A city rebuilt from ashes: Bangor’s Great Fire of 1911 remembered

By Eric Russell, BDN Staff
Posted April 29, 2011, at 11:59 a.m.

The biggest historical event in Bangor’s history exists now in faded, black-and-white photographs and in stories passed down through generations where the line between truth and mythology is blurred.

Some facts about the Great Fire of 1911, though, are generally agreed upon.

The blaze ignited in a hay shed on the afternoon of April 30. It was a Sunday, the Lord’s day, and the fire took on almost biblical proportions aided by swirling winds and unusually dry conditions.

Within minutes, flames engulfed the hay shed like a tinder box and spread to surrounding buildings. Almost inexplicably, the fire then leaped across the Kenduskeag Stream and sparked even more structures as it raced toward Broadway.

When it was over, about eight hours later, more than 250 homes and businesses (six were churches), most built from local timber, were reduced to smoldering rubble. Dozens of residents were rendered homeless. Two lives were lost.

Yet as sweeping and devastating as the blaze was, the story that lives on today is the story of a city’s resiliency — a story of rebirth.

It’s a story that exists in the cavernous mind of local historian Dick Shaw, who can recite little details such as the names and ages of the two men who perished.

It exists in the wonderment of Mike Pullen, a local architect whose firm and the downtown building it calls home were forged out of the Great Fire.

It exists through the passion of Bangor High School geography teacher Margaret Chernosky, who brought the epic event into her classroom this semester.

Though the story sometimes veers off in different directions depending on the storyteller’s interests, most agree that Bangor is a better city because of (or perhaps in spite of) the Great Fire.

One hundred years later to the day, the event still seems simultaneously tragic and cathartic.

‘Colored by time’

Imagine a game of telephone played by schoolchildren. They pass along a story from pupil to pupil. By the time it reaches the final child, the details differ vastly from when the story first was told.

Now, extrapolate that over 100 years.

That’s largely how Bangor’s Great Fire is remembered today.

“There is always a kernel of truth in every myth, in my opinion,” Shaw said with a wry smile.

For historians like Shaw, the fire is the perfect event to mine nuggets of detail about Bangor’s storied past.

The 58-year-old, whose parents grew up up in the shadow of the fire, has always been fascinated by how it shaped present-day Bangor. Though he has stored away countless stories over the years, Shaw remains struck by the little anecdotes that have survived.

“It’s those personal stories that really make it live today,” he said. “People want to know how all these lives were affected.”

Shaw likes to tell the story of Ashley Smith, a local pastor who saw the fire racing toward his church on Park Street and ran home to bury his Bible in his yard. That Bible exists today as part of the collection of the Bangor Museum and Center for History.

John Frawley, Bangor’s city engineer from 1960-1992, is partial to the story of a woman who, as her house burned, ran inside to retrieve her knitting needles and yarn but left behind a valuable gold watch.

Another man, a downtown shop owner, ran back into his burning store to save his ledger books and a fancy meat slicer. As he left the engulfed building, a stray cat brushed his leg. He abandoned the slicer and picked up the cat instead.

Dana Lippitt, director of operations for the Bangor Museum and Center for History, said it remains hard to separate fact from fiction because many accounts were oral and “colored by time.”

Every so often, she said, dusty old photographs surface from shoe boxes packed away in attics, long forgotten. Each adds another thread to the story. When put together, those threads form the fabric of Bangor at the turn of the 20th century — a city caught between the past and present.

‘A blank canvas’

Bangor began to rebuild itself almost before the flames were extinguished.

An old photograph shows planners and architects, including famous Bangor architect Wilfred Mansur, cruising through the downtown in a carriage while the rubble still smoldered.

“It was like instant amnesia,” Shaw said.

Such an immediate look to the future may not have been possible if more lives had been lost. Only two men died — 70-year-old John Scribner who walked across an old toll bridge from Brewer and became entangled in electrical wire, and George Abbott, a 41-year-old firefighter also from Brewer.

“It really was amazing so few were harmed,” said Lippitt. “Many literally stood amid the flames to watch.”

Massive city fires were common in the 19th century and into the 20th century, decimating whole chunks of cities such as Chicago, Boston, San Francisco and even Portland.

Bill Cook, head of special collections at the Bangor Public Library and also a volunteer firefighter for many years, said Bangor’s blaze spread before firefighters could do much about it.

