The era of political good feeling that followed Bangor’s great fire of April 30, 1911 ended abruptly on May 25 with an editorial blast condemning the recommendations of the committee appointed to restore and beautify the burned area.
“Jules Verne in his palmiest days never evolved a more ridiculous or impracticable plan,” harangued the Bangor Daily Commercial.
The newspaper’s main objection sounds familiar today. The proposed changes “would mortgage Bangor’s future for generations to come and saddle the city with a debt from which it would never emerge.”
In the months ahead, a series of battles occurred over the locations for a new library, high school, central fire station and other public buildings burned in the fire as well as over the widening of Central Street and other proposals.
J. P. Bass, publisher of the Commercial, along with other fiscal conservatives squared off against powerful progressives like John R. Graham, head of the trolley company. Personal attacks based on decades-old animosities surfaced in both of the city’s newspapers, with the Bangor Daily News backing the advocates of improvement against the shrill and relentlessly negative Commercial.
One of these battles interested me more than the others because of the clash of cultures it represented. That was the decision by city fathers to sacrifice a popular downtown park for a new post office. The post office was eventually converted into today’s Bangor City Hall.
The old U.S. Customs House and Post Office, which had stood in the Kenduskeag Stream between State and Central streets where Kenduskeag Parkway Mall is today, burned in the fire. In a plan worked out with the federal government, city planners wanted to have a new post office in Center Park, which was bounded by Park, Harlow and Center (or Centre) streets.
Center Park, which sat on a grassy slope in front of the Universalist Church, occupied a special place in the minds of many Bangoreans. The Bangor Band had played in its bandstand (situated about where city hall steps are located today), and famous people like James G. Blaine had delivered speeches there.
The park was near a rough, working-class neighborhood. An effort to make it the site of a new public library had failed in 1905. The major argument against the idea resurfaced six years later: Center Park was the only nearby green space for the numerous poor who lived in the area.
“That’s a breathing place for the poor people of the city and where they don’t have their own lawns to sit out on it seems a shame to cut them out of the park,” Bangor resident Frank J. Cluff told a Commercial reporter on July 27.
On Sept. 28, a deal won city approval. It’s interesting to see how the two papers handled the results, reflecting the biases of their owners.
“THE CITY CLINCHES SPLENDID BARGAIN,” cheered the Bangor Daily News the next morning. The federal government would give the city $100,000 (plus the old post office site in the Kenduskeag) for the park. The only opponents were an alderman and four councilors. (The federal government approved the plan in November.)
The Commercial ranted even louder. The city had approved the deal, “ignoring a strong appeal in behalf of the people, who for 50 years and over have owned and enjoyed the privileges of Centre Park. …,” said the lead on its story that afternoon.
An editorial the next day excoriated city fathers. The “very improper action” was the result of a “wicked proposition,” indeed “a monstrous proposition,” which did not represent the true sentiments of the people. The high cost of post-fire renovations had influenced the vote. In other words, officials were willing to sell the popular park to reduce the city’s debt. It was the “height of absurdity to take one of the few beauty spots of the city … and use it for a granite building under the guise of civic improvement.”
Meanwhile, the rebuilding of the city progressed steadily. A temporary post office was placed on Central Street in a building rapidly erected by John R. Graham on the site where the Nickel Theater, Bangor’s first movie theater, had sat before the fire. The street was buzzing with construction, and the temporary post office was “HARD TO GET TO” complained a headline in the Bangor Daily News on Oct. 6.
The newspaper’s description gives a good idea what it was like to walk through the burned over part of the downtown a century ago: “If one goes over Harlow Street, beginning at the East Side corner, he first encounters piles of bricks and timber and mud, derricks and so on; then he runs into a lunch wagon, then comes a sea of mud, then a few yards of the old sidewalk, then more mud, then more of the debris of building operations.
On either side of Central Street, down to the [temporary] Post Office, it is the same, and the foot passenger must take the middle of the road. In front of the Post Office is a nice new cement sidewalk — but going west, toward Hammond street, it is mud and hurdles of wreckage and more mud and more debris. …”
Thus, Bangor was reconstructed brick by board, with sound and fury nearly every step of the way, as well as lots of mud and wreckage. Today, we can only wonder how J. P. Bass would react to the great changes going on in the park that bears his name uptown at Main and Buck streets. But we can make an educated guess.
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 can be sent to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.