Legends of Bangor’s Great Fire of Sunday, April 30, 1911, began circulating through the city before firefighters had put out the flames. Here are a few that attracted my attention as I read the century-old newspaper accounts appearing the week after the conflagration.
Two men, John Scribner and George Abbott, both of Brewer, died, but many more people had close calls. For example, Frank C. Hinckley became trapped by flames on the roof of the Episcopal church. He escaped by sliding down the belfry rope.
Jacob Tertzaz, a University of Maine law student, broke his foot when he jumped out of a second-floor window after trying to save books in the school library, then located on Exchange Street. Tertzaz and other students who also jumped from the burning building covered their heads with blankets to avoid breathing the smoke.
Tales like these were repeated over and over in the newspapers. Some sound like urban myths today. In one, a baby carriage catches fire from falling embers while the nameless father or mother is busy watching the city burn. The baby is rescued in the nick of time. I read at least three variations on this story.
Tales of pathos were common. A girl wept in front of the burned-out high school because she would not be able to graduate. An old woman clutched two quilts and her pet dog, recounting how she had just made the last payment on her burned house and she had no insurance.
Incidents of valiant resistance abounded as well. “Operators, all girls, of the telephone exchange, stuck courageously to their posts and answered calls until the police by main force had to drag them from their switchboard. A few fainted, in all, the act being one of great heroism,” reported the Bangor Daily News on the Monday morning after the fire.
While the greatest heroes were the city’s overwhelmed firefighters, there were many incidents of workers or neighbors pitching in to save buildings or whole neighborhoods. “The Graphic Theater and the Burns building on the other side of York Street was saved by theater employees using garden hose and buckets,” reported the Bangor Daily News.
Sometimes women whose husbands were busy fighting the fire downtown were the principal actors. On Essex Street, “one squad of women, Mrs. Hattie Jordan, Mrs. Millicent B. Adams, Mrs. George Francis and Mrs. Rockwell G. Youngs … successfully prevented many fires from gaining headway,” recounted the Bangor Daily Commercial on May 6.
One of the most important deterrents to the flames was a “firewall.” The thick brick wall on the north end of the Bass block at Franklin and Hammond streets was credited with stopping the fire before it crossed Hammond and destroyed City Hall and possibly far more, according to the Bangor Daily Commercial on May 1.
By day the city was besieged by sightseers who came on special excursion trains armed with cameras. They were restrained by 450 “specials” — police, militia, college cadets and Boy Scouts who patrolled the ruins.
“Swarms of professional beggars” appeared outside the fire district. They went door to door “showing fantastically bandaged limbs” claiming they had been injured in the fire, the Bangor Daily News noted on May 5. Looters in the burned district, however, were relatively scarce, probably thanks to the “specials.”
A strange silence pervaded the city at night. In the burned district, chimneys rose in the air like tombstones by moonlight. Burning piles of coal smoldered in the gaping holes in the ground that had been basements.
Sometimes a building appeared whole, but was really just an empty hulk. In one such fire-gutted French Street mansion, with walls and roof still standing, this glowing mass of coal in the basement cast a ghoulish light through gaping windows and doors as if a party was on, recorded a reporter from the Bangor Daily News out for a late-night stroll on May 2.
The play at the Bangor Opera House attracted a large crowd the night after the fire even though the scenery and actors were veiled in gas-lit shadows, because the electricity was out. Outside, after the show, the audience was greeted by blackest night and young ladies were said to be happy to be accompanied home by male escorts. The streets were illuminated only in the burned district where fires still smoldered.
A large relief effort was mounted. More than $50,000 was collected locally. Donations from other cities arrived as well. Boston sent 50 iron beds with bedding.
How many people actually needed aid? Estimates of the number of homeless families published in the newspapers, ranged from 75 to 300. The number of “destitute” families, however, was another matter, and efforts were made as usual to separate the “deserving” poor from the “undeserving” poor.
Some people refused aid out of principle, said the papers. Jokes were made about a few applicants who demanded cigarettes or who scornfully rejected used clothing. One woman reportedly demanded money to pay the doctor who treated her after she sprained her ankle running to see the fire.
But there was “very little suffering,” concluded the Commercial. Many of the homeless were helped by friends and relatives. Many still had jobs. The newspaper contained numerous announcements of businesses that moved from their burned-out headquarters to new office space outside the fire zone.
People could apply for temporary aid and a job at the Chamber of Commerce at City Hall. The ever enthusiastic Jennie Johnson, the city missionary, fell down some stairs there Monday night, spraining her ankle, but continued to stand on crutches at a table at the entrance “handing out cheer and aid to the needy,” said the Bangor Daily News on May 3.
Private groups helped out as well. The local chapter of the Red Cross set up stations on the east side at the home of the Rev. Alva R. Scott and on the west side “in the billiard room at the residence of Mrs. E.R. Burpee.” Prominent society women dispensed donated clothing, noted the Commercial on May 6.
The Salvation Army was burned out of its headquarters, but energetic Adjutant Armstrong hired a horse and wagon and was distributing donated clothing, bedding and other supplies, said the Bangor Daily News on May 6.
Meanwhile, Bangoreans maintained their sense of “humor and carelessness to discomfort,” reported the newspaper. This anonymous conversation, purported to have been overheard by a Bangor Daily News writer, appeared in the paper on May 4.
“Hello, Joe. How did you make out?”
“Well, my house burned.”
“Not a cent.”
“Well, anyway, you’ve got a job.”
“Nope — place of business burned out.”
“Come in — let’s talk it over.”
“Can’t stop now, old man — I’m going to the theater.”
Yes, it takes a lot to keep Bangor people away from a Broadway show, noted the newsman.
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.