The opening of the Penobscot River to navigation each spring was a magnificent drama that affected both the mood and the pocketbooks of Bangoreans. Longtime river observers even placed bets on when the great event would occur.
The river was a more important place in the era before interstates and air travel, where many people made their living and enjoyed a wider range of recreational activities than they do today. After one of the severest winters in memory, the disappearance of ice in 1914 was covered with particular excitement and detail by the city’s two daily papers.
The ice took over on Dec. 27, 1913. After that the river was good only for ice harvesting and a few recreational activities like horse racing and skating. A few brave souls used the frozen surface as a shortcut between Brewer and Bangor.
By March 28, spring thaw had begun and the ice was starting to move down river. “Only” five miles of ice separated Bangor’s harbor from the ocean, it was announced in the Bangor Daily Commercial. This giant frozen sheet stretched from Bangor to Crosby’s Narrows in Hampden. Just the day before, the ice below that spot “took a move down river making the Penobscot open to navigation up to that point,” reported the Commercial.
Residents were warned, however, they needn’t get their hopes up too soon. Hardly any of the veteran river watchers consulted by the reporter expected the opening of the river up to Bangor for another couple of weeks.
One of the these observers “with a passion for exactitude,” a navigator for the little Bon Ton ferry that crossed between Bangor and Brewer along the route followed by the Chamberlain Bridge today, used a yardstick to determine there was still 14 inches of ice to melt.
Nevertheless, the river was coming to life. The Eastern Steamship Co. was making preparations for the arrival of the first of the Boston boats — the Great White Flyers. The coal barges and tug boats would soon appear as well.
Everyone was wondering when the log drives would begin. Every winter thousands of loggers, some from the Bangor area and others from as far away as Finland and Russia, went deep into the woods to cut the trees and haul the logs to the river banks. Many of these men came back to Bangor for some rest and carousing, and then returned to the woods in the spring when the ice started moving out for the river drives that would take the logs to downriver sawmills.
The drives were delayed this year because of all the thick ice. “Log driving will begin within the next three weeks on the east and west branches of the Penobscot River, slightly later than last year,” predicted the Commercial on March 31. Melting snow would soon be providing “a good head of water for driving purposes.”
Even before navigation was restored on the river, one of the great seasonal rituals occurred at the Bangor Salmon Pools. On April 1, Michael Flanagan of Pearl Street “killed” the first salmon on the first day of fishing season. The 18-pounder was sold to Gallagher Bros. for $1.50 a pound and then shipped to President Woodrow Wilson “by Bangor admirers of the chief executive” as part of the city’s recently instituted annual tradition.
ICE IS OUT, the Commercial proclaimed lustily on Thursday, April 9. “Real spring is here,” declared the ecstatic reporter. The ice had been trying to depart for days but the lack of rain, the freezing nights and the slow current had held things up.
The newspaper story traced the movement of the ice every step of the way beginning on Wednesday when it had moved below the Eastern Steamship Wharf (near where the Sea Dog Restaurant is today). A heavy rain had encouraged progress.
The next step in the annual spring time celebration was about to begin. BOATS ARE COMING, the paper declared.
The first major development was the arrival of the “big turbiner” Belfast on April 11, another sign that “coy spring is here once more,” said the Commercial. Despite floating ice, the vessel, which was longer than a football field, “plunged her bow into Bangor harbor.”
She was greeted festively by the salutes of “numerous whistles” at mills along the way. After spending a couple of days loading up with freight accumulated on the docks that winter, the Belfast would be sailing back to Boston Monday morning.
The waterfront was coming to life. “Everywhere preparations are being made for the shipping that is to be here in the near future. Boat houses are swinging into their usual places and the slips of the Bon Ton are being dug out of the ice,” the reporter noted. “The draw bridge across the Kenduskeag is getting limbered up after three months of inaction and the Eastern Steamship Corporation’s Bangor office has moved into the regular office on the wharf.”
Before long the Belfast’s twin, the Camden, another “big turbine,” would be steaming up the river. The boats would be making seven trips a week between them by July, the height of the season.
On April 14, a century ago, the Commercial announced five or six coal cargoes were being unloaded at various wharves. The latest arrivals included the barge Beth Ayres with 1,503 tons of coal for Conners Bros. at its Brewer wharf. Barge Logan was unloading 1,407 tons for John F. Woodman & Co. and the steamer L.V. Stoddard had dropped anchor with 3,902 tons for the Maine Central.
The tug Hugh Ross had come up the river with the Grand Banker Lizzie Griffin, which was being fitted out for the fishing season. Meanwhile, the Reading barge Leesport was discharging coal for the Hincks Coal Co., while the barge Manheim was unloading the same fuel for the Bacon & Robinson Co.
“Work is to be had in abundance for the stevedores,” the newspaper reported.
By April 18, log drivers were leaving Bangor at the rate of 150 to 200 a day on their way to drives on the Connecticut, Androscoggin and Penobscot rivers “and will continue to depart in squads and brigades for some weeks yet,” reported the Bangor Daily News. The drives weren’t expected to start for another couple of weeks, “everything being frozen up tight.”
Meanwhile, area sawmills were preparing to start up by the end of the month using logs stored over the winter as they waited for more to float down from upriver booms.
Great interest was being expressed about a new steamboat route expected to stimulate business in the Queen City. Subsidized by Bangor merchants, the Corinna would make two roundtrips a day between Bucksport and Castine and West Brooksville, picking up freight and passengers, who could take a train at Bucksport to Bangor for shopping.
They would have seven hours in Bangor before they needed to board the train to return to Bucksport and take the steamboat home, said the Bangor Daily News on April 18.
The 64-foot Corinna was considered quite luxurious, “the finish of the saloons being in white enamel with comfortable seats, buffet tables, warship linoleum floors, wide companionways and the finest of lavatory fixtures.” The smoking room, just aft of the pilot house with windows looking out ahead, was stocked with writing tables so that “commercial travelers will have an opportunity to write letters.”
What more could anybody want as a new spring dawned on the Penobscot?
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.