June 19, 2018
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What ailed Bangor a century ago?

Photo courtesy of Dick Shaw
Photo courtesy of Dick Shaw
The J.F. Parkhurst & Son Factory.
By Wayne E. Reilly, Special to the BDN

“WHAT AILS BANGOR?” asked a headline on a Bangor Daily News editorial on Feb. 8, 1911. That was the question on the minds of Bangoreans in the months before the Great Fire of April 30 — as if the Queen City of the East was having premonitions. This soul-searching, however, was all about the economy — about “the most crying needs of a fine old city, which having become rich from the lumber industries, must now look elsewhere for new prosperity now that the timber supplies are becoming scant.”

Actually, there was still plenty of timber in the Maine woods, but much of it was being used for pulpwood, while less lumber was being sawed around Bangor or shipped through the city’s fading harbor. With the advent of the paper mills and the railroads, Bangor’s economy was evolving into something new. Sometimes the transition was uncomfortable for those individuals who observed the past for comfort and guidance.

One could look to other Maine communities for advice, suggested the editorial writer. Augusta proposed building new boardinghouses, while Lewiston and Biddeford opened more cotton factories, and hired foreigners to work in them and live in “dingy tenement homes.” Machias advised growing blueberries, Eastport catching sardines and Rockland digging granite quarries, while Aroostook County called for “pinning entire faith to growing potatoes.”

After rejecting all such suggestions as irrelevant, the newspaper pundit wondered if Bangor didn’t have some experts of its own to tell it what to do. Of course, it did. The city’s new Chamber of Commerce had been giving them a forum at “smoke talks,” where a blue haze of cigar smoke filled the room at the organization’s City Hall headquarters, no doubt dulling the brains, but stimulating the imaginations of members.

Two impressive speakers during the past few months had galvanized city boosters. They were John R. Graham, the trolley magnate, and Frederick H. Parkhurst, one of the city’s major manufacturers.

Graham was president of the Bangor Railway and Electric Co., the predecessor of Bangor Hydro-Electric Co. As the man who modernized Bangor’s ailing trolley system and developed large amounts of electrical capacity in the region, he was idolized in the press. He outlined his economic plan for Bangor at a smoke talk on Dec. 7, 1910.

A new bridge between Bangor and Brewer; electrification of the steam railroad branches operated by the Maine Central Railroad between Bangor and Bar Harbor and Bucksport; the annexation of Northern Maine Junction (in Hermon), where the Maine Central and the Bangor & Aroostook railroads had established major operations; development of cheap factory sites, hydropower dams, and housing — these were all part of Graham’s plan and all of them would lead to expansion of his trolley system.

The second speaker, Frederick H. Parkhurst, ran J.F. Parkhurst & Son, located in a dozen buildings at Main, Rowe and Barker streets. The company manufactured trunks, suitcases, saddlery, harnesses, boxes and lumber. In 1910, it was Bangor’s biggest employer with between 175 and 200 workers, according to a profile in the Bangor Daily Commercial on June 13, 1910.

Parkhurst, a successful Republican politician, would become governor of Maine in 1921, but die shortly after taking office. In 1911, he may have been best known as the ex-husband of Mary Jennings Reid, the Princess Rospigliosi, once called “the most beautiful woman in Bangor.” She was now engaged in an international scandal over her marriage to a wealthy Italian noble that hinged on the validity of her former marriage to Parkhurst in the eyes of the Roman Catholic Church.

On Jan. 17, 1911, at a Chamber of Commerce smoker, Parkhurst outlined Bangor’s pluses and minuses in the eyes of businessmen. Inducements for starting a business included lots of room to build factories and housing, cheap and reliable electric power (thanks to Graham’s company), inexpensive water rates, good schools, a well connected trolley system, reasonable transportation rates, “unusually intelligent labor” and freedom from “serious labor troubles.” The downside included unreliable rail connections to New York and beyond, an inadequate supply of laborers, high insurance and gas rates, and a lack of cheap housing for workers.

The biggest need of all was manufacturing capital.

“This is the richest city of its size in New England, and there are many individuals who have large fortunes, but they do not seem to think that local industries offer a profitable investment,” said Parkhurst, referring to the city’s great lumbering wealth. Instead they were putting their money in Western mining stock or “Alaska coal or copper, or in Florida oranges or in Washington apples [and] western irrigation schemes,” the Bangor Daily News editorial conveniently added.

(A good example of Western speculation involving Bangor wealth was described in the Commercial on March 29. The Tuolumne River Power Co., a Maine and California corporation “in which a number of Bangor people are interested,” had been purchased by the Yosemite Power Co. Its assets included timberland, “water ditch,” water rights, power sites and irrigation rights on the Tuolumne River. The stock was worth 10 times more than when the company was founded in 1908.)

Both Parkhurst and Graham said Bangoreans needed to have more confidence in themselves and their industrial capacities. Building on this theme, the editorial writer concluded, “Let Bangor have a wider faith in herself … The best way to help Bangor [is] to invest money in Bangor … From both of these reliable sources of information [comes] the evidence which is embodied in the old college yell that, ‘Bangor is all right.’”

In two months almost to the day, Bangor would experience a real crisis, the biggest single crisis in its history. The citizenry would be galvanized to action, and the new Bangor that was already being born from the mythical old lumbering days would emerge even more quickly than might have occurred thanks to local confidence and investment. That was the legacy of the Great Fire of 1911

Wayne E. Reilly’s column on Bangor a century ago appears every other Monday. An illustrated collection of his columns, “Remembering Bangor: The Queen City Before the Great Fire,” is available where books are sold. Comments can be sent to him at wreilly.bdn@gmail.com.

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