Ship reporter recalled old Bangor Harbor

Posted Sept. 19, 2010, at 5:46 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 30, 2011, at 11:26 a.m.

Bangoreans with a sense of history lament the passing of Union Station, old City Hall, the Bijou and other landmarks, but for me, old Bangor Harbor more than a century ago holds the greatest allure. In my imagination, I miss the “sea of masts,” the wooden docks, the sounds of creaking rigging, the smells of tar and new-sawn lumber, and the hustle of men moving cargo.

There are a few old photographs that convey some of the atmosphere, but detailed written descriptions are few and far between. The best piece I’ve seen appeared in the Bangor Daily News on July 19, 1910. It purports to be an interview by an anonymous writer with an anonymous old-time “ship reporter.” My theory, however, is that this essay, full of rich details and colorful writing, was written by the paper’s famed editor Lawrence T. Smyth, and that he was interviewing himself. No man was better equipped for such a task.

The setting was this: “A man who has for 35 years been intimately acquainted with the affairs of the port of Bangor took a trip along the river the other day and was able to count but six sailing vessels, all schooners, and two or three coal barges in the mile stretch from High Head dock [near the site of the most southerly Bangor-Brewer bridge today] to the old toll bridge [site of the most northerly Bangor-Brewer bridge today]. He remarked that the sight made him feel lonesome, not to say sad, for he could remember when the long line of wharves on either side of the river, and the flats and coves in between, were crowded with vessels of all rigs and sizes and the harbor presented a scene of great activity.”

“Why,” said he, “when I was a boy on this river there were often times when you could count hundreds of vessels here — ships, barks, barkentines, brigs, topsail schooners and ordinary coasters of the fore-and-aft rig. In the seventies and well into the eighties it was a common enough sight to see a fleet of big square-riggers loading deals [specially cut planks of spruce or pine] at High Head, besides Italians taking in shooks [pine cut for fruit and vegetable packing boxes].”

Then follows a remarkable recounting of the names of many of those ships, barks and especially brigs remembered by the old-time ship reporter, which I don’t have the space to list. The brigs used to go in the West India trades mostly, but many of them carried shooks to the Mediterranean. They brought salt and molasses to Bangor. “The sight and smell of a West Indiaman discharging here now would sure be a cure for the blues,” the old fellow recalled nostalgically.

Whole cargoes of molasses were no longer shipped to Bangor, nor were deals taken from the city. Most of the latter had been shipped out in large British steamers. “I remember the first tramp steamer that ever came here. She was called the Craigton, of Glasgow, and came here, as I recall, in 1883, loading spoolwood [white birch made into spools and used for thread made in Britain] and deals at High Head. She was something of a curiosity, too, for the first Sunday she was here, big crowds went down to the head to look her over.”

The Provinces did all that business now, “and our spruce is sawed differently and sent to American markets….[and] the shook and spoolwood trades, what is left of them, are done now from Stockton, down at the end of the new railroad [The B&A’s recently completed spur line to Stockton and Searsport]. Of course, Bangor concerns ship the stuff, but the port of Bangor misses the vessels and what they used to leave here in grub and stevedore bills.”

Likewise, the two-masted and three-masted lumber coasters had almost disappeared. Where there were a dozen now, there used to be hundreds back when Bangor was the lumber capital of the world.

“There were times when every wharf was lined with the lumber coasters, and there were tiers of them, anchored bow off and moored stern on at the Maine Central wharf, which made a jog just at the foot of Railroad Street, and from the City Point [where Union Station was built] up to what was Walker’s lumber dock, almost up to the toll bridge. The Maine Central was called the lower tier and the City Point the upper. When I reported ship news for the harbor master’s office and the newspapers I often had hard work to get my boat between the vessels in these tiers, so closely were they anchored. Why, you could sometimes go the whole length of the tier just by jumping from one vessel to another — I often did that myself.”

In those days, the stevedore’s trade “was something worth talking about. Hundreds of men were running rafts from the docks to the vessels, more were porting the wet lumber, and the best men were stowing it in the hold or on deck. It was quite a trick, too, to stow a cargo so that it wouldn’t shift or give the vessel a list.” Jim Conroy was “a great deal stevedore,” who loaded ships at High Head. Jim Galvin, Pat Toole and John G. Reilly worked together as a team. Others were Neise Henry and Herbert Sprague, “a typical smart Yankee.”

There used to be a lot of regular packet schooners trading between here and Boston, “bringing the stuff that now comes in steamboats and rail….An old fellow named Bill Ordway was the boss packet stevedore, and I tell you he was a character too.” The main packet wharf was at the foot of Union Street “on the east side of the present ferry dock.”

“Hard work? I guess it was. But they made good money at it. Now the upriver mills are mostly gone, and what lumber we send from Bangor is sawed for the most part at four mills below the city. These mills ship a good deal of lumber in the course of a season, but it’s nothing to what it used to be. We don’t have a survey of 246 million feet now, as we did in ’72. Yes, they cut the logs all right, but half the logs go into paper and a good deal of the lumber now goes by rail….”

Anon concluded, “No it isn’t like it used to be around here…. Sailors and stevedores then — crowds of them. What now? Oh, a few coal heavers, truckmen, loafers and fellows fussing ‘round in these little motor boats. Not like old times, even if Bangor is busier up town — no siree.”

Lawrence T. Smyth (1862-1940) left school at age 13 — 35 years before the piece was written in 1910 — and went to work for Bangor’s harbor master collecting information on vessels’ arrivals and departures. He reported this information as well to local newspapers for their shipping columns. He was known for a time as a “ship reporter.” That was how he got his start in journalism, a career that took him to New York and Boston before he returned to Bangor.

Besides his eye for a good story and his expressive writing, Smyth was noted for his remarkable memory about Bangor Harbor history, which was reflected in the newspaper’s maritime coverage — one of the most important beats. That’s why I think this piece was written by him. Even if we can’t see old Bangor Harbor again, we can at least read Lawrence T. Smyth’s accounting of its wonders.

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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