June 17, 2019
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Autos left police in dust 100 years ago

Contributed | BDN
Contributed | BDN

The first automobile owned by a Bangorean was a bright red, steam-powered Stanley runabout purchased in 1901 by A.M. Robinson, a druggist. It wasn’t until 1902 that Tabor Bailey, a lawyer, bought the first gasoline-powered machine, the fourth auto owned in the Queen City. This Ford runabout, with “a detachable seat be-hind,” refused to go up steep hills, forcing Bailey on at least one occasion, to have it towed by a horse, said the Bangor Daily Commercial in a historical overview of the auto in the Queen City nearly a decade later, on April 19, 1910.

Times had changed.

“It is a very usual thing in Bangor to see a big touring car glide by with its company of gay autoists. Such an occurrence excites scarcely any attention,” the newspaper historian reported. “Automobile dealers in Bangor say that there are now surely more than 250 machines owned in this city. More than 150 are registered at the city clerk’s office.” (More than 6,000 vehicles had been registered statewide since a state registration law had gone into effect five years earlier, according to the newspaper on July 1, 1910.)

It seemed like the only people without autos were policemen. “Auto burglars” were occasionally robbing stores and then roaring off in a cloud of dust. “We may have to create police auto-squads for the pursuit and capture of the latest variety of … highwaymen,” the Bangor Daily News editorialized on March 7.

Speeding and drunken driving were increasing. The speed limit was 8 mph within one mile of the post office and 15 mph beyond that. A couple of people already had been killed in Bangor automobile accidents and several more injured. But police had no machines of their own to chase down offenders.

Calls to take injured people to the hospital were another reason the police needed autos. Service would be faster, and the city could save money, suggested Police Chief Lindley Gilman at a public meeting reported in the Bangor Daily Commercial on April 5. Board for the patrol wagon horse cost $40 a month.

The auto was having a major impact on recreation as well as law enforcement. Small country hotels in remote places were making improvements to cater to the new auto travelers, while large, famous resorts were suffering when these road warriors left after only a night or two, or even after a single meal.

The challenge of navigating the state’s poorly constructed dirt roads brought out the daredevil in some people. Newspaper stories about automobilists setting speed records on long trips were increasingly common. A Massachusetts driver made the run between Rockland and Bangor in just two hours 15 minutes. “Considering the condition of the roads and the number of hills along the route, this is regarded as exceedingly good. His average speed was nearly 30 mph,” the Bangor Daily Commercial reported on Sept. 2.

Other stories were full of danger. A group of Bangor men, including F.M. Simpson, treasurer of the American Realty Co., and Postmaster John M. Oak, made a harrowing journey from Portland to Bangor. The adventurers were drenched in a thunderstorm after a farmer’s wife refused to let them drive their Pope-Hartford touring car into her barn for shelter. The party was forced to stop at a blacksmith shop in Waterville to have chains installed because “the machine was skidding a good deal” on the muddy road.

Near Benton, they encountered Penobscot County Attorney George Thompson and his family, whose auto had skidded off the road and come to rest at a 45-degree angle. No one was hurt. A team of horses had to be hired to pull them out, reported the Commercial on June 22.

The first signs that the gasoline engine was a threat to the railroads were emerging in 1910. After the Bangor Railway and Electric Co. decided not to extend its trolley line, a group of Dexter businessmen discussed establishing “a rather novel freight line” between the Queen City and Dexter. The idea was to haul goods using “a big gasoline hauler” like the one used by the H.H. Linn Dog Show, a traveling circus, to transport its equipment, said the Bangor Daily Commercial on Aug. 23.

This was a reference to a new machine manufactured by the A.O. Lombard Co. in Waterville. A 26-foot car was placed on a “gear” similar to that used in the company’s famous log hauler. With a 50-horsepower engine, it could haul the car and two large wagons at 4 mph on runners in the winter and wheels in summer, according to the Industrial Journal in June 1909. Part of its equipment included a “dynamo” for lighting the car and a circus tent.

Better roads, of course, must follow such an ingenious development. Could the trucking industry be far behind?

After months of promises, Bangor car dealers finally produced the city’s first Auto Parade on July 5. The Bangor Daily News had predicted 400 to 500 autos would be lined up for the Main Street procession. The news writers seemed satisfied when 50 made an appearance. “All Bangor turned out” to witness “the first real auto-mobile parade ever held in this city,” the Commercial reported proudly.

Vehicles, some decorated with flowers and flags, were filled with dignitaries and “finely gowned women.” A lone bugler signaled the parade’s approach, after it proved impractical for the Bangor Band to play while leading the procession in several separate vehicles. This parade was a sure sign of things to come decades later when traffic jams would replace auto parades.

An illustrated collection of Wayne E. Reilly’s columns titled “Remembering Bangor: The Queen City Before the Great Fire” is available at bookstores. Comments about this column may be sent to wreilly.bdn@gmail.com

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