WAYNE REILLY

Bangor’s ‘strong men’ exhibited ‘undaunted spirit’ after fire

Posted June 12, 2011, at 10:57 a.m.
David Beach, president of Bangor Theological Seminary, saw “a silver lining” in the fire disaster of 1911.
Photo courtesy of Dick Shaw
David Beach, president of Bangor Theological Seminary, saw “a silver lining” in the fire disaster of 1911.

The conventional wisdom is that the Great Fire of Sunday, April 30, 1911, was an unmitigated disaster for the Queen City of the East. Yet many of Bangor’s leaders saw immediately something quite different as they surveyed the smoking ruins. Amid the wreckage, they envisioned a historic opportunity to transform the city into a place more closely approximating its regal nickname.

That Monday morning, the day after the fire, David Beach, president of Bangor Theological Seminary, wrote in the Bangor Daily News that he saw “a silver lining” in the disaster. “In this moment of appalling calamity Bangor faces the future with undaunted spirit. The enterprise and taste which have built the city will swiftly rebuild its burned section,” wrote the Rev. Beach, one of the city’s most respected civic leaders. “As with Chicago, Boston, Baltimore, Portland and other cities which have experienced like disasters, the rebuilding will be more substantial, convenient and imposing.”

Beach predicted Bangor would be “the busiest city in Maine for a long time to come” thanks to the building boom ahead. That meant lots of jobs with good wages — something Bangoreans valued far more than old buildings, many of which were falling down.

The Bangor Daily Commercial, the city’s other newspaper, offered its readers a similar vision on May 3. Robert Sprague, a University of Maine economics and sociology professor and a well-known progressive commentator, wrote, “Bangor today has the greatest opportunity to become really the Queen City of the East, the most beautiful town on the coast.” He called upon the city’s “strong men” to step forth and shape the community’s destiny. “I have never known a city to have such a natural opportunity [to become] a great civic center which would be a glory to her forever.”

But what could anyone do? Hadn’t the city received a serious financial blow, perhaps a death blow? Not by a long shot, the Bangor Daily News pointed out confidently May 3 in its lead news story: “Bangor is rich and can well restore what has been lost. There is ample capital here and there will be two millions in insurance. The circumstances that created Bangor, the resources that gave prosperity and growth to the city, still exist and the enterprise of Bangoreans is not to be discouraged or their activities halted by disasters like that of Sunday.”

Little of the city’s industrial capacity or its transportation infrastructure had been affected. Businesses in the burned-out district were moving quickly into temporary quarters. As long as trees grew in the woods, and lumber barons and other entrepreneurs had big bank accounts and ample insurance policies, Bangor’s future looked bright to thinking people.

On May 2, about 600 of Bangor’s “strong men” assembled at City Hall, to discuss what could be done. One of the city’s economic leaders, John R. Graham, president of the Bangor Railway & Electric Co., offered inspiring testimony about his own plans: “I started this afternoon on my building [excavation had begun before the fire] … only instead of making it five stories, I’m going to make it six.” (The John R. Graham building still sits at the corner of Central and Harlow streets, a monument to Bangor’s post-fire spirit.)

Graham said he also had hired an architect to draw up plans for his new home on French Street, which had burned. He pledged $1,000 of his own money and $1,000 of his company’s for the city’s relief fund. “The hall rang with applause,” recorded the Bangor Daily News.

“It may sound cruel to say in the face of this great calamity, that it is a good thing for Bangor … [but] I think we are to have a bigger, a better, and a busier Bangor before we get through.” Graham said he had begun buying up property in the burned-out district where he planned to erect more buildings. He said he had borrowed $200,000 toward that end.

The next day, May 3, Patrick T. Dugan, manufacturer of trunks, bags and cases and dealer in harnesses and saddles, became the first person to apply for a permit to build in the burned section of the city. His plans called for a three- or four-story brick building at 32 Central St., his previous place of business. On May 13, the Commercial said the first house had been framed by contractor A.M. Taylor at 86 Center St. for the Daley family.

By Friday, May 5, the Bangor Daily News was able to declare, “It is becoming more and more apparent that Bangor’s great fire was for the city as a whole a blessing in disguise … This summer and next will see the city’s burned district rebuilt with a rapidity equaling that of any boom town in the west.” The story contained a long list of speculative plans on the part of property owners who said they would be rebuilding with stone and brick under proposed regulations (passed by the City Council on May 9). Many old wooden buildings, which had been fire traps and eyesores, had been destroyed in the fire.

By Saturday, May 6, one week after the fire, the newspaper was able to declare confidently in its lead headline: KENDUSKEAG PARKWAY TO BEAUTIFY BANGOR. That was a preliminary reference to what developed over the decades into the greenway (and fire break) along the banks of the Kenduskeag Stream from the Penobscot River to the former locations of the U.S. Post Office and Customs House and Norumbega Hall, which had been located before the fire in the stream between State and Franklin streets. A few days later, it was announced that Edward Blake and Mrs. Charles Wood had donated land for the project.

A committee consisting of City Engineer Philip Coombs, John Frawley, the drugstore owner, and Franklin Bragg of N. H. Bragg & Sons had been appointed to consider this and other proposals for rearranging the downtown area. Boston landscape designer Warren H. Manning was hired a few days later to draw up a plan.

Within one week of the fire, the groundwork had been laid for building a new Bangor downtown. There would be heated arguments over some of the plans. Not everyone would get what they wanted. Nevertheless, the Queen City of the East would get back on its feet, a bigger city than before.

Now it was time to relax a little. Bangor’s first movie theater, The Nickel, was back in business on Friday, May 5. After its Central Street building burned, it had moved quickly to the old Acker’s Theater building on Union Street. The seats were filled on  reopening night. The films included “The Phony Prince” and “The White Squaw,” which featured “the original Deadwood stagecoach.” Local talent performed the usual illustrated songs. “It is time now to seek a little wholesome recreation after the strain and terrors of the week,” declared the Bangor Daily News.

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 wreilly.bdn@gmail.com.

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