some fun just the same.

First came the betting. When would the river freeze for the season, cutting Bangor off from its lucrative shipping traffic and forcing travelers to take the train? “The irresistible breath of winter is beginning now to have its usual effect and the grip of cold weather is slowly but surely tightening upon the Penobscot,” said a reporter for the Bangor Daily Commercial on Dec. 11, 1909.

The average closing date since records were kept in 1816 was Dec. 10. Things were slower this year. The little Bon Ton Ferry No. 2 was still crisscrossing between Bangor and Brewer, while the big Boston boats continued cruising up the river to the Eastern Steamship Co. dock, depositing passengers and freight.

The coal barges Oak Hill and Thomaston had received orders from their home office in Philadelphia “to cut and run” so they wouldn’t end up trapped in Bangor all winter. Other boats were still in the harbor, however, unloading fertilizer, bricks and other products essential to the local economy, and picking up loads of lumber. “The men along the waterfront” were guessing the river would freeze hard before the end of the next week. The tugboats had been equipped with “their iron ice shoes” in an effort to keep the river open as long as possible.

On Dec. 16, only one cargo vessel, the schooner Georgette Lawrence, loading lumber from Lowell and Engel Co., remained. Four days later, the Commercial let it be known that the steamer Belfast, one of the big Boston steamers, had smashed 2 inches of ice “getting away from Bangor,” and it probably wouldn’t be upriver far-ther than Winterport until spring.

“The Bon Ton … is dying, game as usual as far as the ice is concerned,” said the newspaper. Cargo vessels were now unloading at Bucksport, their freight being shipped to Bangor by train.

The official closing of the river that year was Dec. 23. Now it was time to have some of the fun I mentioned earlier. The first ice sporting activity that winter, however, was recorded not on the river, but at the Niben Club’s headquarters at Pushaw Lake. “There were high jinks on Pushaw Lake Friday, for the ice boats were out and away, with three inches of clear, solid ice under the skates and a good breeze to speed the craft over the broad expanse,” said the Commercial on Dec. 11. Among those with iceboats were such well-known members of Bangor’s business aristocracy as I.K. Stetson, Fred W. Ayer and Mellen C. Peirce.

By early January 1910, an ice rink was being constructed in front of the Eastern Steamboat terminal (approximately where the Sea Dog Brewing Co. is today), according to the Commercial on Jan. 13. Organized by the Rev. Carl E. Henry of the Universalist church, it was viewed as a humanitarian effort, an offshoot of the city’s playground movement, where children would have a place to skate safely. Admission would be free. Adults were welcome, too.

A committee had been formed to raise a couple of hundred dollars for expenses. Besides the Rev. Henry, it consisted of Oliver L. Hall, president of the Common Council; A.B. Taylor, cashier of the Merrill Trust Co.; and Robert A. Jordan, secretary of the Bangor YMCA. The Fire Department had agreed to flood the area with its hoses when smoothing out was needed, and local ice companies had offered to lend scrapers. Skating was under way before Jan. 17.

Of course, people skated where they wished when conditions were right. “Two Miles of Skating Between Pumping Station and High Head,” declared a Bangor Daily News headline on Jan. 24. Imagine being able to skate all the way from the Bangor Dam to the coal docks near the Hampden line!

The most exotic winter sport, one that has been almost entirely forgotten, was horse racing on the ice above the dam. Many of the same people raced at Maplewood Park in the summer. By Jan. 14, a half-mile track had been put in condition by Augustus Currier. The ice track was wider than ever, easily accommodating six horses abreast, said the Commercial. There had already been some “fast brushes” between some of the area’s horsemen. Rumors abounded. Would one of the McCarthy horses from Hermon “engage the attention of the Bangor steppers this winter,” the writer wanted to know.

Heavy rain temporarily washed the ice and snow away for a few days at the end of January. Children in all the schoolrooms in Bangor were warned to stay off the ice. If the river didn’t make a quick comeback the horse racing would be moved to “the Boardman Farm, now known as the Black Farm, near the Niben Club” on what was known as the old getaway path, said the Commercial on Jan. 29. Augustus Currier always could be counted on “to provide fun for the boys.”

By early February, however, the horses and sulkies were back out on the river. “A hundred of Bangor’s best horses were exercised on Currier & Sons ice track above the water works dam … while hundreds of spectators looked on …,” said the Commercial on Feb. 7. Prominent horsemen present “showing smart steppers” in-cluded Fred T. Hall, Walter Russ, John Eastman, W.L. Miller, Frank Lyford, Pope McKinnon and George Leighton, to name just a few.

Three days later, the Bangor Daily News described an event at which “800 people lined the ice track at Mount Hope” to see “200 rigs or more with all kinds of speed skimming over the natural speedway.” There was “a sizzling set-to” between Pope McKinnon’s Lee Wilkes and John McEwen’s Lamallett Jr.

These news stories of thrilling encounters continued until the ice turned to mush and broke up. Ice out was officially declared on March 21, and the men along the waterfront turned their attention to making money again as the schooners and steamboats returned upriver.

Clark P. Thompson provided some background information on horse racing. Comments about this column can be sent to Wayne E. Reilly at wer@bangordailynews.net.

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