June 19, 2018
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Bangor prospered as sawmills declined

Courtesy of Dick Shaw
Courtesy of Dick Shaw
Morse and Company stretched along the Kenduskeag Stream, one of the area’s last large sawmill operations. It produced lumber as well as a variety of wood products ranging from staircases to fireplace mantels for use in home construction. The tower of the old Bangor city hall (top right) at Hammond and Columbia streets can be seen in the distance.
By Wayne E. Reilly, Special to the BDN


This seemingly nonsensical headline, which appeared in the Bangor Daily News a century ago this month, means little to most readers today. Its irony would have been obvious, however, to the average Bangorean in 1912. Sawmills had once been a barometer of economic health. The Queen City of the East was built on the output of the many dozens of big sawmills that had dotted the banks of the Penobscot River and its tributaries from East Hampden to Milford, a real gold coast if there ever was one in Maine. Most of the sawmills were gone by 1912, yet Bangor was thriving.

In the not too distant past, most of the lumber from the upriver mills had ended up floating into Bangor harbor, which was conveniently located at the head of navigation on the Penobscot. Loaded onto sailing vessels, tons of it had been transported to construction sites up and down the East Coast and even further. That’s why folks had called Bangor the lumber capital of the world for much of the mid-19th century, and how Henry David Thoreau could write in 1846 that Bangor was “overflowing with the luxuries and refinements of Europe.”

Those sawmills had been disappearing for some time by Feb. 3, 1912, when the sawmill story appeared in the Bangor Daily News. Rafts of lumber products seldom coursed down river into the harbor anymore. The harbor seemed almost empty some days. Yet Bangor kept growing as if the sawmills and the city’s lumber trade no longer mattered much. A new economic era had taken over in defiance of the conventional wisdom that Bangor was nothing but a lumber mart.

Just as many trees were being cut down in the woods by as many woodsmen as before. The difference was that much of the cut was going to paper mills or it was being sawed into lumber at sawmills further up river and shipped by train. Bangor was still profiting from this activity, however. The lumber capital of the world had become the growing commercial capital and the transportation hub of northern and eastern Maine, a role that was bringing even more wealth to the average resident than before.

Some old timer at the newspaper — I suspect it was Lawrence T. Smyth, the veteran editor whose knowledge of riverine activities was legendary — took it upon himself to quantify this sawmill decline in the newspaper story that appeared on Feb. 3, 1912. He chose the period of time between 1890, when the decline was already well underway, and the present.

Between East Hampden and Milford, there were only 10 sawmills left, or half as many as in the year 1890. Above tidewater, between Bangor and Milford, only four mills remained — those of the Jordan Lumber Co., Milford; George W. Barker, Milford; John Cassidy & Son, Stillwater and William Engel & Co., Webster. The latter was the last water-powered mill left on the river.

“The others have been burned, the privileges sold for other purposes such as pulp and paper manufacturing or hydroelectric development, or have fallen into decay.”

In tidewater, on the banks of the river in Bangor, Brewer and East Hampden, there were still six sawmills: Morse & Co., up the Kenduskeag Stream in Bangor; Lowell & Engel Co. and Sterns Lumber Co., both in East Hampden; and, in Brewer, the Sargent Lumber Co., the Eastern Manufacturing Co. and the Dirigo Mill, although the latter had been idle for years.

The newspaper scribe saw the city and its future through rose-colored glasses. “Notwithstanding all this change in the methods and currents of lumber commerce, Bangor is a much larger, richer and more important city now than it was at the height of its fame as a lumber market,” he wrote. How could this be? An old sea captain had explained it best many years ago.

“As long ago as 1876 Capt. Charles V. Lansil, a famous old shipmaster who spent most of his 77 years of life in carrying cargoes of pine and spruce from Bangor to various parts of the world, declared that it would be a good thing for Bangor if the lumber business should come to a sudden end, and he hoped to see the day when the last long raft came down from the big water mills up river, and when the last cargo of lumber passed through Crosby’s narrows, outward bound. Then, he said, the people would have to turn their attention to something else, more profitable and of more permanent character — some business whose profits would not pour chiefly into the pockets of a few rich men, as in the lumber trade.”

People laughed at Capt. Lansil, but time had shown the wisdom of his views.

“The log rafts have ceased coming from up river, and the lumber trade, while still of considerable proportions, has declined 50 percent so far as water transportation is concerned, yet the Bangor of 1912 far surpasses the Bangor of 1876 in every way,” the newspaper commentator wrote.

Bangor was now a commercial hub created by the railroads, supplying the north’s potato and paper empire and marketing its products. “More men are now employed by the railroads than ever found work on the lumber rafts and wharves, and they work 12 months a year instead of seven or eight as formerly,” the newsman noted significantly.

Working for the railroad offered better employment than logging and sawing lumber.

As the old time newsman pointed out, “Bangor still thrives on the forest, although her connection is less direct and intimate than in the old days when the saws were noisy all along the river from Hampden to Milford, the wharves piled high with spruce and the harbor filled with rafts and logs and lumber shipping.”

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 wreilly.bdn@gmail.com.

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