Bon Tons ferried big crowds between Bangor and Brewer

Posted Aug. 08, 2010, at 8:02 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 30, 2011, at 11:26 a.m.

There were only two sensible ways to get across the Penobscot River between Bangor and Brewer a century ago unless you owned a boat. You could take the old toll bridge, a covered bridge located where the most northerly of the three bridges that exist today sits. By 1910, it no longer charged a toll and it was no longer fully covered because of the freshet that knocked out its midsection.

The other way to get across the river was to take the little Bon Ton steam ferry, which ran between the foot of Union Street in Bangor and the foot of Wilson Street in Brewer, where the Joshua Chamberlain Bridge crosses today. The boat might go in a straight line or it might not, depending on whether the harbor was clogged with logs or dotted with ice floes. A man with a pick pole stood in the bow sometimes to fend off such obstructions.

If you were on foot and on the west side of the Kenduskeag Stream in Bangor, perhaps headed in the morning for South Brewer to work at Eastern Manufacturing Co., or returning late at night to Brewer from a play at the Bangor Opera House, the ferry was the best choice unless you wanted to do a great deal of walking.

A story in the Bangor Daily Commercial on July 1, 1910, gives us an interesting portrayal of the little ferry as it existed then.

The man whose name was most closely associated with the ferry run was Capt. Henry Leach, who had died the year before on Memorial Day. Before he had the Bon Ton built (in 1884, according to several secondary sources), Leach ferried people across the river in a rowboat — a “yawl boat with heavy ash oars.” The price was one penny, and it remained one penny even after the steamboats took over the route (until 1917, according to the Commercial on March 19 of that year).

The first of the three ferryboats named Bon Ton was 30 feet long with a 9-foot beam. The Bon Ton 2, which replaced the original boat in 1902, was about five feet longer and a foot wider, an indication of the growing traffic.

“Although she isn’t exactly of imposing size, she nevertheless carries more passengers than any boat in Maine,” said the newspaper. Keep in mind the little vessel made 150 trips on an average day.

On one of those average days, the vessel carried about 1,500 passengers, “although on pleasant Saturdays, the number frequently reached 2,300 to 2,700.” On one “circus day,” a record was set — 4,612 passengers “exclusive of children under five who are carried free.” The record for a single trip was 106, the newspaper claimed. That trip was not for the squeamish, I would imagine.

The Bon Tons and their crews worked long hours. “Promptly at 5:30 every week she begins her trips and continues them with regularity until 9 o’clock at night. On Sunday the little craft won’t start until 12:30 because the government requires that boats lay off for at least half a day a week for repairs. On Saturday night she continues her trips until 11 o’clock. Brewer people like to come to town to the theaters and on shopping expeditions and the number of passengers is usually heavy.” (A Civil War veteran named Edwin Lora was available to row people across the river in the wee hours for a nickel a head, a stiff price indeed for those who had tippled away all their money in one of the city’s saloons).

Since the death of Capt. Leach, Mahlon Emerson, “an old time Penobscot River steam boat man,” had been acting as skipper. George B. Leach, a 16-year Bon Ton veteran, was at the throttle as engineer, and Charles D. Snow, an eight-year veteran of the run, alternated as engineer and skipper. “And what these three don’t know about the current and the tides in Bangor’s harbor is hardly worth mentioning,” said the newspaper writer.

The Commercial story ended with this bit of information: “Never, since it was first started, has there been the slightest accident. No passenger has ever been hurt and no one has ever fallen overboard.” This contradicts every secondary account of the Bon Tons’ history that I have run across.

The conventional account (in various versions) is that the Bon Ton was replaced by the Bon Ton 2 after a collision between the ferry boat and the steamer Tremont around the time the bridge was washed out in 1902. But I’ll stick to the Commercial’s story from 1910 until I find an original source. If such a collision occurred or if it was of any significance, it was not mentioned in the Commercial’s end-of-the-year listing of events in the Queen City in 1902. (Of course, perhaps it happened on the Brewer side of the river and was ignored by the newspapermen in the great metropolis across the river.)

There was also a Bon Ton 3. Everything I’ve read seems to agree it ran between 1922 and Nov. 9, 1939, when it caught on fire at the dock and was destroyed. By then the trolley was running over “the old toll bridge,” which had been rebuilt. Twenty years later, the Joshua Chamberlain Bridge would span the river along the ferry route, according to Bangor historian Dick Shaw. For the first time Bangor and Brewer were connected by two bridges, but without any of the charms of the original covered bridge upstream or the mighty little Bon Tons.

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 wreilly.bdn@gmail.com.

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