Bangor rapidly rose from the ashes after the great fire of April 30, 1911. By October, 40 new houses were either completed or being built. By December, the Bangor and Aroostook Railroad and some other tenants were mostly moved into the new six-story Graham Building at Harlow and Central streets. On Jan. 13, 1912, one of the city’s finest hotels — the Windsor (“All rooms have running hot and cold water and 40 have baths.”) —reopened nearby. A few days later, the Bangor Daily News printed a picture of the new Largay, Adams and Bangor Cigar Manufacturing Co.’s new buildings on State Street, which had been “completed and occupied less than eight months after the fire.”
Construction was rampant throughout the burned district. In some spots downtown, streets and sidewalks were almost impossible to navigate, raising the ire of the Bangor Daily News. A new high school, a public library, a new post office and dozens more houses, office buildings and municipal structures were under construction or on the drawing board.
The pace was so fast that some fiscal conservatives, like the publisher of the Bangor Daily Commercial, complained the city would go into debt forever. Where was all the money coming from? Newspapers had been lamenting the decline of the city’s legendary lumber industry and the stagnation of its harbor for years. The city’s manufacturing output was modest — some footwear, stoves, trunks and wood products. Yet the Bangor Daily News boasted just days after the fire that “Bangor is rich and can well restore what it has lost.” Men who had been making lots of money were not about to abandon the Queen City of the East.
In fact, Bangoreans were getting richer. The city was growing. The Bangor Daily Commercial explained a major reason for the city’s increasing wealth on Jan. 6, 1912. Bangor was a rapidly growing wholesale center for a vast region, which, until recently, had consisted mainly of empty wilderness. In the vernacular of the time, the “backbone” of the city’s business life was the “jobbing trade.”
While “jobbing houses” had always been an important part of the city’s economy, the wholesale business now had emerged as its lifeblood thanks to the rise of railroads, and one railroad in particular — the Bangor and Aroostook — during the past few decades. The days were over when Bangor merchants rented schooners to haul their products to Downeast ports. And much of Aroostook’s rich agricultural land was also open for business thanks to the B&A.
Bangor was “the shipping center of a lumber and agriculture empire,” noted the Commercial. “The development of all of the vast regions to the north and east of Bangor has been rapid during the past 15 or 20 years. … The erection of mammoth pulp mills [in Millinocket and elsewhere] which have caused scores of lumbering crews to be sent into the woods every season, the development of the potato growing industry and of agriculture generally in Aroostook County and the opening of new country by the construction of the Bangor & Aroostook, the Washington County, the Penobscot Central, the Somerset and other lines of railway have all contributed toward making the wholesale interests of Bangor one of the mainstays of business here.”
Bangor no longer claimed to be the “lumber capital of the world.” As the trading center of eastern and northern Maine, however, at the dawn of the state’s paper and potato boom, it was doing just fine. A log didn’t have to pass through the Queen City to generate money for its capitalists — its grocers, clothiers and equipment dealers and even its saloon keepers.
Thanks to the new pulp and paper mills, the lumber camps were thriving still, and they bought most of their goods from Bangor, according to the Commercial.
Bangor was the “natural wholesale center” for approximately 300,000 people and competition from the westward was “comparatively negligible.”
The Bangor Chapter of United Commercial Travelers [traveling salesmen] boasted 300 members, “a proportion to Bangor’s population that is greater than any city in New England, except Burlington, Vt.”
Things could only get better. The open spaces north and east of the city would fill up with farmers, and water power possibilities would be exploited, surmised a “leading local wholesaler” interviewed by the writer.
Indeed, Bangor’s population did increase by half between 1910 and 1960. But the notion that the remote rural areas would continue swelling economically, fueling continued growth in Bangor, faded away as the century progressed we now know.
The largest segment of this wholesale empire was the grocery business.
“It is safe to say that Bangor wholesalers in groceries have quadrupled their business during the past 25 years and it is steadily growing,” said the newspaper. The largest of the wholesale grocers were Thurston & Kingsbury, T. R. Savage & Co., John Cassidy Co., Charles Hayward Co. and Arthur Chapin Co. Train carloads of goods were delivered by Bangor merchants into the hinterlands, both to the small towns and to the lumber camps deep in the woods.
Bangor was also an important jobbing center for dry goods, boots and shoes, drugs, hardware, steel and iron, cement, grain, coal, stoves, country produce, lumber, hay, salt and fish. Some of the items, such as work shoes, moccasins and iron stoves, were manufactured in Bangor.
Other items were shipped from distant places, never passing through the city at all. The leading wholesale houses for such products included the Adams Dry Goods Co., J. M. Arnold Shoe Co., Sawyer Boot & Shoe Co., Caldwell Sweet Co., Rice & Miller Co., Haynes & Chalmers Co., W. P. Dickey & Co., Morse & Co., and N. H. Bragg & Sons.
J. F. Parkhurst & Son Co. manufactured luggage and harnesses and sold its products in far off places. But Frederic H. Parkhurst, the manager of one of the city’s biggest employers, sought to dispel the myth that manufacturing alone was the secret to a city’s success.
“It is not the city of great manufacturing industries that is the largest and most prosperous, but the city that markets the products of the manufacturing centers and supplies the raw materials to them,” he said.
“New York is not a manufacturing center as is Lynn [Mass.] …” New York was “the gateway of commerce for the country, and takes toll coming and going … large manufacturers wherever situated must yield tribute.” In its own small way, Bangor had an opportunity to occupy that same position within its territory, according to Parkhurst, who was elected governor in 1920, but died after a short time in office.
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 can be sent to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
An early version of this story contained an inaccurate photo caption. The Windsor Hotel opened at the corner of Harlow and Franklin streets, not Harlow and Central.