“Even modern fire departments would be overwhelmed by a fire of that magnitude,” Cook said. “Supposedly fire-proof buildings burned in two hours.”

In many ways, the Great Fire was cleansing. Some of the destroyed buildings, such as the Morse Oliver building, were architectural treasures of the Queen City. Many others, including brothels and tenement houses left over from Bangor’s days as the region’s lumber capital, were not.

The event created an unprecedented opportunity for the city to shrug off its reputation as a place of questionable moral character and to start fresh.

“How many cities have the chance to work with a blank canvas?” Shaw said.

Bangor brought the region’s finest planners in to help rebuild, but the final decisions were not always unanimous.

Frawley, long interested in the Great Fire during his tenure as city engineer — simply because it shaped nearly all of Bangor’s existing downtown infrastructure — also has a strong personal connection to the event. His grandparents lived through it, and his grandfather even sat on the small committee that was responsible for rebuilding the city.

Today, he remains fascinated by how the fire’s aftermath played out in the city’s two competing daily newspapers, the Bangor Daily News and the Bangor Commercial. If the BDN endorsed a suggestion for where or how a new building should be built, Frawley said, the Commercial would take the opposite position.

‘A more modern city’

Many buildings that were built in the years immediately after the Great Fire are prominent downtown structures to this day.

That’s not a big surprise. They were built like fortresses because civic leaders feared another fire.

Among those buildings is a handsome block on Central Street that today houses the office of architect Mike Pullen and his firm, WBRC Architects/Engineers.

“The reconstruction of the city is probably the most fascinating chapter to me,” said Pullen. “The resiliency of a community to come back in three years was just amazing. If you tried to set someone to that task today, I’m not sure they could do it.”

At the time, there was an overwhelming sense of “Of course, we are going to rebuild.” Bangor had a lot of pride, Shaw said, a pride that exists today.

“In some ways, and it’s kind of painful to say so, [Bangor] came back stronger. It became a more modern city,” he said.

Final estimates indicated that the Great Fire resulted in more than $3 million in property damage, which would be the equivalent of $70 million in damage today.

As much as 60 percent of the buildings were insured, which allowed city leaders to get a financial leg up on the rebuilding effort.

During the rebuilding process, the streets began to take their modern-day shape. As decades pass, new construction has mixed with old.

Some things, though, could not be rebuilt.

The inventory of the Bangor Public Library today, for instance, is almost all post-1911 because the entire library collection burned.

“We’ll never know what was really lost, the treasures, you know, the family heirlooms,” Shaw said.

Still, the city endured, never looking back, only forward.

“I think people came together well; it said a lot about the community, “ said Frawley, hesitating for a moment as though he was reluctant to finish the though. “The world has certainly changed since then.”

‘People need to be reminded’

Little exists in the city’s downtown to remind the present of the past, although if you know where to look, remnants of disaster peek through. All Souls Congregational Church on State Street, for instance, is built from the bricks of two churches destroyed by fire.

Will the memory of the Great Fire live on for another 100 years?

“I think people need to be reminded, and I was the same way,” Shaw said. “We can learn so much about human nature and the strength and resolve of the human spirit.”

It took some thought for Margaret Chernosky to convince her students that they should care about a historical event that had nothing to do with them.

As an outsider — Chernosky hails from Nova Scotia — she had to convince herself, too.

“We all are products of the past. We’ve lost some of that in our culture,” she said. “It’s up to us to keep telling the stories … to protect what is beautiful and difficult and to pass it on.”

The students have responded. They have learned about Bangor’s demographics at the dawn of the 20th century. They have learned which families had servants. They learned why the city was rebuilt the way it was. In doing so, they have brought the event to life once more.

Lippitt said she doesn’t think an event of the Great Fire’s magnitude would spark the same response today.

“I’m not sure there would be such a positive outlook,” she said. “The [rebuilding] was a real reflection of the can-do attitude at the time.”

In the wake of the Great Fire, newspapers at the time (this one included) quoted Bangor’s Mayor Charles W. Mullen reflecting about the historical .

“Bangor is undaunted. Bangor will come back,” the mayor said.

He was right.

http://bangordailynews.com/2011/04/29/news/bangor/a-city-built-from-ashes/ printed on October 1, 2014