“Immigrant Question of Great Concern to the City,” said a headline in the Bangor Daily Commercial on April 16, 1914. Long used to the thousands of loggers who passed through the city each year on their way to the woods, the Queen City had a new concern. Hundreds of the European immigrants who were flooding the country were choosing to settle in Bangor, placing a strain on the city’s housing, public health, educational and police resources.
The ladies of the Columbia Street Baptist Church mission circle had invited Miss Marion Porter, secretary of Associated Charities, to tell them about the impact of immigration on Bangor.
The meeting was held at the home of Mrs. Robert T. Clark on Ohio Street, a good distance from the center of Bangor’s immigrant district on Hancock Street, a place no respectable woman would dare walk unless accompanied by a male protector.
“There are many of you who probably have no idea what an intimate connection Bangor has with the immigrant question, but if you will listen to the figures I have taken from the census report of the year 1910, you will realize that we are greatly concerned and should give the matter serious attention,” said Miss Porter.
Of the 24,803 people living in Bangor, more than 10,000 were either foreign-born or the children of one or both foreign-born parents. While half were Canadians (many of them recent immigrants from Europe), most of the others came directly from Europe – Ireland, Russia, Great Britain, Scandinavia, Italy, Turkey, Germany, Greece and other countries. Religious diversity – many Jews, Catholics and Protestants – complicated the mix.
More than one-fifth of school-age children were foreign-born, yet only 217 of the 4,280 children attending Bangor schools were immigrants, meaning many stayed home or went to work. Many of the foreign adult males – all qualified to vote – were illiterate.
Bangor was, in effect, a segregated city. The newcomers stuck to their own kind where they could be understood when speaking in their native languages. They started stores, junk yards, restaurants, saloons, boarding houses, pool rooms, pawn shops and other small businesses. Many worked as loggers or day laborers.
Their frequent street brawls were often labeled “race wars” in the city’s newspapers – especially when they happened on Hancock Street.
Many single males had come expecting to get rich and send money home, but found they could hardly support themselves because of the language barrier and their lack of skills. Drinking and gambling became their chief forms of entertainment.
Some of them died of diseases like tuberculosis in boarding houses under “unspeakable conditions,” cut off from the families they had left behind in Europe, said Miss Porter.
Was the liberal immigration law that allowed all these people to come to Bangor and other cities good or bad? That was a question sweeping the land. Americans were having trouble making up their minds. Most feared the impact the newcomers would have on their settled way of life.
Industrialists and other capitalists tolerated the newcomers because they wanted cheap labor. In fact, there was concern that Maine was not attracting enough immigrants to build its railroads and industrial sites and cut its trees for lumber and paper manufacturing.
“Maine never has been able to get her share of the immigration which has played an important part in the development of the country,” complained a report by the state’s Bureau of Industrial and Labor Statistics in 1910. Immigrant labor gangs frequently had to be imported from Boston or New York City.
The vast majority of the immigrants, however, were unskilled laborers, complained critics. A much smaller percentage arriving in Maine had some job skills. They were carpenters, granite cutters, weavers, spinners, dressmakers, tailors, which allowed them to support themselves.
Proponents of literacy tests and other methods for slowing immigration feared the arrival of too many unskilled workers would create a new and dangerous class steeped in crime and radical politics and infected with diseases.
Hancock Street came to symbolize the issue in Bangor. A constant flow of negative newspaper headlines fanned the flames of fear and disgust such as this one in the Commercial on March 7, 1910. “Serious Italian Shooting Affray on Hancock St.: Padiglione Constantino Perhaps Fatally Shot By Unberto Ruggiero in a Quarrel Sunday At Protita Bros.’ Store.”
This was only one of the frequent stories publicizing the family feuds, ethnic quarrels and violent, alcohol-fueled crimes that occurred in the area.
Conditions were so embarrassing to some that they tried to change the name of their portion of the street. In 1913, residents of upper Hancock Street – above the junction with Washington Street – asked that their end of the street be renamed Washington.
They were trying to escape from the reputation of the lower end of the street that “in the past has been the scene of many street brawls and it is now the most thickly populated foreign section of the city,” reported the Commercial on November 19. Their request was approved, but later protests from other residents, who objected to the inconvenience of having a new address, apparently got the decision reversed.
Miss Porter’s efforts to improve the conditions of immigrants in Bangor was shared by other people as illustrated by a story in the Commercial on June 19, 1913. Hugh T. Gallagher, a city councilor, told his fellow councilmen that a new school was needed in Ward 1, where the street was located.
Years ago the residents of this area were largely Irish Catholics – members of a different group of immigrants – who went to parochial schools run by the catholic church. Nevertheless, the city had provided three large school houses there, one at York and Essex streets, one at Boyd and Hancock streets and another on Pearl Street. “The two latter were discontinued on account of the many pupils attending the parochial schools,” Gallagher said.
In the past 25 years, the area had become populated, “by a totally different class of people, most of whom do not attend parochial schools, and the Catholic children have moved to a part of the city above State Street, in many instances,” he said. “The Ward 1 section is now one of the most thickly inhabited parts of Bangor, and it especially abounds in children.”
Gallagher continued: “I consider it an imposition to make these little tots travel away up to the State Street School, and the Abraham Lincoln School, in winter, across car tracks, through automobiles, teams and other dangers. The school should be brought near them, and furthermore, I am informed that the Palm Street School is overcrowded.”
“The children of that section are largely foreigners, including Armenians, Italians, Greeks, Poles and other nationalities. They should be educated in order to be good citizens – the fact that they are foreigners should make us all the more anxious to make it easy for them to get an education,” said the councilman.
Later, the council’s president told the newspaper reporter that he didn’t believe anything could be done that year considering the high costs of building a new high school and other improvements after the city’s 1911 fire. But such speeches, and new sources of revenue as the years went by, gradually paved the way for improved conditions in Bangor for all residents, immigrant and nonimmigrant alike.
Wayne E. Reilly’s column on Bangor a century ago appears in the newspaper every other Monday. His latest 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.