Bangor was bound to burn a century ago. The signs were everywhere that the Queen City of the East would have a major fire like so many other cities recently. The fire chief complained about conditions making it difficult to fight fires and he begged for better equipment. Editorial writers scolded property owners for maintaining fire traps. Just three years before, the National Board of Fire Underwriters had predicted a conflagration among the hundreds of tinder-dry wooden buildings crowding downtown.
Meanwhile, many terrible fires occurred every year. Huge crowds of curiosity seekers gathered to see if the city would survive. Thanks to the wind’s direction, the fire department’s diligence or some other lucky circumstance, the city always escaped destruction. Consisting of 22 “permanent men,” 78 “call men,” 21 horses, and a collection of what would be considered antique equipment today, the fire department was always one step ahead of disaster.
Time seemed to be running out, however, during the last week of 1910, four months before the Great Fire that would finally flatten much of downtown. Already that year four major fires had caused great damage. Then, between Christmas and New Year’s Day, a trio of blazes gave Bangoreans a shocking holiday greeting.
The fires started during the previous January 1910, when J.C. White & Co., a dry goods store at 96 Main St., lost much of its stock in a blaze that broke out in the furnace room. The thick black smoke drove out other businesses and residents of the four-story building. The flames were confined to the basement, but firefighters would be back before the year was over.
In April, a much more spectacular Main Street fire occurred when two business buildings owned by T.U. Coe and one owned by Louis C. Hatch were damaged. The fire was believed to have started from spontaneous combustion in the basement of Mitchell & Thissell’s shoe store near a stairway. “Feeding upon pasteboard boxes and other inflammable material, it roared up the stairway with marvelous rapidity, and in a very few minutes the rear of the salesroom was a seething furnace,” reported the Bangor Daily News on April 15.
Thousands of people gathered on Main Street and behind the buildings, in Pickering Square, forming a “pushing, shoving, struggling mob,” blocking trolley cars and hampering firefighters. A hose burst in several places, drenching the crowd and revealing the condition of some of the equipment.
An even more spectacular blaze occurred in May near the Hampden town line just below the Tin Bridge when the John Cassidy & Son mill and a nearby coal shed belonging to H.F. Ross Coal Co. burned. The fire started “in the engine room from a backfire” and “quickly spread to the inflammable material at hand,” including piles of sawdust. Leveled besides the boiler room were a planing mill and a sash-and-blind mill. Fifteen men worked there.
“Once again the need for a fire boat was emphasized as the firemen found it impossible to make their way down the wharf where effective work in preventing further damage might have been done,” wrote a reporter for the Bangor Daily News on May 18. Hose pressure had proved inadequate to protect some lumber on the burning wharf. Even so, lumber sheds and offices survived, thanks to the wind direction
In July, a fourth fire gutted the four-story, brick Phillips Building at 201-205 Exchange St. The blaze was caused by defective wiring in the bread room on the second floor of Freeman H. Fickett’s bakery.
Swinging signs and wires that blocked their ladders plagued firefighters. A roof remodeling job, in which a flat roof had been placed over a pitched slate roof, prevented water from reaching the fire. (An ordinance had ordered “all businesses on the business streets with slanting roofs to be squared,” but some building owners had merely built “false or dummy” roofs over the originals.)
Even more dangerous, however, was exposed electrical wiring that knocked out one fireman for an hour and shocked others.
“One thing is sure,” said Fire Chief William Mason. “These swinging signs and overhead wires are terribly bad things … Some day there may be a great fire and a few deaths — and it won’t be our fault. …”
He added, “If Bangor does not have the buildings constructed according to ordinance, have the roofs really squared, not faked, and if the wires are not put underground, the people will wake up some night in time to watch a half dozen business blocks burn to the ground.” (Swinging signs were banned in January.)
Then, on the day after Christmas, a series of bad downtown fires demonstrated Bangor’s vulnerability even more clearly. The trio of fires started when the Adams Building was badly damaged on Columbia Street. Most of the four-story building was occupied by the Sawyer Boot & Shoe Co. and its subsidiary, the Bangor Moccasin Co., and by the Thomas W. Burr Printing & Advertising Co. Together, they employed 80 people.
The fire, possibly started by spontaneous combustion or by defective electrical wiring, was confined to the fourth floor, where piles of “oily” hides were stored for making moccasins. The rest of the building was flooded by hoses.
The BDN told readers the city had dodged another fiery bullet. “A high wind, a little less water pressure or an ordinary fire department, and [the flames] would have gotten beyond control …”
Chief Mason was less confident about the future, however: “Take it from me that the department needs a water tower and an aerial ladder. Perhaps some people think that Bangor can never have a regular ‘big city fire,’ but someday they are likely to find out their mistake. It is just as difficult to reach the top of a tall business building in a city of 30,000 as in a city of a million.”
The same night as the Adams Building fire, firefighters were called once again to the furnace room at 96 Main St. beneath the J.C. White & Co. dry goods store. More goods were destroyed both by the fire and by smoke damage, and the building had to be evacuated. The BDN on Dec. 30 reported again, “It caught from the old-fashioned furnace …”
The third big fire that week occurred late on New Year’s Day at 68-76 Exchange St. The Crosby Building blaze started from a “donkey boiler used for power purposes” by the Berlin Knitting Co. “The fire shot through an open scuttle to the floor above, where much of the company’s inflammable stock was stored,” said the BDN on Jan. 2, 1911.
Upset by the recent fires, an editorial writer at the Bangor Daily Commercial tried to sum up the city’s problem. His piece, titled “An Ounce of Prevention,” blamed “untidy cellars” and “dirty staircases,” and the storage of flammable material too close to furnaces. While the fire department did an admirable job, the fire chief needed to conduct more inspections in search of fire traps as required by a city ordinance.
The editorial also suggested that “over-insurance” might be a factor in some fires. Owners might be leaving combustible material too close to furnaces hoping to collect large insurance payoffs without lighting a match.
Chief Mason’s complacent response to such editorial prodding was contained in his official report: “Inspections have been carried on in the past year to a large extent and by doing so things are kept in the most satisfactory condition.”
Meanwhile, Bangor’s downtown remained littered with firetraps. One such place was a shed on Broad Street where J. Frank Green stored hay, tarpaper and other material. Green’s storage sheds in other locations had been the source of fires twice before in recent years. On April 30, 1911, this particular shed became the origin of Bangor’s Great Fire. This time the wind did not cooperate, and the Fire Department was overwhelmed.
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 email@example.com