Winter started early in Bangoreans’ minds a century ago. Long before the snow and ice appeared, they were thinking of ways to make the best of the harsh times ahead in the era before central heating and jets to Orlando.
ICE YACHTS READY, proclaimed the Bangor Daily Commercial in early November 1911. The ice boats, belonging to members of the Niben Club, were lined up along the shore of Pushaw Lake ready to go. Members of this exclusive country club knew the best boating was at the first of the season between the time the lake froze over and the first heavy snow.
Meanwhile, the area’s horsey set was thinking about racing on Penobscot River ice. Horsemen were considering laying out a track along the river near the ferry, which ran where the Chamberlain bridge is today. Not only was it “within a stone’s throw of Union Station,” but it wouldn’t damage marketable ice. The ice in that area was covered with “cinders from switching engines and other refuse,” and it wasn’t saleable, said the Commercial on Nov. 4.
What was needed now was some cold weather — really cold weather. The Bon Ton No. 2 ferry set a record that year running between Bangor and Brewer on Dec. 27. It would take a couple of zero-degree nights to freeze the river. Bets were being made. Two days later navigation in Bangor’s harbor officially ended.
A week later snow arrived. SNOW IS WELCOMED, declared the Commercial on Jan. 5, 1912. The storm caused “rejoicing” in Eastern Maine. Loggers deep in the woods were happy because it made it easier for them to sled their logs to the rivers for the spring drives. Farmers were happy because it made it easier for them to get their firewood from woodlot to house. Horsemen were happy because it would help prepare their track, which had been started up above the Bangor dam. Putting the track downriver had been declared impractical.
Of course, the snow had a downside, the newspaper conceded the next day. The trains ran late and skating and ice boating had been ruined. But many men were finding work shoveling and the sleighing was excellent. The ability to travel the roads in horse-drawn sleighs was a plus, and “everything is now on runners and the jingle of sleigh bells adds the touch of real winter….”
FREEZE HAS BEEN GOOD, said the Commercial on January 6. Local ice companies such as Getchell Bros. and Bangor Ice Co. would be cutting next week. They were already out scraping off the recent snow. Jobs were created.
Winter had begun in earnest. Local thermometers registered 30 below on Jan. 7 and 8, in some spots, reported the Commercial. For the past week or so, huge snow drifts had slowed deliveries of pulp wood and potatoes from Aroostook along the stops on the Bangor & Aroostook Railroad. As the region’s mercantile center, Bangor was affected.
But the newspaper maintained its spirit of wintry optimism. ICE FISHING SOON, it announced on Jan. 12. The season opened on some lakes on February 1. Dozens of Bangor men would soon be on Maine Central’s Bar Harbor line headed for Green Lake, where some of the best fishing was to be had.
Snowshoeing had become the latest way to make the snow useful. “For almost the first time this winter there is enough snow in the vicinity of Bangor for snowshoeing and parties of young people are enjoying the sport almost daily,” said the Commercial on Jan. 18.
The sliding season reached its height about this time as well. Bangor’s hilly streets provided the best opportunities. Double runners “capable of holding a dozen or more people,” were out in force along with lots of single sleds, the paper reported on Jan. 26.
“Cedar Street hill was a famous coasting place in the old days although of late years since the extension of Sanford Street has been filled in, it is not nearly as steep. It was formerly possible, when the sliding was extra good, to start at Fifth Street and continue down across Main and onto Summer Street without stopping. But to do this usually it was necessary that the road be covered with glare ice,” reported the paper. Hichborn Hill, “near the pumping station,” Union Street Hill at West Broadway, Highland Avenue on Thomas Hill, Hammond Street to the Kenduskeag Bridge — all had been popular sliding destinations in this era before automobiles ran everybody else off the roads.
Meanwhile, horse racing heated up the Penobscot River ice. At Currier’s track at Red Bridge above the dam on Feb. 7, H. H. Barton’s “speedy mare” Miss McLure won the green horse trot, while Michael Kane’s Frank Taylor won the free-for-all race. Purses were put up by Utterback Bros., carriage and harness dealers. An estimated 250 teams were out on the ice, and 800-1,000 spectators. The track was 150 feet wide, permitting 16 horses to trot abreast, said the Commercial.
More heavy snow storms and sub-zero cold snaps followed. A Bangor Daily News editorial writer, never losing his sense of humor, described what a rough winter it had been on March 22, before the last blizzard. “It has been a long cold winter, with deep snows, and here and there with icy ponds and fine skating and excellent ice-boating. We have enjoyed bare ground in mid-winter, and blinding snowstorms in March; we have enjoyed furious freshets and washouts and famous thank-ye-ma’ams, and lost highways and slews and tip overs, and frozen vegetables in the cellars, and brown tail moth worms, and mixed in among them all have been grips and colds and rheumatisms and pneumonias, so that it is more from God’s mercy than from any special mercy on the part of our sinful selves that we have survived at all.”
As usual Bangor newspapers were on the cusp of new happenings heralding a new season. MAPLE SAP RUNNING, declared the Commercial on Feb. 22.
The next day, with the river still frozen, a lengthy story appeared about Bangor Yacht Club members’ plans to build new boats. The club would be able to boast having four vessels over 40 feet, instead of only two.
Then, on March 6, FIRST SHAD ARRIVE — in the fish stores from the coast of Massachusetts, of course. There was always something to crow about.
Even when one of the last snowstorms of the season struck near the end of March, the Commercial still found reason to cheer. The three inches of snow that fell in Bangor would help “bring the frost out of the ground,” meaning the roads would be ready for automobiles sooner, the newspaper claimed on March 25.
“It means I shall get my car out at least a week earlier than I had planned,” said one happy motoring enthusiast.
The last ice left the harbor April 2. The little Bon Ton could be seen skittering back and forth across the river among the last ice floes.
The first Boston boat peeked around High Head four days later to a chorus of steam whistles from the river mills. A big crowd gathered at the wharf to cheer.
“She looked big and clean and white as she came into her berth and was a welcome sight after the months of ice embargo,” wrote the Commercial on April 6.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.