May 25, 2018
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New buildings, better streets marked Bangor’s fire

By Wayne E. Reilly, Special to the BDN

Two years after the great fire of 1911 the Queen City of the East was doing better than ever just as predicted by the “sages of Bangor,” men like John R. Graham, head of the electric trolley company, Arthur B. Chapin, a merchant and former mayor, and Flavius O. Beal, another mayor and one of the founders of the Eastern Maine State Fair.

While some people had wrung their hands in despair after the fire, men like these had predicted that Bangor, a growing commercial center, would find its “holocaust” to be “an ultimate blessing,” noted an editorial in the Bangor Daily News on Oct. 21, 1913.

The newspaper offered a list of accomplishments since the fire destroyed much of the downtown. Among them: “Our crooked streets have been made straight; our narrow streets have been made wider; our busiest streets have been newly paved with more durable material; our streets have been fitted for automobile traffic, and most wonderful of all, towering business blocks of brick, iron and concrete have sprung up, seemingly like mushroom growths, along most of the former business thoroughfares, many of them being much larger and taller upon the very sites of former rattletrap structures.”

The newspaper had been keeping a close eye on the dozens of new commercial buildings, houses and the like. An update had appeared on July 23, featuring a large photograph of plans for the Charles S. Jones building at 49 Pickering Square, the site of a former fish market. “The new building of brick, steel and terra cotta is to be erected according to plans drawn by Victor Hodgins, and as seen from the engraving it will be a great improvement to that part of town,” reported the newspaper. “That part of town,” of course, referred to the

rough-hewn squalor of one of the city’s saloon districts.

The most spectacular of the new buildings – and the most important to the city – was the high school, dedicated the day after the editorial ran. Located on Harlow Street almost directly across the street from where the old high school stood before the fire, it was larger than any other high school in a city the size of Bangor in New England, said the Bangor Daily Commercial. Its features included a 900-seat auditorium, electric signals marking the beginning and end of class periods, telephones connecting all rooms, “sanitary” steel lockers for each student, a science lecture room equipped with a stereopticon and much more.

High school was not just for students going on to colleges anymore, guest speaker Payson Smith, state superintendent of schools, reminded the hundreds of people assembled for the ceremony. The student body at Bangor High had increased 150 percent in the past dozen years. Many of those students would be going to work right after graduation. Hence, the growing variety of vocational courses now being offered alongside the usual college preparatory courses.

The day after the dedication of the high school, the Commercial ran a story predicting that the long-awaited public library – which also burned in the fire with most of its collection – should be open next to the high school by Dec. 1. Construction had been delayed by the late arrival of the marble for the vestibule, stairways and “floors in the delivery room” and of “the wire glass for the stack room” — fire proof, of course.

Men and horses were busy grading the land around the building. Twenty thousand volumes had been collected through donations and purchases. The library was now crammed into the basement of the courthouse.

Yet another architectural ornament for the Queen City, a new post office and federal building, was also in the works down the street from the high school and the library, the former one having burned in the fire. Today it is Bangor City Hall.

Of course, there were still some minor problems facing city fathers. The Bangor Daily News was particularly miffed by all the “shack stores” that were still standing. Merchants had been allowed to build these low-cost wooden structures to house their businesses immediately after the fire on vacant lots in the downtown, but they were supposed to have removed them by Jan. 1, 1912.

“Two Years After the Big Fire Ugly Shacks Remain to Disfigure and Disgrace the City,” complained a headline in the newspaper on July 26, 1913. “Travelers entering Bangor by train, on coming up Exchange Street, see among the most conspicuous objects ahead of them the several weather-beaten shacks that still disfigure Post Office Square (location for the new post office). There is another in Park Street, not far from the handsome Tarratine Club house, others in Harlow Street. And there is that largest and ugliest of all at Forest Avenue and Somerset Street…….”

This latter building was described as “a great ark of boards and tarred paper that looked like “a bankrupt skating rink.” This “repulsive barn,” which was “unsanitary, ugly, a fire trap and a disgrace” had been built as temporary quarters for the high school and should be gone by

now, according to the angry writer.

Another bone of contention was the condition of Central Street. In October, property owners presented the city council a petition complaining about the street’s “deplorable conditions” and “state of chaos” brought on by efforts to widen it after the fire.

In places, it was almost impossible for two teams of horses to pass. The entrances to some businesses were blocked. Then there was all the mud and dust, prompting merchants to call for wood block paving, a surface considered better than asphalt by many. Despite such contentious issues, which included higher property taxes to pay for the city’s improvements, the editorial writer for the Bangor Daily News could say on Oct. 21: “Our far better Bangor is coming – it is almost here now.”

This far better Bangor would include electric trolleys crossing the new bridge to Brewer. It would include new and bigger churches and banks and, of course the post office.

The editorial writer paid homage to the work done by the city’s women’s clubs to clean the city of dust and filth, flies that spread diseases and rubbish that littered many neighborhoods.

A “radiantly, new parkway ornamented with flowers through the very heart of the city” – an apparent reference to efforts to improve the looks (and the smell) of the Kenduskeag Stream – was part of a plan that would take many years to complete. Plus there would be “new and

fashionable goods exposed for sale” in all the city’s new shop windows.

Yes, the valuation of the city was going up, as were property taxes. But “the higher tax rate will endure for one year only, while the new Bangor, it is believed, will endure forever, and show marked improvement with every passing year,” the writer concluded optimistically.

Wayne E. Reilly’s column on Bangor a century ago appears in the newspaper every other Monday. His new book, “Hidden History of Bangor: From Lumbering Days to the Progressive Era,” is available where books are sold. Comments can be sent to him at


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