At the turn of the last century, Bangoreans worried about the declining traffic in their once fabled harbor. The “maze of masts” was no more. The rafts of logs and lumber that once floated down the river one after the other from the sawmills between Old Town and Bangor were few and far between. The docks were run-down and sometimes devoid of activity.
The subject of Bangor’s decline as a port was pushed into prominence early in 1909 after it was discovered there had been a shocking drop in the amount of lumber shipped the year before. Bangor always had been about lumber and shipping. Were things as bad as they seemed to old salts hanging about the waterfront?
The Bangor Daily News offered a considerably more optimistic analysis of what was happening on Jan. 9, 1909. The anonymous writer, a close observer of the city’s riverine fortunes, got right to the point: “It used to be said twenty-five and thirty years ago that when the lumber business should decline, Bangor would decline with it, and that the disappearance of the great fleets of old-fashioned coasters that used to crowd the upper harbor would mark the end of Bangor’s importance as a seaport. Well, the lumber business, although in the aggregate for the state and for the Penobscot River region as great as ever it was, has undergone some remarkable changes, and shipments of the manufactured product from Bangor have declined to the lowest point since 1841 — and Bangor is in every way a larger and more prosperous city than ever it was before.”
There were three principal causes for this economic shift, the writer explained. There had been “radical changes in the lumber business, including a great increase in the proportion of the product shipped by rail; a series of dull years in the lumber trade, and the diversion to Searsport and Stockton of business that had always been done here up to the time the Seaport division of the [Bangor & Aroostook Railroad] was opened to traffic [in 1905].”
Yes, things were changing, but they were getting better if you counted the number of new workers attracted to the city and the number of new buildings going up and the other indicators — even the number of new theaters — that showed capitalists had cash in their pockets despite the recent depression.
To an old-timer, the mostly empty harbor didn’t look right. To the visionary, who understood the dynamics of railroads, paper mills, water power, electricity and the other aspects of the new economy, profits were in the offing.
Maine continued to cut about 750 million feet of logs every winter, “but now-a-days about one half … of these logs is manufactured into pulp and paper, instead of being sawed into boards and lumber,” said the writer. “In that way we have big mills up north, and all along the rivers that afford good water power, and long trains of cars loaded with pulp and paper, instead of so many sawmills as formerly, sending millions of feet in lumber down in rafts to be loaded into waiting fleets of two-masted schooners.”
He continued, “Evidently, there is more money to be made by turning spruce logs into white paper than in sawing them into boards. And, while Bangor has fewer schooners tied up off the City Point and off the Maine Central wharves, she has derived from the pulp and paper industry benefits which probably more than compen-sate for the loss of the coasting trade, or part of that trade.”
The location of the mills had changed along with their function. The observer summed things up pithily: “In olden times, the log always came to the mill whereas now the mill seeks the log … .” Once dozens of lumber mills had been clustered between Old Town and Bangor. These sawmills had sent a constant stream of rafts of lumber down to the Bangor docks for shipment. Now there were only a half-dozen or so of these mills along that stretch of river.
Other mills farther north in Aroostook County had once sent large amounts of lumber by train to Bangor for shipment by water. Now that lumber was bypassing the Bangor docks on the railroads. Meanwhile, the new Great Northern mill in Millinocket and other paper mills along the river were devouring logs once sawed into lumber.
The report of the surveyor general told the story. There had been a startling drop in the lumber business at Bangor’s harbor in 1908 from the year before, at least in part because of the lingering recession. The shipment of dry pine, green pine, spruce and “hemlock, etc.” — the four categories surveyed — had plunged dramati-cally.
“When it is recalled that in 1872 there were surveyed at Bangor over 246,000,000 feet of lumber, the 92,000,000 of last year looks decidedly small,” noted the writer, recalling the days when the Queen City had been described as the lumber capital of the world.
The city’s coal trade was showing a similar trend. Before the opening of the B&A’s Seaport line, nearly 400,000 tons of coal was discharged at Bangor by ship each season. In the last three years that had declined to about 275,000 tons annually, the rest having been diverted to the new terminal at Mack Point in Searsport and shipped by train.
Foreign trade in the harbor showed a similar decline. Imported salt and exports of fruit-box shooks, clapboards, shingles and other products all had fallen off because of the railroads or other factors.
Today, the concerns about harbor shipping in the Queen City sound like a tempest in a teapot. Given the limited use of the river, even the expression “Bangor harbor” — used so commonly in the newspapers a century ago — sounds odd. Ironically, the water is a lot cleaner and clear of debris today than it was then, as if the old harbor is waiting for a rebirth. What will replace the commerce that once enriched the city, however, is hard to tell, unless it is a riverfront museum dedicated to telling the exciting story of the “maze of masts” and the rafts of lumber that once floated by.
Wayne E. Reilly may be reached at email@example.com.