A century ago Bangor boasted a prestigious new railroad station. Dozens of trains passed through the city daily. To add to the noise and the acrid smell of burning coal, more than 300 automobiles were owned by the city’s inhabitants in 1913, according to the tax assessor’s office.
The city’s romantic maritime past, however, is what enamored Bangoreans, not the trains and autos, or even the horses that still outnumbered both by a long shot (the city assessor counted 1,120 horses and 69 colts that year, said the Bangor Daily Commercial on July 2).
On the mundane end, the shipping news — a column noting the arrivals and departures of coal barges, lumber schooners and the like — still appeared weekly in Bangor’s two daily papers. It was staple reading, like the weather and the stock market.
Anything having to do with big steamboats stoked the public imagination or, at any rate, the imaginations of the scribes who assembled the city’s two daily newspapers each day.
Sometimes these steamboat stories were glamorous affairs as when the publishing tycoon Cyrus H.K. Curtis and his wife appeared in Bangor’s harbor aboard their 160-foot steam yacht Lyndonia in July of 1913. They were accompanied by Mr. and Mrs. Charles Jordan. Jordan was a former Bangor superintendent and high school principal who had become superintendent of schools in Minneapolis.
More often than not, however, these steamboat stories were about tragedy or near tragedy. Marine disasters were probably third in number to murders and horrific accidents like factory fires in the pantheon of sensational stories that decorated the front pages of Bangor’s two newspapers. At the same time, these stories often gave Bangoreans a chance to reminisce about the good old days when steamboats were in their ascendancy.
In May, the steamer Katahdin, “the Queen of the Moosehead Fleet,” burned to the waterline while towing a large raft of logs in Moosehead Lake. In a “race with death,” the ship’s captain sped to the shore so the 10-man crew could jump to safety.
In July another much-discussed steamer, one being used to carry an Arctic exploration team headed by Donald McMillan, ran aground near Battle Harbor, Labrador. The voyage was of much interest to Bangoreans because Dr. Harrison Hunt, often identified as “a Bangor boy” in the newspapers, was aboard.
No one was hurt, according to early press reports, but the accident was serious enough for the adventurers to summon up another rugged steamboat to complete their journey.
The steamboat disaster that probably interested Bangor folks the most that summer occurred next. On July 18, the 277-foot-long steamer City of Bangor was badly burned while she lay at a wharf in Boston harbor.
Most people in the Queen City were familiar with this majestic workhorse of the Eastern Steamship Co. The possibility that this famed Boston boat might have burned at sea with hundreds of passengers and crew members aboard, rather than tied at a dock, was much discussed. Luckily, only one person died and several crewmembers and firemen were injured.
John M. Richardson, author of “Steamboat Lore of the Penobscot,” sums up the importance of the City of Bangor to the Penobscot River. First making her appearance in Bangor in 1894, “the City of Bangor was a true sensation, a leviathan compared to her predecessors, and a marvel of speed and luxury….[Her] majestic appearance, towering twin stacks and unprecedented grandeur, made her first trip up the river a march of triumph.”
Doomsday prophets worried she was too big to navigate the river and its many obstacles.
A huge, silken flag, gift of the people of Bangor, flew at her forepeak, just above the spot where the fire broke out 17 years later, burning the forward part of the vessel.
The City of Bangor was known as “the floating gold mine” because of her ability to make the Boston-to-Bangor run three times a week, according to Richardson. After 1908, she was transferred to the Kennebec run (when the fire occurred), later to the Portland run and during World War I back to the Penobscot. Her last appearance in Penobscot waters was a freight run in October, 1925, according to Richardson.
Her demise was unfortunate as was that of most of these old boats as the years passed. In the winter of 1933, a couple of years before regular steamboat service ended between Bangor and Boston, the City of Bangor listed under a heavy load of snow and sank at a dock in Boston harbor. She had been left there to decay some years before. “She lays there today, a dreary, half submerged wreck, a sad commentary on the ‘great white flyer’ of yesteryear…,” reported Richardson in 1941.
Those who mourn old Bangor buildings like the Bijou Theater and Union Station might as well add the City of Bangor to their list of historic icons lost through indifference and neglect. The big steamboats, especially the great white flyers on the Boston run, are one of the major attributes that made old Bangor different from today.
Wayne E. Reilly’s column on Bangor a century ago appears in the newspaper 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.