May 28, 2018
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To truly appreciate Bangor’s waterfront, remember what it was

Renee Ordway
By Renee Ordway, Special to the BDN

Sometimes in order to truly appreciate what you have, it is necessary to take a moment to reflect upon the time when you didn’t have it.

This weekend, as tens of thousands of us relax in the late summer sun on the edge of the Penobscot River being serenaded by some of the nation’s finest musical performers, it might be worth it to remember, just for a second or two, what Bangor’s waterfront used to be not so long ago — when leaking fuel tanks, coal yards and dilapidated and mostly vacant warehouses blocked any view of the state’s largest river. Not that many of us cared, given the polluted state and stench of it.

A University of Maine study of the river in 1972 concluded that the waterway was overloaded by oxygen-demanding wastes and could not support most fish species, that the main stem served as a “flume for waste assimilation” and that sewage fungus and sludge could be seen in the water.

All of that created “generally unaesthetic conditions.”

One would certainly think so.

But then came the passage of the Clean Water Act of 1972, and ever so slowly the level of pollutants getting dumped into the river began to subside.

Today, some studies indicate the pollutant load to the river has decreased by 85 percent, and that the quality of water in the watershed is considered from good to outstanding.

With the recent removal of the Great Works Dam, it is expected that as many as 11 species of sea-run fish will once again take to the river to spawn.

While the river was beginning its transformation, the city of Bangor was carefully embarking on a 20-year project to purchase and clean up a 36-acre parcel of river frontage.

How many municipal committee meetings do you suppose were suffered through to get to the result you see today?

And standing beside Bangor officials as this improvement project was under way were organizers of the now-American Folk Festival by the Bangor Waterfront, nudging with their elbows and working tirelessly to ensure the success of the festival to prove what life in a beautiful riverfront city can really be.

The transformation is not lost on George Marvin, who was born in Bangor and grew up in Hampden.

He and his wife of 38 years, Nancy, sailed here from their home in Florida, just to attend the American Folk Festival.

“This is our sixth festival. Four we sailed up and two we drove,” said Nancy.

George is a retired naval captain and he and Nancy have spent years sailing in their 45-foot sailboat, from Newfoundland to the Caribbean.

“This is the best event anywhere we’ve been,” Nancy remarked Thursday evening during a festival kickoff event. “The variety of acts, the welcome from the city and the committee, we just love it.”

George remembers the river of his childhood and the dreariness and industrial nature of its shore.

“There was no waterfront in my mind,” he said on Thursday. “It was a pit. When we sailed up here five years ago, it actually took my breath away it was so beautiful.”

This year, moored at Hampden Marina, George and Nancy watched as some kids dove off the back of a boat and into the river.

“I just couldn’t believe it,” he said. “When I was a kid, if someone had fallen in that river we would have sprayed them from head to toe with disinfectant. Now kids are swimming in it. It’s a remarkable thing.”

It is that.

I hope that all of you get to come to the waterfront for at least part of this weekend to enjoy the efforts of the hundreds of people who have worked for decades to restore the river, to beautify the waterfront and to bring this incredible festival to our doorstep.

Renee Ordway can be reached at

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