Joseph Wentworth was one of the most popular men in Bangor a century ago. He was so popular he was called “Uncle Joe” in the newspapers and on the street by his many friends.
Wentworth was a celebrity, as well as a symbol of an era, or rather two eras. When he died in 1918, the headline on his obituary called him “Old Time Tow-Boat Man and Motorman No. 1.”
His long career spanned two technological revolutions — steam and electricity. A steamboat captain for the first part of his working life, he switched to electric trolleys for the second part. HE DROVE BANGOR’S 1ST ELECTRIC CAR, said a headline in the Bangor Daily News on July 16, 1913, around the time he retired. Nobody else around could say they had captained a steamboat and driven an electric trolley car, too.
After Bangor capitalists finished building the beginnings of Maine’s first electric trolley system in 1889, Uncle Joe took the controls of the first car to roll down Main Street on a trial run. He wore Badge No. 1 for the rest of his career.
It was midnight on April 29. The large door opened at the Bangor Electric Railway Company’s car barn on Main Street, just up from the Hampden line. After months of delay, the first electric trolley car was about to make a trial run along the three miles of track that had been laid through downtown Bangor. Besides Wentworth, about 20 people, including company dignitaries such as President Frederick Laughton and at least one reporter from the Bangor Whig & Courier, were aboard.
Why midnight? The streets would be empty of wagon traffic. No one knew exactly how horses would react to the clatter and clang of a trolley car. Would they get spooked and run away?
Everyone worried about accidents too. The speed limit was only 6 mph. Would the car, car No. 12, “brilliantly lighted by incandescent lights,” capsize on sharp curves or fail to make difficult hills?
Electricity was a fearsome thing. Would stray current stop your watch or blow up a wagon load of gunpowder being transported near the tracks?
At 10 minutes after 12, the car moved forward. “In 10 minutes Cedar Street had been reached,” reported the Whig & Courier later that morning. “In 15 Exchange Street, and in 18 the Maine Central Station at the corner of Exchange and Washington streets, all the curves having been passed with little difficulty.”
Then there was trouble. “The hardest curve of all is at the corner of Washington and Oak streets, as it is a short curve on a steep grade. The car had nearly passed over this curve when it stopped, the lights in the car went out and it was found no current was on,” reported the newspaper.
A telephone call revealed a belt had come off a drive wheel at the power station at Cross and Columbia streets. After it was replaced, things went smoothly. Wentworth took the car to the end of the line at Pearl Street (avoiding the steepest part of State Street hill), and then back to West Market Square and out Main to the car barn.
Rumors had abounded that the big event would happen that night, and in populated areas windows flew open, handkerchiefs fluttered and cheers were heard.
Another trial run was made that afternoon. “The horses paid but little attention to the car, and judging from yesterday they will not mind the electric vehicles,” reported the newspaper the next day.
The system was up and running in a few weeks, the kinks gradually ironed out. Within the next decade or so, the Bangor Street Railway stretched from Dorothea Dix Park in Hampden to Main Street in Old Town, and from West Market Square out through Glenburn, Kenduskeag, Corinth and Charleston. It hauled farmers’ produce and freight as well as thousands of people.
A line also ran through Brewer. It was not connected to Bangor until 1914 after a sturdy new bridge had been built across the Penobscot River. Meanwhile, the area’s hydroelectric capacity was expanded dramatically with the construction of new dams.
The system was put on firm financial footing in 1905 when the multitude of electric, water power and street railway companies that had sprung up was consolidated into the Bangor Railway and Electric Company, which evolved years later into Bangor Hydro. Anyone who wants to read more about these momentous events should thumb through Charles D. Heseltine’s book “Bangor Street Railway,” an essential work of Bangor history.
Through all this Uncle Joe Wentworth, or Capt. Wentworth as he was also called, was greeting people and making a good impression on customers generally. He ended his career driving the Old Town line. When he retired in 1913 he was one of the first to get a company pension, which amounted to about a third of his pay, according to the Bangor Daily News on July 19. That was a luxury for a worker back then.
One of his claims to fame was the fact he hadn’t killed or seriously injured anyone in his 23 years on the trolley line, an accomplishment apparently worth noting in an age of horrific accidents. “Two dogs committed suicide by getting in front of his car, but that is the extent of his casualty list,” commented the Bangor Daily News.
Wentworth’s first career as a ship’s captain was also noted in detail in a Bangor Daily News piece on July 19, 1913, and in his obituary. First, he had worked for the Ross & Howell tugboat fleet on the Penobscot, working his way up to captain. He was busy night and day back in the era when the lumber business was at its height.
Later he was captain of the steamer Charles Houghton on the Bangor and Rockland route and then the side wheeler Mary Morgan, an excursion boat. While the Charles Houghton was slow and clumsy, the speedy Mary Morgan “made the other boats out on the river look like ice barges,” recalled an old-time reporter. She also sported a steam organ, making her a favorite of the excursionists.
I would be kidding if I said I wished I had spent my career operating a trolley car or running a steamboat. But who today would pass up a chance to pilot a trolley car through West Market Square, or to navigate a steamboat up the Penobscot River, or to be “Uncle Joe” Wentworth for a day or two?
Wayne E. Reilly’s column on Bangor a century ago appears in the newspaper every other Monday. A new illustrated collection of his columns, “Hidden History of Bangor: From Lumbering Days to the Progressive Era,” is available where books are sold. Comments can be sent to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.