Bangor’s ornate 19th century opera house was destroyed by fire a century ago this month, bringing to an end an entertainment era that was already a fast-fading memory. Two firemen died and five more were injured.
The Bangor Opera House, an impressive Romanesque revival building with elaborate decorations, opened in 1882 on Main Street. It featured many of the great plays of the era, some direct from New York City, with famous stage actors such as Ethel Barrymore, Maxine Eliot, Joseph Jefferson, George Arliss and many others. Celebrity speakers such as Oscar Wilde, John L. Sullivan and Robert Peary rounded out its appealing programs.
The theater’s loss left a large hole in the city’s cultural fabric, although its mainstay attractions — high-tone theatrical productions — were rapidly being overtaken by movies and vaudeville. Even the Opera House was showing a fair number of films and vaudeville shows in recognition of changing tastes. On the night before the disaster, however, nothing was playing.
The fire was spotted shortly after midnight on Jan. 15, having started in a boiler just under the wooden floor of the auditorium near the front of the building. By the time firemen arrived flames had erupted through the roof. The main hall was a blazing inferno.
People who watched the red glow in the sky from distant vantage points thought Bangor was experiencing another catastrophic fire like the one that burned a large section of the downtown in 1911, said the newspaper accounts.
If an audience had been present, dozens if not hundreds of people might have died, speculated reporters. Especially vulnerable would have been those in the gallery, which was connected to the lobby by wide stairways that acted like “flues.” Except for the asbestos curtain, the interior of the building was mostly made of wood. Highly inflammable painted scenery was piled on the stage.
The zero-degree temperature that night caused trouble for firemen. The city’s new aerial truck had a 75-foot tower for shooting water into the burning building, but it had to be set up in the middle of Main Street, the mass of wires on utility poles preventing firemen from getting any closer to the building.
Two lines of hoses attached to a steamer were run all the way from Main Street to Haymarket Square, where it was discovered that the threads on the hydrant were so worn away they would not hold the suction coupling.
The steamer and hoses then were moved to a hydrant at Summer and Union streets, where the apparatus was hooked up successfully. Low water pressure, however, caused by people running their faucets all night to keep their pipes from freezing, further impeded efforts.
All this caused a big delay in getting the fire department’s star piece of machinery into operation. The Bangor Daily News explained much of this in a sort of apology published on Jan. 19, after having described the new aerial truck as useless and its operators incompetent in the paper’s Jan. 15 issue.
“But, in the meantime, in the old-fashioned way, the firemen were risking death and putting up a wonderful fight,” declared a reporter who had stayed up much of the night finishing up his story. It appeared in the morning paper before the fire was fully extinguished.
Around 2 a.m., two firemen, who were spraying a hose into the rear of the building, were killed when the brick wall of the “scenery loft,” which rose 15 or 20 feet above the main roof, collapsed with a roar burying them in falling bricks and timber. The dead men were Walter Morrill, lieutenant of Hose 3, and John Leonard, a member of the same company. Morrill left six children.
Injured in the collapse were Frank Granville, district fire chief, Dennis Curran Jr., James Flanagan, John Collins and William T. Pierce. Only Collins had wounds grave enough to be taken to the hospital.
Poetic reporters described the theater remains as “an ice palace” the next day. “Hundreds and hundreds of great icicles caught the sun rays and turned them into all colors of the rainbow,” reported the Bangor Daily News. “Its stage never framed so wonderful a spectacle — or one so sad.”
The loss of a few stores or other business buildings would have affected a few individuals, but the loss of the theater “cast its burden upon the entire community,” said the newspapers. A “wealthy commercial community of 25,000” like Bangor should be able to replace it without too much trouble, a reporter speculated.
It was a matter of “grim irony” that a prominent Boston theatrical manager was in town that night to make final plans for a permanent stock company to be located in the Queen City of the East. “Contracts were signed and it was planned to give the first performance a week from Monday.”
There was much speculation about what the owners would do next. Anxious journalists trying to wrap up the story seemed surprised that they did not have an answer within a day or two of the disaster.
Dr. Thomas Upham Coe was the principal owner in the Bangor Opera House association. “Dr. Coe is a very wealthy man. He will rebuild the theater with a great many additions and improvements such as are found in the best theaters of the state,” asserted a reporter for the Bangor Daily Commercial on Jan. 15.
Indeed, Coe, a lumber baron and a medical doctor, was a very wealthy man and a philanthropist. His estate was valued at between six and eight million dollars when he died in 1920.
Clearly, despite the rise of the movies and vaudeville, there was still an audience for live dramatic productions in Bangor. A day or two after the fire, The Star, the city’s newest theater, booked “The Trouble Makers,” a play that had been scheduled for the Opera House that coming Monday. The Bijou scooped up “Bought and Paid For,” a play that had been scheduled for later that month. Advertisements for both theaters claimed they were fire proof.
Meanwhile, city fathers took action. They established a fund for the families of the fallen firemen and set up a committee to study the cost of establishing an insurance fund for all city employees.
City officials voted to inspect Bangor’s five other theaters to make sure they were safe. Their report, published in the Commercial on Feb. 11, found many fire hazards including unsafe electrical wiring, ashes stored in wooden boxes and spaces cluttered with inflammable rubbish.
On Jan. 17, a double funeral was held at St. Mary’s Church for fire victims Morrill and Leonard. The Rev. Jeremiah McCarthy, the church pastor, declared firemen to be braver than soldiers.
“I believe it is more worthy to be a fireman than a soldier,” he said. “The heroes of the fire are as brave as those who fought at Little Round Top and San Juan Hill.”
“On leaving the church, the long line of firemen preceded the hacks down Main to Hammond Street,” reported the Bangor Daily Commercial. “A drum corps furnished music, and as the procession went down Main Street the fire bells, that had summoned the men to death … tolled in testimony of the city’s mourning for its heroes. The interment was at Mt. Pleasant Cemetery.”
Some people said there were too many theaters in Bangor by 1914 to support public demand. It would be six more years before a new, very different Bangor Opera House would reopen in the same location on Main Street, where it evolved over the years into the Penobscot Theater, which stands there today.
Wayne E. Reilly’s column on Bangor a century ago appears in the newspaper every other Monday. A new book 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.