Bangor’s electric trolley system, just 23 years old a century ago, was a wonder to behold, connecting downtown Bangor with the city’s outskirts as well as nearby towns like Hampden, Old Town and Charleston. Workers, the elderly, youngsters, poor people and others without horses or automobiles could travel cheaply and safely — usually.
The system wasn’t free of risks and occasionally people got killed. For example, in 1910 the dead included little Bernice Grant, 5, who wandered onto the tracks on Harlow Street, and Mrs. Mary Wheelwright, who died at State Street and Parkview Avenue when a car struck the public carriage in which she was a passenger. In 1911, several men were injured when two cars, including one hauling gravel, collided on the Hampden circuit under the Tin Bridge. In the fall of 1912, William Kelley, died when his dump cart was struck by an electric car on Union Street.
The most spectacular crash of all, however, in this period occurred on May 16, 1912, a century ago Wednesday, when one of the Bangor Railway & Electric Company’s cars went airborne in downtown Bangor while traveling what was known as the Center Street loop. The results should have killed about everybody on board, but proved instead that miracles still happened.
The Center Street loop started at West Market Square, stretched up Park Street and out Center Street. Taking a hard left at Poplar, it headed back toward downtown along Leighton, Fountain and Jefferson streets to Center and Park streets again. The final run down Park Street hill led back into the city center. Brakes needed to be in prime condition for this steep grade.
Five men were riding on the last run just after 11 p.m. on the night of May 16. Passengers were scheduled to be dropped off at West Market Square at 11:30 p.m., and then trolley employees would park the car in the car barn out Main Street. Charles McClellan, the motorman, and Fred Peavey, the conductor, were in a hurry to finish their shifts. Passengers Herbert Jones, a driver for Fred T. Hall & Co., Clayton Sawyer, a salesman for the Bangor Motor Co., and police Patrolman Daniel Kennedy, who was on his way to city hall to work the second night shift, watched events unfold with increasing anxiety.
The trouble started on Leighton Street when the handbrake didn’t work right. A passenger had to jump off the trolley while it was still moving. Motorman McClellan managed to stop the car at the intersection of Fountain and Congress streets. He and Conductor Peavey got off to take a look. They lit a match and peeked under the car. “She’s gone,” said Conductor Peavey after trying the brake. Patrolman Kennedy recalled these events in an interview with the Bangor Daily Commercial the next day while he was recuperating in bed from the spectacular crash that occurred a few minutes later.
If the hand brake didn’t work, company regulations called for Peavey and McClellan to call headquarters and get help. Instead, the two men decided to keep on going. The car coasted down Fountain Street, over Jefferson and onto Center Street at what Officer Kennedy judged to be a normal rate of speed as he looked on nervously. As they rode along, McClellan confirmed for him that they were riding without the all-important hand brake.
At the brow of the Park Street descent, Kennedy nervously asked McClellan, “Do you think it’s all right now?”
“I guess we can get down all right,” the motorman answered, apparently thinking he could rely on the car’s reverse power or its electric brake system, the other two methods for stopping a trolley car besides the hand brake.
Just before the power station beyond the top of the hill, Officer Kennedy thought about his wife and children at home alone. “I guess I’ll get off and walk,” he recalled saying. But he didn’t, and in a second or two it was too late.
“It was just about at this point that McClellan applied the reverse and the car seemed to leap forward like an arrow as soon as he touched it. Then the fuse blew out and I knew it was all off. Something else must have given way at the powerhouse because as soon as he applied the emergency we started like mad down the hill,” recalled Patrolman Kennedy.
“Boys, we’re going!” the policeman called out to the others as he moved back through the car to his seat. “Get down and hold on!” Clayton Sawyer took his word literally, lying down on the floor spreading his arms and legs.
The car had suddenly plunged forward just above the Tarratine Club (the brake rod was found near there the next day) on the way down the hill toward East Market Square at the intersection of Harlow, State, Park and Exchange streets. The lights had gone out. The motor wouldn’t go into reverse and neither the hand or electric brakes worked.
“The car was … going like an express train,” said the Commercial reporter the next day. The trolley took “a flying leap” at the track switch in East Market Square, leaving the rails completely when it failed to make the curve into State Street.
It shot straight across the intersection, ploughed through the granite curbing on the opposite corner, snapped off a telegraph pole “like a reed,” demolished a high board fence “as though it had been made of cardboard,” and “shot out through space over what had been the basement of the old Exchange Building [destroyed in a fire the year before at the corner of Exchange and State streets], a dozen feet below.” The car flew an estimated 15-20 feet before it crashed onto the cement floor on its side.
“It was going like a bullet from a gun,” said bystander Charles Taylor, who had been standing near a lunch cart on Park Street when the car clattered by.
Every window was broken, the front platform was crushed and the sides “splintered.” The scene was illuminated by vivid flashes of electricity from the live wires that dangled into the street. Nevertheless, a crowd of stalwart fellows, including several policemen, rushed forward in an effort to rescue the injured.
Conductor Peavey was found at the rear end of the car covered with wreckage with two broken arms. Some of the others, bruised and battered, crawled out by themselves. Miraculously, nobody had life threatening injuries.
The Commercial reporter noted that recently there had been “considerable comment” about speeding cars late at night on their last runs. Now maybe they would enforce the rules and regulations. As for Mr. Sawyer, a survivor, he said that he didn’t believe a trolley could make the same plunge again without killing all aboard.
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 email@example.com.