June 21, 2018
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First aeroplane soared over Bangor like ‘graceful white-winged bird’

Courtesy of Dick Shaw
Courtesy of Dick Shaw
Harry Atwood, the daredevil aviator, gazed down on Main Street in this postcard commemorating the Bangor Street Fair and Carnival of 1912. Atwood’'s appearance at the event was intended to mark the Queen City’'s recovery from the great fire of the year before.
By Wayne E. Reilly, Special to the BDN

The Bangor Street Fair and Carnival was held a century ago to celebrate the Queen City’s recovery from the great fire that had devastated much of the downtown the year before. Bangor had seen plenty of circuses, carnivals and fairs over the years, but this one was going to be unique, “a sort of Mardi Gras carnival” lasting an entire week.

The Ferrari-Bostock Animal Shows and Circus spread its acts across the downtown — a wild animal show in East Market Square, a musical comedy company in Haymarket Square, a “crystal maze” on State Street where the old Post Office in the Kenduskeag Stream had burned, a vaudeville tent on Central Street featuring a professional wrestler offering $25 to anyone he couldn’t throw in 15 minutes and much more. The purpose, of course, was to encourage people to shop in the newly rebuilt stores.

Plenty of other attractions aimed to attract shoppers. Daily parades featured brass bands, decorated automobiles and fraternal organizations too numerous to mention. Five U.S. Navy torpedo boats with 300 sailors tied up in the harbor. A 10-mile marathon was conducted between Orono and Bangor, while an uphill car race on Cedar Street’s steep incline gave auto enthusiasts the opportunity to test the power of their engines.

The biggest event by far at this “monster carnival,” however, was the appearance of Harry N. Atwood, currently the nation’s most famous aviator, the daredevil who would finally show Bangoreans what the 20th century looked like as he soared over the city.

In 1912, flying machines were objects of awe that caused people to point to the heavens shouting in wonderment. A visit from Harry Atwood, a national hero, was just what Bangoreans needed to reassure them they had indeed made a successful comeback from the nightmare conflagration of the year before. His appearance was also a way to attract the crowds necessary to help merchants pay their debts.

“Why, just let them know throughout Eastern Maine that Harry Atwood will fly here, and so many people will pour into Bangor they’ll have to camp in the streets,” exclaimed an enthusiastic booster at a meeting of merchants at the Bangor House to discuss the likelihood of Atwood’s appearance. Posters hung around the dining room said things like “Boost Bangor” and “No pessimists admitted.”

Atwood arrived in Bangor in early May to sign a contract and discuss arrangements. He was described in the Bangor newspapers as “holder of the world’s record for the longest one plane flight — from St. Louis to New York via Chicago using but one machine — and the longest hydro-aeroplane flight from Boston to Providence, R. I. … around the point of Cape Cod.” Such records would soon be broken, and Harry’s accomplishments would be forgotten as the years passed.

Atwood, 27, was described as clean cut, eyes “clear and straightforward,” firm set mouth “denoting determination and daring” — in other words he could be trusted. The last aeronaut to visit Bangor, C. C. Bonnette, had angered the crowd at the Eastern Maine State Fair when he failed to fly his aeroplane as promised. The day after the fair ended he had managed to get his aircraft a few feet into the air, but landed before leaving the fairgrounds.

Atwood reappeared in Bangor on May 23 at another “Boost Bangor” dinner for 150 local businessmen at the Bangor House. He gave a speech in which he reassured his audience that his flying was “safe and sane.” Death was a frequent spectator at early aviation shows. Atwood had had several brushes with the grim reaper himself.

He recounted the last moments of the life of St. Croix Johnstone, who made the first significant flight in Maine from Augusta up and down the Kennebec Valley on Aug. 9, 1911. Atwood had been flying near Johnstone and another pilot when both were killed in an exhibition over Lake Michigan just a week later.

A few days after this Bangor speech, Atwood had “his latest close call” during an exhibition at Fitchburg, Mass. when his plane dropped 600 feet to the ground for a surprise landing when the engine died.

Towing his aeroplane behind his large touring auto, Atwood arrived in Bangor (along with his three “mechanicians”) ready for business on Sunday, June 16, the day before the opening of the carnival. He was in the air by Monday evening, a day ahead of schedule. At 6:23 p.m he took off from Maplewood Park (today’s Bass Park) in his Burgess-Wright biplane — “and Bangor’s first real aeroplane flight had begun,” declared the Bangor Daily News the next morning.

No one was expecting the flight. “The news spread … by a sort of wireless. The streets suddenly filled; so did windows and housetops. Thousands of eyes were strained to catch a glimpse of the big machine, which floated at an altitude of 1,000 feet like some graceful white-winged bird,” said the newspaper reporter.

Atwood circled the city farm and then headed for the Thomas Hill Standpipe. A few moments later he was over the pumping station at an altitude of 1,500 feet. Then he headed downriver.

Pandemonium broke loose. Three hundred sailors flung their hats into the air, letting out a tremendous cheer as he passed over the Navy boats. “Whistles of all the craft in the river and of the mills along the banks united in a terrific din.” After circling South Orrington Atwood returned to Maplewood Park. “No such flight was ever before attempted much less accomplished in Eastern Maine,” declared the newspaper.

Atwood flew over the city several more times that week. He was indeed a hero. He was always polite and accommodating. When he was forced down early by “bad air currents” Tuesday evening, he promised to make more flights each day at the end of the week. When a young man was severely injured on his motorcycle at the hill climbing race, Atwood insisted on taking him to the hospital in his auto.

He agreed to give a short talk at the Bijou Theater, describing his exploits in his usual entertaining but modest way. He decried “circus stunts” as a cause of many deaths among flyers, but on Thursday he performed a “dead-engine” spiral for his audience at Maplewood, causing gasps of awe.

Early Friday evening he took off in his plane for another appearance at Poland Spring the next day, following the Maine Central tracks. As dusk fell, he was forced to land in a field in Pittsfield, instead of Waterville, his goal that night. This created a big sensation. Towns along his route had been tipped off by telegraph that he would be flying over.

“He came down near the Slipp crossing about a mile and a half west of the village and made such a sudden drop that word spread of a terrible calamity. This started a great rush of autos down the road. But the clever aviator had simply made an easy landing in Fred Drake’s field,” reported the BDN on June 22.

The Bangor Street Fair and Carnival ended the next day. Miss Rosella Cassidy was crowned queen with 11,954 votes. P. M. Lawrence, driving a Chalmers 40, won the prize for the fastest time in the hill climbing competition up Cedar Street. Harold Barton, a Bangor boy, won the 10-mile marathon between Orono and Bangor (probably because his stiffest competition, Andrew Sockalexis, the Penobscot Indian, was in Sweden to compete in the Olympics.)

Two of the city’s major post-fire achievements almost got lost in the excitement — the laying of the cornerstones for a new Bangor High School and Bangor Public Library next to each other on Harlow Street.

But the one event that no one would ever forget was Harry N. Atwood soaring overhead. Finally Bangoreans could say proudly they had seen a real aeroplane fly.

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 wreilly.bdn@gmail.com.

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