BANGOR, Maine — Residents were treated to the city’s storied past on Wednesday night as Dana Lippitt, curator of the Bangor Museum and History Center, spoke about the downtown area known as the “Devil’s Half-Acre.”
The area earned its name during the 19th century when, by all accounts, parts of the city proved to be less, well, upright than today.
According to Lippitt, a large swath of the downtown area that ran from the Bangor House at the corner of Union and Main streets to include Front, Railroad and May streets as well as portions of Exchange Street and Hancock Street were home to a number of bars, brothels and gambling establishments that made conditions rife for debauchery.
Lippitt’s discussion was especially pertinent on the eve of St. Patrick’s Day because the area was also home to a substantial population of Irish immigrants who, she said, made up the largest foreign-born group to arrive in the area at the time.
“The city is overrun with saloons and low dives; gambling machines are scattered over the county by scores; the business of robbing drunken lumbermen continues; licentiousness and criminality abound and unarrested law breakers thumb their noses at the court,” stated the article “Anarchy in Bangor” in the Civic League Record of August 1904.
Unfortunately, said Lippitt, when the Irish began arriving in Bangor in droves during the 1830s, they had “everything” working against them. The fact that they were Catholic, poor and arriving during cholera epidemics meant they were often greeted with disdain by the locals.
As a result, Lippitt said, Bangor’s Irish population was forced “through great tenacity” to work their way into the good graces of the residents.
Lippitt recounted for the audience of more than 20 in the Bangor Public Library’s lecture room Wednesday just how the city’s Irish made a living and survived during the hard times.
There was the plain barroom of Cornelius Brennan at 155 Broad St., the framed whisky advertisements of Bangor wholesale liquor dealer J.A. Burns and Co. hanging in saloon windows all across town. Lippitt also mentioned the exploits of Michael D. McInnis, who went to great lengths in an effort to avoid taxes on the beers he sold to men from the wharves along the river. There were even Irish women who brewed homemade beer and sold it from their kitchens after having lost their husbands to the perils of the logging industry.
Lippitt added that neither prohibition nor a temperance movement slowed the Irish in their pursuit of selling liquor. She said that after a number of attempts by the local government and the state of Maine to prohibit selling liquor, Irish bar owners and others would use “blind pigs.” This involved purchasing a deformed animal and charging patrons to view the sight, while at the same time giving them a free alcoholic beverage. In this way, proprietors were not actually selling the liquor, but the establishment could remain open.
There also was said to be a profitable prostitution business near the Irish housing tenements and other parts of the Devil’s Half-Acre. The business seems to have been so profitable that there were three levels of prostitutes, ranging from the higher class “gals” dressed in French fashions to what Lippitt called the “street walkers,” who were unable to afford any form of housing.
But in addition to the travails of Bangor’s Irish population there were lighthearted moments and tales of humor as well.
Lippitt shared the story of Timothy Fields, who was born in Brunswick to Irish parents and later traveled to Bangor in the late 1800s. After arriving, Fields worked a typical Irish life of labor and deprivation.
But apparently, after making the decision with a group of friends to head west during the gold rush, Fields and a fellow Irishman from Bangor, James O’Donohue, took part in discovering Allison Ranch, one of the most prolific finds in California.
The two eventually returned to Bangor, according to Lippitt, and with riches in hand hired a hot air balloon to raise the spirits of those living in the Irish tenements. They planned a launch from Davenport park on Main Street, but it went awry when the balloon lifted off after it was supposed to just rise and be caught by its tethers. Instead, according to one version of the story, the balloon came untethered and floated into the sky with Fields and O’Donohue in it. Their absence forced them to miss a dinner they had planned as part of the celebration.
Lippitt concluded her discussion by informing those in attendance that three walking tours of the Devil’s Half-Acre are planned for this summer. She said the Bangor Museum and History Center is still working on the dates and research for those tours.