‘Benzine buggies’ roared past the 4-wheeled competition

Posted March 14, 2010, at 5:03 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 30, 2011, at 11:26 a.m.

As spring approached a century ago, a whiff of gasoline was in the air as the internal combustion engine made vast strides in the race for transportation supremacy. The Bangor papers recorded a long list of feats as horses looked on nervously.

Two headlines in the Bangor Daily News attracted the attention of the city’s growing number of auto enthusiasts on the morning of March 5, 1910. The first said “Bangor To Have Taxi-Cabs Soon.” But Bangoreans would have to wait until June. Michael Kane, the well-known liveryman, had tried to buy them in Boston, but found that demand was so great he would have to put in his order “and wait for the tops and bodies of the cars to be built.”

Meanwhile, Kane was expected in the city that very day with two big motor cars that he had purchased for his business transporting visitors from Union Station to the Bangor House. A 45-horsepower Pierce-Arrow seating seven and a smaller Cadillac seating five would be bringing train passengers to Bangor’s best hotel. Hedging his bets, Kane had also purchased three hacks. These purchases were a sure sign “that Bangor is reaching the top of the list of up-to-date cities this side of Boston,” commented the newspaper.

“First Auto Truck Here,” announced the second headline. “The first gasoline automobile truck ever in Bangor is due here today for the Eastern Automobile Co. It is a one-ton Buick and will probably be the pioneer of many, for it has been demonstrated that auto trucks for many kinds of business are cheaper and better than horses,” said the newspaper.

The Eastern Automobile Co. was one of the new auto dealerships in town. It hadn’t actually opened its doors yet, but it was almost ready to go. The manager was Lovie P. Swett, a colorful character in Bangor’s transportation history. A champion professional bicycle racer in the 1890s, Swett reinvested his enthusiasm in automobiles once they became popular.

He was known locally for a series of hill-climbing feats “on the high gear.” One of these events had been written up in the Bangor Daily News on Dec. 20, 1909, when Swett drove “a number seventeen Buick car, with ten passengers, up State Street hill at high speed … to decide a wager.” Those aboard included Eben Leavitt and John H. Rice, two other investors in the new garage. Swett repeated similar feats on Prospect Street and Highland Avenue.

Swett’s fame continued its ascent in another extravaganza labeled “undoubtedly the most remarkable automobile trip ever made in this section of the state, and in Maine for that matter” by the Bangor Daily Commercial on March 23, 1910 (the week after Barney Oldfield drove the fastest mile ever in his 200-horsepower Benz at Daytona). Swett drove Bangor lumberman James M. McNulty, Charles H. Maling and John H. Rice in “a Model 16 Buick touring car” from Bangor to a lumber camp near Buck’s Cove on Sebec Lake (north of Dover-Foxcroft) over miles of ice and logging roads.

On the way back, their “benzine buggy” allegedly averaged 84 mph on a 7-mile stretch of frozen water between Buck’s Cove and Greeley’s Landing. Considering that most automobiles were stored for the winter because of the hopeless driving conditions, it is remarkable that the men made the trip at all.

Swett’s perilous ride was not the only news gasoline was making on Sebec Lake. On March 5, the Bangor Daily Commercial reported that a log hauler “has been astonishing the natives up in Piscataquis County this winter where it has been snaking long processions of sleds loaded with James McNulty’s logs over the ice on Sebec Lake at a rate that makes horses seem foolish and expensive.”

The log hauler had been built two years earlier by Ira Peavey “at the Peavey works, the Bangor Edge Tool Co.” Its steam engine and boiler had been replaced a year ago with a 58-horsepower gasoline motor, which was much more convenient and less expensive to operate. “It’s estimated that it would have required 30 horses to do this work and that a saving of 100 percent has been made,” said the newspaper. Gasoline was enjoying another triumph over both steam and horses.

Motorcycles were also breaking into the news. On March 5, the Commercial reported that E.M. Estabrook, “a prominent official of the Federation of American Motorcyclists,” had written a piece in “the March number of Motorcycle” about racing with his friends between Bangor and Hinds Pond (Brewer Lake), including a hair-raising effort to run down and shoot a Canada lynx on the pond itself involving several motorcycles and iceboats. The lynx escaped.

Gasoline-powered entertainment was making the vaudeville circuit as well. Maximus, the strongman, grasped the spokes of one of the rear wheels of “a high powered automobile” and held it in place even after the chauffeur threw it into gear with “the power turned on full tilt,” reported the Commercial on March 17. This event occurred outside the Gaiety Theater in old Norombega Hall on Central Street.

That same month the Bangor Automobile Dealers Association was founded. A big auto show, the second in the city’s history, was scheduled for April. Ironically, the auto dealers sought to attract attention to the show by announcing they would be putting “a full-sized working aeroplane” on display — not in the air, of course, but on the floor of the show. Could greater events be far behind?

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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