Bangoreans were proud of their public utilities a century ago, so they watched with horror when the Great Fire of Sunday, April 30, 1911, shut them down one by one. Electricity, gas, telephones, clean water — all failed, canceling temporarily the progress that had been achieved in the Queen City of the East during the past few decades.
Many Bangoreans could remember the days before any of these luxuries existed. Their availability marked the difference between a “queen city” and a backwoods town where wood stoves and outhouses still reigned.
One of the most damaging blows was the destruction of the Bangor Railway & Electric Co.’s Park Street substation. It put out the incandescent lights (56,000 bulbs in use, the Industrial Journal had said the year before) in homes and businesses in the area and stopped the trolley cars in their tracks. (The city’s municipal electrical generating system, which powered street lights and lights in public buildings, also had failed.)
“The rotary converters and the lighting transformers were absolutely ruined and the storage batteries valued at $25,000, were also rendered useless for all time. The transmission lines were burned out as far as Broadway and Garland streets,” Clarence Tolman, chief electric engineer for the BR&E Co. told the Bangor Daily Commercial on Monday, May 1.
Many people depended on the electric cars to get to work. The tracks wound through Bangor’s streets and connected several smaller towns to the metropolis.
Across the Penobscot River, the Brewer cars were also out of service. Nor were they running out to Kenduskeag, East Corinth and Charleston. Down in Hampden, Henry Mayo’s automobile was placed at the disposal of local people who depended on the trolley. Only the cars to Old Town continued operating (above the Bangor dam), because they were powered by a generating plant in Veazie.
The Bangor Gaslight Co., which serviced more than 3,300 meters, also was affected. Gas produced by burning coal was used for lighting and cooking. People living on the city’s west side — west of the Kenduskeag Stream — were still cooking with gas, but not those on the east side, where the fire concentrated. The company told the newspaper it expected to have the east side fixed by Wednesday.
The area’s more than 4,000 telephone subscribers lost service as well. The New England Telephone and Telegraph Co.’s office on Exchange Street had been incinerated. The “hello girls” were ordered out of the building by police as they made a heroic stand at the switchboard. While their male supervisors stood by with fire extinguishers, the police hurried the women from the room. Some reportedly fainted in the smoke. A new switchboard was ordered from Boston. Long-distance calls were possible only through a network of temporary connections.
Meanwhile, the Postal Telegraph Service stayed open. The manager and two operators “deserve great credit for sticking to their instruments when the flames were raging in the rear of the office” in the Bass building at Franklin and Hammond streets behind a brick firewall that blocked the inferno. Messenger boys volunteered for duty during the night, and extra operators came up from Portland and Waterville. The city’s other telegraph companies also were able to stay open.
When people thought things couldn’t get any worse, this headline appeared in the Commercial Tuesday, May 2: DON’T DRINK CITY WATER. River water was being pumped directly from the polluted river into the mains without treatment so the Fire Department would have enough to fight the flames. Anyone who wanted to avoid typhoid fever and other illnesses should get water elsewhere.
As the days went by, the trolley system was gradually reassembled. The first local car got under way on Tuesday, May 2, on the State Street loop, running between the Penobscot Exchange hotel on Exchange Street to Cumberland and French streets. The rest of the system would not be working for several days.
In all, “approximately two miles of trolley wire, several times as much more guy wire and over 200 poles” were destroyed on the city’s east side. A crew of 50 men employed by the BR&E Co. had been cleaning up the debris and barking and peeling new poles at the company’s High Head plant, said the Commercial on Friday, May 5.
The next day, Saturday, May 6, power was restored throughout the city. The BR&E Co. had completed building two temporary electrical generating stations on Franklin and Garland streets, said the Commercial. The newspaper story gave a blow-by-blow account of the breakneck effort to get the proper parts from the General Electric Co. in Schenectady, N.Y., by train to Bangor and then assembled and running. Just after noon, the entire streetcar system was running on its old schedule.
Meanwhile, city government officials had succeeded in restoring streetlights, lighting in municipal buildings and fire alarms. “Probably 150 poles or more than eight miles of wire were put out of commission for further use,” said the Commercial. The street lights were back on Wednesday night, May 3, and the last part of the system, the police signal network, was expected to be working Saturday night.
All that was left now was to get the phones working and clean drinking water flowing, but that would take another week.
The telephone system was up and working at 5:55 p.m. Friday, May 12, the Commercial announced the next day. The phone company’s new office was in the Bass building facing Hammond Street, the building with the famous firewall that had been credited with saving City Hall and perhaps much of the rest of the west side from destruction.
“Sighs of relief went up all over the city Friday night at the resumption of the telephone service. For 13 days Bangor has been without them and people have come to appreciate their convenience as never before. Business houses especially have been greatly hampered. Matters which usually could be adjusted by a two-minute telephone talk have sometimes taken hours — hours of time and an infinite amount of running about,” said the Commercial.
“Housewives have been greatly troubled by their inability to order meats and groceries and daily trips to the markets have been necessitated. In many instances, the markets and grocery stores have sent their teams to regular customers each morning when the orders for the day have been taken.”
WATER IS SAFE AGAIN, announced a story in the same newspaper. The mains and “dead ends” had been flushed out, and the water analyzed. “Not a drop of river water that was pumped directly into the water mains during the big fire remains, so complete was the flushing.” Of course, many people had not trusted the purity of the city’s water supply even before the fire.
If people wanted to escape these inconveniences, they could hop aboard a train or steamboat and go someplace else. The city’s two major transportation routes were still open for business. Or, as is clear from several newspaper briefs, some people went on fishing trips to their camps as ice left the ponds in the area.
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.