CITY ON THE PENOBSCOT: A COMPREHENSIVE HISTORY OF BANGOR, MAINE, by Trudy Irene Scee, November 2010, The History Press; $39.99, 576 pages.
Look out at the Penobscot River from the Bangor shore and imagine thousands of logs floating by. Imagine the river spilling into downtown, flooding shop floors in a foot of water. Imagine a ferry crossing, schooners packed so tightly that you could walk across to Brewer without wetting your feet, and the steamboat Maine waiting for passengers to carry to Bucksport.
The Penobscot changes and reflects the city growing beside it in this century’s first comprehensive history of Bangor, “City on the Penobscot: A Comprehensive History of Bangor” by Trudy Irene Scee. Released in November, the book tracks Bangor’s history from Kenduskeag Plantation in 1769 to the Queen City of the East.
People ask Scee: “Who calls Bangor ‘The City on the Penobscot?’” And she replies: “Well, nobody does. I do. It has always been tied to the water one way or another.”
Scee, a historian and educator who lives in Brewer, has published a number of history books since the mid-1990s, including “In the Deeds We Trust: Baxter State Park, 1970-1994,” “The Inmates and the Asylum: The Bangor Children’s Home, 1835-2002” and “Mount Hope Cemetery: A Twentieth Century History.”
“This one I call my monster book,” Scee said.
While writing her previous books, she couldn’t find a good basic reference for Bangor history. The late Charles Fred Bragg II, whose family still owns the 157-year-old Bangor industrial company N.H. Bragg and Sons, also noticed the lack and advocated for Scee to research and write the history. His son, John Bragg, along with several organizations and individual donors, raised funds for publication.
At 576 pages, the tome is four times the length her publishing company expected. And still, in the comprehensive history of Bangor, she couldn’t cover everything in detail. But she provides about 150 sources in 1,250 footnotes for people to investigate further.
“I hope it’s used as a reference book in the future. Really, there’s nothing like it between now and Godfrey’s book, probably about 150 years ago,” said Scee, referring to John. E. Godfrey’s “History of Penobscot County, Maine: The Annals of Bangor, 1769-1882.”
Scee used primary sources — original documents — as much as possible.
“I went through every year of the city records since 1834, and some scattered records from before,” said Scee. “I had a professor who once said to me, ‘You don’t have to reinvent the wheel, you know.’ And I said, ‘Well, yes, I do. I don’t know if the wheel was built well in the first place.’”
She traveled the state in search of records and documents, spending a considerable amount of time in the Maine State Library, Bangor Public Library and University of Maine Fogler Library.
To help Scee in her research, the BPL opened up its restricted basement collection of primary sources called “The Cave.” She roamed the library basement with the help of BPL’s historian and archivist Bill Cook, sifting through journals, business records, tax records, meeting minutes and photo archives.
“She said she felt like she lived here for a while,” said Bangor Public Library Director Barbara Ann McDade. “She is very good at ferreting out information and doing the research that’s needed.”
“I know we have at least 10 copies of the book and I think all are checked out,” said McDade. “Everyone is delighted that there is finally a real, reliable history of Bangor, which we’ve needed for so long.”
“It’s of a history of how do you establish and provide for a community,” Scee said. The book tracks the establishment of and evolution of transportation, education, sewage management, health care, poverty easement, economic development and law enforcement.
“The floods have been discussed. The fires have been discussed. But really, how did the people weather the economic recessions? How did the community remain healthy? What diversity of people lived here? How did we get from being a lumber town to building an international airport?”
Scee moved to Maine from upstate New York in the early 1990s to complete her doctorate at the University of Maine, but she had been to the state several times to visit her brother throughout her childhood. After earning her doctorate, she remained in Maine as her daughter went to school, and now she has no intention of leaving.
“Having discovered very early on what type of city Bangor was, I wanted to know about it,” said Scee, who went to forestry school and was eager to learn about the city in its days as a lumber boomtown.
“Only one part of my life do I really focus on: reading and writing. The dishes can wait. The lawn doesn’t need to be mowed every day,” Scee said.
Sometimes it’s the small, unusual events and lesser-known residents that propel the reader through history and express the nature of life in a city.
For example, in 1857, Bangor had 847 horses and 785 cows, as well as numerous swine and other animals living among its people, which the health officer at the time recognized as a problem.
“It went on for decades. They couldn’t get the pigs out of downtown. I happen to like pigs, but it was a big problem,” Scee said, laughing. “How do you manage a city with that many animals in it?”
Famous characters such as the “Public Enemy No. 1” Al Brady who was shot down in the streets of Bangor in 1937 and Bangorite Hannibal Hamlin, vice president under Abraham Lincoln, remain stars in the city’s history. But it is the lesser-known residents that give readers a more complete picture of the changing community.
It’s characters such as city physician Samuel B. Morrison, people with a passion to improve the conditions of the city, that Scee felt impelled to write about. In 1851, Morrison argued for the separation of Bangor Almshouse and House of Corrections, which were two departments of one building for decades.
“I know it’s something that we’re going to use a lot,” said Dana Lippitt, curator for the Bangor Museum and Center for History. “I’ll search the book to find when they started putting in street lamps or the street railway. Right now, I want to look into the book and see what’s going on in the poor farm in 1911, after the big fire.”
She uses stories of impoverished people as windows into that facet of society. One Bangorite, James Babcock, entered the Almshouse in 1868 at age 28 with “frozen feet,” suggesting that he may have been a logger or railroad laborer. He then entered the poor farm, where able-bodied poor worked, and his health turned for the worse. He died at age 29.
“I like tracking people that aren’t easily known about,” said Scee. “It really just gives you a sense of what’s changed and what hasn’t changed.”
The Penobscot is no longer swarming with ships or an obstacle to those trying to transport livestock to Brewer. But the recent revitalization of the waterfront, the concerts celebrated on its shores and Bangorites’ dedication to cleaning its waters prove that the river will remain the companion of The City on the Penobscot.
The book can be purchased at Bangor locations including Lippincott Books, Borders, BookMarcs and through the History Press website, www.historypress.net. The Bangor Museum and Center for History is selling copies for $39.99, and will receive all of the proceeds. For information, visit www.bangormuseum.com or call 942-1900.