Immediately after Bangor’s big fire of 1911, businessmen scurried about looking for places to set up shop so they could start making money again. The city council allowed them to build temporary wooden structures along the streets in the fire district. Center Park, located where City Hall sits today, was thrown open to mercantile squatters as well. These “shack stores” could be no more than 14 feet high and were supposed to be removed by Jan. 1, 1912.
“Shacks sprung up like mushrooms until the upper East side section [of the city] looked like a mining camp,” noted the Bangor Daily News on July 1, 1911, two months after the fire. “The shacks were built as cheaply as possible and covered with roofing paper. They cost from $25 to $1,500.”
Some of these shacks were built on the spot where their owners had done business before the fire. Several businesses moved to Center Park. Many shacks were a joint venture on the part of two or more proprietors. Appropriate notices were posted in the city’s newspapers.
The first concern to open for business was M. Schwartz Sons, which manufactured saws and sold mill supplies. They “built a commodious shack facing French Street, in the rear of their lot which was numbered 213 Exchange Street.”
A “slight accident” to the building occurred, however, when a portion of the ruins of the back wall of the seven-story Morse-Oliver building at the corner of State and Exchange streets was dynamited. Part of the wreckage fell on Schwartz’s new headquarters through a “slight miscalculation.” A benefit of these shacks was that they were easy to build and repair, and the damage was fixed in a few hours, according to the newspaper.
The Maine Woolen Company, the Abel Hunt Estate, casket manufacturer and undertaker, and M. Lynch, locksmith, joined in erecting a store on the east side of East Market Square (the intersection of Harlow and Park streets in front of Center Park). It was on the site of the burned out Granite Block, “a row of ancient granite buildings” where their businesses had been located previously.
P. T. Dugan & Co., which had manufactured harnesses and trunks at a Central Street location, and marketmen D.H.& I.E. Collins, who had operated on Exchange Street, built shacks on prominent locations in Center Park.
On the Park Street side of the park a row of carpenters and painters shacks sprouted. G. McKenney, E.R. Brooks, K.J. Anderson, H.W. Matthews and W.W. Frost did business on “the Park street mall.”
John R. Graham, one of Bangor’s most prominent property owners, built a solid structure for three of his tenants who had done business in his former building on Central Street. They were The Grand Union Tea Co., Carl S. Preble, druggist, and Rice & Tyler music store.
Graham, who was president of the Bangor Railway and Electric Co., did things with flair. “The Graham bungalow cost $1,000 and was strong enough to hold up the Bangor band, which discoursed from the roof in concert under the leadership of Adelbert W. Sprague,” noted the newspaper.
Just south of there were shacks occupied by contractors Flanders & Son and A. B. Newcomb, Lane’s shoe shop, an unnamed barber shop, the Troy Laundry and harness-maker Edward Jordan. Otto Nelson, the contractor, was nearby.
The largest shack store was that of Brown & White, manufacturer of carriages and sleighs, located on the west side of East Market Square. Used primarily as a showroom, this shack also rented space to a fish market.
Many other shack stores were scattered through the burned district. The Bangor Railway and Electric Co.’s new transformer station on Garland Street, which powered the city’s trolley system as well as much of its electric lighting, was put up in two days. The city had erected two “shack fire stations” in Abbot Square, where the high school had burned, across Harlow Street from where the Bangor Public Library is today.
How many of these “shack dwellers” would still be there come January 1? Given the intensity of the debate over a new plan for downtown and the pace of reconstructing permanent buildings, probably quite a few.
Meanwhile, an editorial entitled DESOLATION, on June 28, described a far different scene along burned out sections of French Street and Broadway where fine houses belonging to Bangor’s wealthier folks had stood. No shacks were going up there. The editorial writer said a walk through that area was like a visit to the west coast of Ireland where the crumbling ruins of old castles still stood “clad in clinging ivy.”
Likewise, this wasteland, where big houses had once stood, was anything but barren. “In Bangor, the sweet peas, planted before the great incineration, are up and thriving nearby, a foot high. The blackened chimneys stand out, bare and forbidding, as if a host of hostile invaders had been along, with spears and blazing torches. … There are modern pansies and gaudy peonies in bloom by the sides of brick heaps. Tiger lilies spring flauntingly above the brick and concrete walks, and under the scorched trees, where glad children frolicked and screamed a year ago, are warted toads and slimy snails.”
Save for the occasional “artillery-like explosions” — dynamite blasts and collapsing walls — heard early every morning and the rumbling carts full of broken bricks and mortar, “there is little to remind one that the Bangor that was known and beloved a year ago, will be resurrected from the ashes within another year,” this newspaper editorial writer predicted optimistically. Surely as the shack stores had sprung up down the hill and the spring flowers had pushed through the ashes on Broadway, he was right.
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