When bicycles became the rage in the 1890s, Bangoreans founded a new country club catering to enthusiasts. Located on the shore of Pushaw Lake, the Niben Club became a gathering place for “wheelmen” in the summer and ice boat enthusiasts in the winter. While mainly a social club, it lobbied for better roads for cyclists.
When the automobile was in its ascendancy a decade later, a new club was in order. Many of the wheelmen had replaced their wheels with horseless carriages. The Bangor Automobile Club was the result.
There were about 200 auto owners in Bangor, according to the Bangor Daily Commercial on May 6, 1912. Many more automobilists passed through the city in the summer on their way to various scenic destinations. In 1912 they came from as far away as Oshkosh, Wis. and Montpelier, Ind. These wealthy adventurers often put up in the Bangor House while their autos were being pampered down the street at the Bangor Motor Co. garage. Often they were accompanied by chauffeurs and other servants.
The Bangor Auto Club began with a meeting of “some of the leading automobile owners of the city,” the Commercial reported on May 6. They hoped to affiliate with state organizations, apparently a reference to the recently formed Maine Automobile Association, to work for better roads, “reasonable laws” and “social life” among the members. A clubhouse might be needed — perhaps the Niben Club would do.
Maine reputedly had the worst roads in New England. Most people left their autos in storage all winter and did not bring them out until the roads dried up in the spring. These same mucky, rutted trails were covered with inches of dust in the summer, which coated trees and houses and choked autoists and pedestrians when disturbed. Because of these conditions horses still reigned supreme. The state’s growing tourism business leaders feared for their future.
The new auto club was ready to organize by May 11, said the newspaper. Twenty auto men gathered at the Chamber of Commerce offices at City Hall. A debate ensued over whether the new club should be social or business oriented. The consensus was that the club should worry about adequate roads before it held any parties. It would start out as a lobbying group to pressure the state to do more.
As if to underscore these concerns, the “pathfinder car” of the Pine Tree Motor Contest Association rolled through Bangor a couple of weeks later. Its five occupants reported horrible road conditions in the hinterlands. The “big 48-h.p. Stoddard-Dayton” was charged with setting the course for the organization’s Reliability Tour in June, when entrants would learn how reliable their autos were.
The pathfinder car was traveling a 427-mile circuit stretching from Portland to Gorham, N.H. and then to Bangor by way of Fryeburg, Farmington and Skowhegan before returning to Portland. The pathfinders had made “surprisingly good time” between Skowhegan and the Queen City, considering the roads were washed out by heavy showers, reported the Commercial on May 27.
The Bangor Automobile Club elected officers on May 28. The list, as reported in the Commercial the next day, gives a good idea of whose interests were being represented — doctors, lawyers and businessmen. Dr. Eugene B. Sanger was the president. The others were Taber D. Bailey, a lawyer, first vice president; Dr. F. E. Maxfield, second vice president; William C. Bryant, a jewelry store owner, treasurer; and W. A. Hennessy, secretary of the Chamber of Commerce.
Charles D. Crosby, secretary and treasurer of the Eastern Trust and Banking Co., Lawrence Rooney, supervisor of the Metropolitan Insurance Co., and B. M. Kirstein, treasurer of Louis Kirstein & Sons, a real estate developer, were directors for three years. E. H. Carter of Pember & Carter real estate and insurance, and John H. Rice, assistant treasurer of the Eastern Trust and Banking Co., were directors for two years. Harry A. Chapman, an owner of the Bangor House, and T. R. Savage, the proprietor of a wholesale grocery company, were directors for one year.
The objects of the association were now described in the newspaper as “mutual protection of its members from legal persecution, unjust commercial discrimination and the securing of the rights and privileges of automobile owners in general.” Anybody living within 40 miles of Bangor could join for an entrance fee of $5 and a $5 annual assessment.
“Persecution” sounds like a strong word, but important battles were ongoing about the future of motoring including whether cars would even be allowed to use the roads in some towns like Bar Harbor. Another struggle was over how better roads would be funded and what towns they would connect. To some farmers and other rural folks, the “devil carts” were still seen as a threat, while the state’s growing tourism lobby argued good roads were an economic necessity.
Meanwhile, horses voted with their hooves. Runaways spooked by the infernal noises made by gasoline-powered engines still made news in Bangor, sometimes destroying property and injuring or even killing people. State Highway Commissioner Parker L. Hardison and Bangor Chamber of Commerce Secretary W. A. Hennessy learned this first hand on a reconnoitering expedition to Ellsworth aimed at establishing a fund to improve the road from Bangor. Their automobile scared a horse pulling a mother and her young daughter toward Bangor. The horse bolted into a ditch, becoming wedged on top of a stone wall, leaving the two officials the job of rescuing the terrified passengers and calming the aggrieved horse, the Commercial reported on July 22. Such horse-versus-auto confrontations were common.
What appears to be the first newsletter of the Bangor Automobile Club was issued on July 6, a few weeks later. The typewritten, one-page document issued from the Bangor Chamber of Commerce (now in the possession of the Bangor Museum and Center for History) gives some more clues about the club’s interests.
“It is reported that there is a bad mile stretch on Ohio street, one mile this side of Kenduskeag,” reported one of several items on bad roads. Another item told of the opening of a new tea room and auto rest halfway between Stockton Springs and Searsport, “fitted up for convenience and comfort of auto travelers.” The interests of automobile “enthusiasts” haven’t changed much since then.
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.