The logging crews were starting to arrive from the woods, announced the Bangor Daily Commercial on March 10 a century ago. “Every day brings a bunch of them and within a week the usual spring quota of log handlers will have arrived in Bangor to pass a lazy three weeks while awaiting the drives,” wrote the reporter sent to cover this important annual event, which swelled the population of the Queen City of the East by several thousand.
Soon many of these men would be hustling about from one employment agency to another, hunting for jobs on the river drives. Many would be spending their money on flophouses, bootleg liquor and women of questionable virtue. Many would be broke within a short time, and not a few would end up in jail for drunkenness or worse. Some would fail to get river driving jobs, which tended to go to experienced men. They would end up stranded in Bangor, or forced to become hobos, riding the rails out of town.
While that’s all true, it’s not the whole story. The Progressive Era was well under way in 1911. Upright citizens wanted to help the downtrodden rise out of poverty and spiritual degradation. The Young Men’s Christian Association and The Salvation Army were among the groups in the vanguard of this movement.
They wanted to protect loggers and other transient workers from what the Bangor Daily News described on April 12 as “40 gambling places and 200 saloons running practically day and night,” and from “the army of procurers and scarlet women who subsist in large measure from the visitors’ rather guileless innocence.”
The paper went on to describe the situation as “a cheap, tawdry, stupid, but powerful and well organized octopus of crime, unhampered to any noticeable extent by public officials in high places.” Such unusually blunt language in the BDN was a sure sign that the Progressive Era had overtaken the Queen City.
The Bangor YMCA that season leased a small store with “a long, low-ceilinged room,” on Washington Street across from the train station, in the heart of the district frequented by loggers, where it started a “club room for woodsmen.” It was intended to replace the religious meetings that had been held on an experimental basis that winter at Sam Golden’s nearby employment agency.
The YMCA’s “reading room” was described in detail by the Commercial on March 29. “Men Wanted” said a sign over the door. These men were invited to read newspapers and magazines, play games or just relax and have a smoke. Meetings were held each evening, and coffee and doughnuts were served at Sunday religious services.
During one such meeting at Golden’s a few weeks before, 50 men had attended. Fourteen were found to be “worthy of aid. They were young men mostly who found themselves in Bangor without a cent and who would not beg. They were also given dinner at the YMCA building, the meal costing $1,” said the newspaper. They were promised a place to sleep “if they manifested an inclination to seek work. The men are not generally down and out, simply stranded here in Bangor for a short time, and needing a place to stay.”
This was back in the days before public homeless shelters, when welfare was chiefly a private endeavor and philanthropic organizations spent a great deal of time pondering whether a recipient was a member of the “deserving poor” or the “undeserving poor.” Bangor was a great hobo center then, and it was believed some of the men who passed through town on the trains had no interest in working.
The new Washington Street room was placed in the charge of W.J. Miller, “lumberman’s secretary of the Maine YMCA.” He had been traveling from one lumber camp to another during the winter. He was assisted by James Potvin, “who has been at work in the woods and saved his funds instead of spending them all as he formerly did.”
One goal was to get the men to contact their relatives. A sign on the wall asked, “When did you write home last?” A writing desk was provided with free pen, ink and paper. “Many men are ignorant of the ways of telegraphing for money and otherwise communicating with friends or relatives when broke,” said the newspaper.
If this experiment worked, YMCA officials planned to install beds so some hard-luck cases could spend the night. But The Salvation Army had an even bigger idea. Fundraising for a “workingman’s hotel” had begun a couple of years before.
The Rev. Frederic Palladino gave a talk on Nov. 6, 1910, at City Hall describing the conditions that made such a workingman’s hotel necessary. One thousand two hundred members of the city’s Protestant churches attended.
“Through [the Rev. Palladino’s] eyes they saw conditions, to many only dimly realized, in all their ugly truthfulness — the swarms of woodsmen alighting at the [train] station, turned loose upon the city with but few protecting hands to guide them from the obvious evils which await at every turn,” the BDN reported.
As many as 5,000 woodsmen passed through Bangor each year. “We can’t dodge the main issue,” said the minister. “We can’t lay back and say, ‘Let this element be isolated and we will enjoy our fine homes undisturbed.’ These isolated sections [of the city], if they foster their own vices and set their own standards of morality, will become festering sores.” Many of these men already were “settled in viciousness,” but an even larger number, unskilled and often ignorant, were honest men who needed help — and, of course, religious conversion.
“I wish you could stand with me someday in the Union Station and see the Aroostook trains come in — could see these hundreds upon hundreds of visitors stream from the cars into Exchange Street and into the city’s life. They have no homes, no friends, yet they knock for admission at our gates,” said the Rev. Palladino.
Four years later, The Salvation Army dedicated its new headquarters and “workingman’s hotel” at 55 York St. Several decades later, after the passing of the “swarms of woodsmen,” it was demolished as part of Urban Renewal.
Wayne E. Reilly’s column on Bangor a century ago appears every other Monday. An illustrated collection, “Remembering Bangor: The Queen City Before the Great Fire,” is available where books are sold. Comments may be sent to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.