Two months after Bangor’s Great Fire of 1911, a terrific storm added to the destruction. A deadly heat wave roasted the city first. Thermometers poked well above 100 degrees in the shade. “BANGOR PEOPLE JUST BROILED ALIVE,” proclaimed a headline in the Bangor Daily News on July 3 three days before the storm.
Ice and electric fans were still luxuries for most people, and air conditioning was just a dream. Bangor did have open trolleys, however, in which people could enjoy the breeze. “From early morning until late at night every car of the Bangor Railway and Electric Company both in and out of the city was jammed to the running boards,” noted the newspaper a century ago this month.
The heat, along with the police, kept a lid on the usual Fourth of July high jinks. Bangor had banned “torpedo canes,” “cannon crackers” and blank revolvers, and the saloons were closed. “As a result it was possible for most of the adult population to get some sleep,” said the Commercial. Miraculously, no injuries from fireworks were reported, and drunken bullies were absent from the streets for a change.
A crowd of 6,000 people “besieged” Riverside Park on the bank of the Penobscot River in Hampden at the end of the trolley line, taking full advantage of what little breeze was to be had. Black clouds rolled over the city. A little rain fell, but not enough to stop the heat.
Casualties from the heat began to accumulate. City Engineer P. H. Coombs, one of the first affected, was overcome in his office, according to the Bangor Daily Commercial on July 3. He recovered at home. Many others collapsed in the days ahead.
The heat started killing people as the temperature ranged as high as 105 or 106 degrees in the shade on July 4. The first death was that of Martin Lawrence, about 45. He was found in a corridor at the Globe Hotel on French Street. No relatives were known. Lawrence had told people he had a home in Ireland.
Perhaps the heat would let up before the next big attraction. California Frank’s Wild West Show was scheduled to perform on Thursday, July 6, at Maplewood Park, now Bass Park. Buffalo Bill’s famous show had appeared only a few weeks earlier, but Bangoreans seemed to have an unlimited appetite for Western fantasies.
The morning of the show, the newspapers reported ominously that a “terrific thunderstorm” — a “near cyclone” — was moving up the Connecticut River valley.
Meanwhile, Mrs. Myra Hudlin, 69, of 163 Third St. collapsed “after having spent the morning over the wash tub.” She died the next day. Prominently identified in the Commercial as “a negress,” Hudlin and her son had been burned out in the big fire on April 30. “There was nothing but a bed, six wooden chairs and a stove in the room where she died,” said the newspaper.
The storm hit at 2:30 p.m. The bold headline in the Bangor Daily News the next morning was graphic: “BANGOR SWEPT UP BY GIGANTIC STORM” … “Five Days of Deadly Heat Followed by Fierce Cyclonic Disturbance Thursday Afternoon” … “ONE DEATH, MUCH RUIN IN ITS PATH” … “Almost a Panic as Circus Tents Collapse” — “Walls of Universalist Church Blown Down” — “Giant Trees Uprooted” — “Thousands of Dollars Worth of Property Destroyed.”
Harry Norwood, a carpenter, died when a barn on Pushaw Road collapsed onto him. Frank Mower’s dairy barn was one of several destroyed in the area by the wind.
Luckily, only a small crowd of about 400 people had gathered to see California Frank. The tent consisted of an open arena in the center surrounded by seating for up to 3,000 protected by an overhead canvas covering. When a section of this rig began to topple, the audience and performers fled into the arena where they huddled as “debris hurled through the air” and the rain poured down on them.
Fay Ferrell, an 11-year-old boy, nearly lost his ear when a pole fell onto him and “he fell right in the path of the stampede.” Others received cuts and bruises and a bad scare. Circus workers resurrected the tent and that night a better-attended show was held.
A great deal of property damage was done throughout the city. The east and west walls of the Universalist Church, a charred hulk perched over Center Park, came crashing down. The rear wall of the burned-out First Parish Church collapsed as did the remains of some buildings on the east side of Exchange Street.
Several layers of newly laid bricks were torn off a wall of the Jamieson building, under construction in East Market Square. Great sheets of copper were ripped from the top walls of the burned post office. “A heavy skylight from the YMCA building went cruising through the air” and “chimneys toppled in all directions.”
Large plate-glass windows, a relative newcomer to Bangor’s commercial building decor, were smashed in several stores, including the 12-by-8-foot pane at James A. Robinson & Co. on Hammond Street. Store awnings flew away, and large trees crashed into the streets. Electricity, trolley and telephone service went out just as it had after the fire, but not for long. Officials raced to repair damage.
How bad was this storm? The Bangor Daily News offered a homegrown assessment based on the memories of newsroom graybeards: “It was the greatest gale that Bangor had known since 1883, when the Court House was partially unroofed and the spire of the Universalist Church blown down, with the possible exception of that fierce blast that swept across the lower end of the city in 1890, causing the tragedy of the capsizing of the little steamer Annie.”
The heat continued, part of the longest and hottest heat wave in New England history, according to David Ludlum (in 1976) in “The Country Journal New England Weather Book.” Hundreds died all over the Northeast.
In Bangor, David Kerr, a waiter on the steamer Belfast, drowned while swimming at the ferry terminal late on the morning of July 10 with two other African-American waiters. His death was attributed to the heat. Kerr complained of being exhausted and appeared to be dazed when thrown a line. Several other people, including Mrs. Stephen Bogrett, the wife of the manager of the Bijou Theater, were overcome that day. Another rainstorm hit late in the afternoon, but the heat returned.
Hundreds cooled off at their favorite swimming spots. These included the Brewer “sand bank” directly above the railroad bridge and the Bangor lumber docks, facing each other across the Penobscot River. The Prentiss boathouse at the southerly end of the railroad bridge across the Kenduskeag, the beach at the lower end of the wharves down at High Head and two spots on the Kenduskeag known as “Sweet Home” and “The Stump” were other favorites, said the Commercial on July 12. The newspaper issued a warning that swimming under the bright sun at midday could bring on heat exhaustion and death.
On the morning of July 13, the Bangor Daily News issued a plaintive cry for relief. The big thermometer in front of Fowler’s Pharmacy, on Main Street, had registered 101 degrees at 4 p.m. on Tuesday and 98 degrees at the same time on Wednesday. Downtown streets were deserted. Only one man in five was “punctilious enough” to wear a coat.
The crowds had abandoned the theaters by day, but turned out at night “in various states of undress.” West Market Square, the central boarding spot for the open-air trolleys, was jammed day and night by people desperately seeking a breeze. Some people, unable to flee to camps and summer cottages, slept on their porches and roofs.
“BANGOR STILL BROILS IN TROPICAL HEAT,” the newspaper proclaimed, adding stoically, “No Use In Saying Much About it, But We Suffer Just The Same.” The weather forecast said fair and slightly cooler.
Wayne E. Reilly’s column on Bangor a century ago appears every other Monday. An illustrated collection, “Remembering Bangor: The Queen City Before the Great Fire,” is available where books are sold. Comments may be sent to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.