Small fires plagued Bangor daily before Great Fire

Posted April 17, 2011, at 2:48 p.m.

In the days immediately before the Great Fire that destroyed much of downtown Bangor on Sunday, April 30, 1911, residents of the Queen City of the East found many worrisome stories to ponder in their daily newspapers. Fires on Friday, for example, caused major destruction in three Maine towns, destroying large sawmills in Fairfield, 10 buildings including the town hall in Harrington, and 11 dwellings in Livermore Falls leaving 18 families homeless. Dry conditions throughout the state aggravated these fires and many smaller ones.

Bangor was experiencing its own run of minor fires. They were reported in the newspapers on an almost daily basis during the week before the big fire.

On April 25, small blazes were extinguished at the Third Street dump and in a dock shed at the Maine Central freight yard on Hancock Street.

Two days later, the newspapers reported five minor fires had kept firemen busy — a chimney blaze at Mrs. N.H. Bragg’s residence on Third Street; a woods fire on Olive Street; a grass fire set by some youngsters behind Parker Street; and two dump fires, one at the Bangor Railway and Electric Co.’s car barn on Main Street and the other on Fern Street.

The next day, three more fires were reported: a chimney fire at Timothy Sullivan’s at 143 Lincoln St., a pile of new poles ablaze in back of the BR&E Co.’s car barn, and a grass fire at a farm on Fuller Road.

The next day was nearly a repeat: a barn at 48 Webster Ave. set on fire by hot ashes and the tower on the Hammond Street Congregational Church scorched by hot solder being used for repairs.

Fire Chief William Mason threatened to prosecute anyone setting fires near buildings or dry brush, the Bangor Daily News reported on April 29. The night before, boys had set two small fires, one in a pile of boughs pressed up against a summer house at 163 Broadway and the other in grass behind a barn on Essex Street. Chief Mason’s press interview was cut short by an alarm for a dump fire on Pier Street.

I recite these relatively trivial events to give readers an idea of all the possible sources of incineration a century ago in a city littered with fire hazards. To what extent the average Bangorean may have been worried, it’s hard to tell. They had been warned many times by the fire chief and the newspapers. Chances are people were interested in events more tangible than an imaginary fire, however. The entertainment scene was lively at the city’s theaters.

Topping the bill on the night before the Great Fire was “Gentleman Jim” Corbett, the former heavy-weight boxing champion, at the Bangor Opera House. The personable pugilist, who had defeated John L. Sullivan many years before for the championship, had entered vaudeville. He was appearing as “interlocutor and monologist” with George Evans’ Honey Boy Minstrels.

“When asked the usual question about the ‘White Man’s Hope,’ as far as he could see the white man just at the present time hasn’t any hope,” reported the Bangor Daily Commercial reporter, referring to the concerns of many whites that Jack Johnson held the boxing crown.

Sports fans had other exciting things to ponder as well. An item in the Bangor Daily News that morning was proposing a marathon from Old Town to Bangor on Memorial Day featuring Andrew Sockalexis, the new running sensation from Indian Island who had performed so well recently in the Boston Marathon.

There were so many other diversions to think about. The Bijou Theater was being completely redesigned and expanded to house a better class of vaudeville; a Style Show — like the Food Show and the Auto Show that had been held recently — was being planned at City Hall in May so Bangor merchants could show off the latest fashions; The Bangor Yacht Club had held a smoker Friday night at its clubhouse below the Tin Bridge; and the ice was going out on Phillips Lake, which was good news for fishermen.

Spring was definitely in the air along with the smell of smoke. A fashion milestone had been reached only yesterday. “The first straw hat of the season was seen on the street Friday afternoon and the wearer seemed unaware of his distinction. The ice having now been broken, the lightweight lids will soon predominate,” reported the Bangor Daily News that Saturday afternoon before the Great Fire.

Amidst all these light-hearted news items, however, was one whose ominous significance could not possibly have been gauged by even the most perceptive readers. The first schooner of the season after ice left the Kenduskeag Stream had been seen moving from the Penobscot River through the railroad drawbridge, the Commercial reported on April 21. The two-masted G. Stancliff was carrying a load of goods from Boston to J. Frank Green, who had a warehouse on Broad Street, beside the stream. The load included “paper, pitch, hardware, and miscellaneous merchandise.”

Green’s shed on Broad Street, where he stored hay and tar paper, was where the conflagration started, it later was determined. We can guess today that the G. Stancliff was carrying some of the fuel that contributed to Bangor’s Great Fire.

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 about this column can be sent to him at wreilly.bdn@gmail.com.

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