A century ago, long before TV, radio or the Internet, thousands of people gathered in downtown Bangor to watch national election returns magnified on giant screens in front of the city’s two newspaper buildings. Movie theaters and private clubs also became gathering places for political junkies wanting to get the results first. The three-way election of Nov. 5, 1912, one of the most unusual presidential races in U. S. history, had sparked intense interest in the Queen City.
The Republican incumbent William Howard Taft was pitted against the Democratic governor of New Jersey, Woodrow Wilson. The spoiler in the contest was former President Teddy Roosevelt, who had become dissatisfied with his protege Taft’s increasingly conservative political views. The former Rough Rider’s followers formed the Progressive or Bull Moose Party, vowing to destroy the man who has gone down in history as our heaviest president.
Roosevelt’s re-entry into politics and the inflammatory election rhetoric that followed produced a lively contest like nothing Americans had seen before. Both Roosevelt and Taft were Bangor favorites, having visited the Queen City to make speeches in the past few years, but their popularity would do little this year to save them from the chasm in the Republican Party.
When election night came to Bangor, thousands of men took to the streets to follow the results as they trickled in on the city’s telegraph wires. There might have been a few women in the crowds, too, but, as the reader will recall, women’s suffrage was still several years away.
That night, the city’s two daily newspapers, the Bangor Daily Commercial, on Main Street just down from the Opera House, and the Bangor Daily News, on Exchange Street just up from Union Station, competed for street crowds to watch the election returns, just as they had competed to influence the election results in their news and editorial columns.
“Tonight … the Commercial will give a stereopticon display on the election returns which will include full Associated Press bulletin press service covering every state in the union,” the newspaper announced on election day. “These returns, together with the local returns, will be flashed on to the screen opposite the Commercial office from early in the evening until after midnight.”
The stereopticon (also known as the magic lantern) was positioned in a room adjoining the newspaper’s telegraph office. After reporters wrote up the results flowing in on the wire or arriving from a small army of local reporters and country correspondents, they would be magnified by the projector “on the screen across the street” until midnight. More than 2,000 people had stood in the street outside the building to witness a similar display in September after the state elections.
The Bangor Daily News boasted a similar system. A huge screen was “spread before the Penobscot Exchange,” the large hotel across Exchange Street. The glass stereopticon slides were prepared by Leyland Whipple, a well-known commercial photographer, and his assistants. Beside the stereopticon, was a table manned by several reporters who re-wrote the wire results and other reports coming in by telegraph and telephone “in terse bulletin form” as fast as they appeared and handed them to Whipple. New results were projected onto the screen across the street every minute or so.
At the height of the evening, around 3,000 people filled the street “from curb to curb,” at times making it difficult for the trolley cars to get through. “Headlights from scores of automobiles lent a picturesque touch to the scene,” related the newspaper the next day. It “was as animated and as metropolitan as though enacted in some big city.”
The newspapers were competing with the city’s theaters for spectators. The Bijou, located near the BDN on the same side of the street, sent a man up on its roof “with a megaphone and a loud voice” to urge people in the street to come into the theater and see the show and hear the periodic returns read from the stage.
The Nickel advertised, “Why stand on some street corner and freeze? Come and get the big news hot off the wires in a warm and comfortable theatre. It costs but 5 cents.” The Opera House, The Palace and The Graphic also offered election results mixed with movies and vaudeville.
In addition, two of the city’s many private clubs — the Elks and the Tarratine — held “open houses” featuring “special service,” apparently meaning access to the Associated Press wire or something similar. Political party offices were also open.
It’s hard to tell what Bangoreans liked most — a prize fight or an election. The last time such a crowd had gathered in front of the Bangor Daily News was on July 4, 1910 when heavyweight champion Jack Johnson knocked out Jim Jeffries in Reno, Nev. A man with a megaphone had shouted the latest news bulletins on the fight’s progress out an upper story window.
The election — even in Republican Bangor — was won easily by Woodrow Wilson as Taft and Roosevelt devoured each other. The Republicans and Progressives split three wards, while the Democrats captured four. Wilson won by more than 400 votes out of 4,227 cast, according to the newspapers the morning after the election. The Socialist and Prohibitionist candidates collected a few votes as well.
The Bangor Daily News, a staunchly Republican newspaper, took the defeat in stride, perhaps satisfied that the state had elected a Republican governor and Legislature in September. If the Republicans hadn’t been split down the middle between conservatives and progressives, they would have taken the Queen City easily.
The important part was all the fun.
“Altogether, Bangor presented a cheerful and animated aspect Tuesday night — just like a part of some great city, and as late as midnight the streets and restaurants were filled. We certainly do know how to celebrate when anything is going on,” rhapsodized the reporter the next morning — perhaps having joined the party for a while before writing his story.
Wayne E. Reilly’s column on Bangor a century ago appears in the newspaper 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.