The automobile season a century ago in eastern Maine started with a round of fantasizing long before the snow melted. While most autos were still stored for the winter, hundreds of people from all over the region gathered at the Bangor Auditorium, the cavernous wooden structure at the corner of Main and Buck streets, to see the newest models and accessories at the annual automobile show, which opened for a week on Feb. 23, 1914.
Hundreds of Chinese lanterns and “thousands of electric light bulbs” illuminated the building’s dim confines, so auto enthusiasts could see the latest Peerless Sixes, Pope-Hartfords, Paige-Detroits and dozens of other models.
The latest features were much talked about in the puff pieces published in Bangor’s two daily newspapers. The 1914 Stevens-Duryeas, for instance, boasted left-hand drive, electric starters, one man tops (“meaning that one man can put it up or down”), adjustable rear seats, and lamps (headlights) with two lights, “one a powerful glare for country driving, and another, dimmer, for use in city streets.” The new electric heaters were deemed to be “a great advantage in heating up the carburetor in the morning before starting out.”
Society was rapidly becoming automated even though horses still predominated and most people couldn’t afford an automobile. An editorial in the Bangor Daily News on Nov. 17, 1913, gave some idea of the scope of the changes. Notice personal transportation wasn’t on the list yet.
The gasoline engine and water power had “almost replaced the traction power of horses in propelling street and steam railways, in driving threshing machines, in operating derricks, in churning, turning grindstones and cutting ensilage, chopping hay and straw and in baling hay,” the newspaper said. Even “gasoline log-hauling has invaded the Maine woods, pulling the timbers from their very stumps to the saw and pulp mills.”
The era of the police horse was about over, too. “OLD JERRY IS DEAD,” declared a headline in the Commercial on Feb. 28, noting the passing of the celebrity horse that had hauled the patrol wagon around for the past 12 years. In July, the city purchased its first motorized police vehicle — a new White combination patrol wagon and ambulance with “an electric self-starting system, a rotary gong and a bumper” along with a 40-hp four-cylinder engine.
After the auto show, the next step in the local auto season in 1914 was documented on May 9 in the Bangor Daily Commercial with the headline “GETTING AUTOS OUT.” More and more people were getting their “machines” out of barns and garages and taking them for the first “spin” of the season.
A few auto tourists had appeared “from the western part of the state, but the roads from Waterville to Bangor are not in good condition owing to the frost coming out of the ground, rain, etc., and it will be a week or more before the real tourist business will start in.”
The pot-holed roads we complain about today would have been considered luxurious by the standards of a century ago. Only a small percentage of the state’s roads had even been paved, and the best roads appear to have been kept at about the same level as well-maintained logging roads today.
Another innovation around Bangor that spring were “cycle cars” like The Imp, a make that had attracted attention at the Bangor auto show in February. They were “a sort of compromise between an automobile and a motorcycle.” They went fast and were relatively inexpensive. People who could not afford full-size autos bought them.
Motorcycles and sidecars were also becoming popular. The city’s first motorcycle club started with about 25 members under the direction of Cyrus S. Winch of Kendall, Winch & Co., the Commercial reported on July 9.
Another important event of the new auto season was the first meeting of the Bangor Automobile Association on May 18. A lobbying group, the association had recently affiliated with the Maine and American automobile associations. The dues had been lowered from $5 to $3, low enough to attract many more members, gaining the organization more political clout in the state Legislature.
The association was constantly pressuring officials to fix roads and build better ones. One result was a $2 million state bond issue that had resulted in a flurry of road building.
An innovation advocated by the group was the issuance of cards to autoists so they could report bad local roads to selectmen. These cards threatened “formal complaint” against towns “in case of accident resulting from inattention to dangerous places in the road …,” In other words, “We’ll sue!”
Meanwhile the automobile association used its weekly bulletin to report miles of bad roads in the region. These reports were picked up by the newspapers.
For example, on July 2, the road report warned that the “road from Hermon Center to Hermon Pond station is poor, the mile of corduroy needing special attention … There is a bad stretch of corduroy on Hammond Street, over the hill after passing end of carline … Avoid the Church Road, between Essex Street and the Pushaw Road; it has been recently turnpiked and overturned sods make fierce riding.”
The new state road construction program had led to reports warning drivers to stay away from Maine because, it was believed, many roads would be closed by the work. Not true, claimed the Maine Automobile Association. Thanks to lobbying, there were fewer spots where dangerous sods were left in the road by sloppy road crews and detours were being established and marked around construction sites to a far greater degree than in past years.
Automobile accidents were no longer a rarity, however, as traffic increased along with engine power. Reports of spectacular fatal accidents usually in other states were reported in the newspapers almost daily.
Most local accidents, however, were more akin to Henry Buck’s close call on the Fourth of July — described by the Commercial’s Bucksport correspondent as “one of the strangest which ever befell an automobile party.”
Buck’s touring car, which was “filled with people,” crashed into a telephone pole in Orland on the way to holiday festivities. The occupants narrowly escaped with scratches even though the auto’s top was ripped off.
The description of the crash in the Commercial on July 4, however, is one that wouldn’t pass the straight-face test today.
“They were bowling along the smooth country road at 7 o’clock Saturday morning when they encountered a herd of cows being driven to pasture. One of the animals without warning suddenly jumped in front of the automobile.”
Or perhaps Henry’s new Klaxon, advertised recently in Bangor newspapers as the latest in auto horn technology, hadn’t provided the desired results.
Wayne E. Reilly’s column on Bangor a century ago appears in the newspaper every other Monday. His newest 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.