The year 1840 was an important one in Maine history. That was the year the U.S. Census reported Maine’s population was growing much more slowly than the rest of the nation. Maine wasn’t getting smaller, but it wasn’t growing fast enough to keep up with most other states. Its population had increased by a quarter in the 1830s, but the nation’s population grew by a third.
The trend continued well into the 20th century. In the 1860s, Maine actually lost population, while the rest of the nation continued to grow dramatically despite the Civil War.
Those numbers indicated the beginning of an economic and political decline in the fortunes of the Pine Tree State that would stretch beyond the middle of the next century. The American people and American markets were literally moving west, leaving Maine tucked away far up in the nation’s northeast corner.
Mainers were moving westward in unprecedented numbers, first to the Midwest and then to the West coast. Some of them would be replaced by immigrants from Canada and Europe, but they did not make up for all the people who left in search of better farmland, bigger forests, mineral riches and better health in the dry, sunny climate of many western states. These adventurers took with them their education and work skills and often their families, leaving behind graying parents and grandparents to tend the home fires.
The old Bangor newspapers documented this great migration. Almost weekly, they published letters home and republished stories from western newspapers about former Mainers who struck it rich. Sometimes these pioneers reappeared in the flesh on the streets of their hometowns to regale old friends and relatives with stories of their success west of the Mississippi. Who knows how many of these stories were accurate.
Many headlines appeared in the city’s newspapers like this one in the Bangor Daily Commercial on Jan. 22, 1910: STILLWATER MAN HAS MADE A MILLION DOLLARS: E. E. Sawyer has built up a fortune on a Texas Sheep Ranch.
The claims were sometimes broad. The Commercial republished a story from Harpers Weekly on Jan. 26, 1909 under the headline LUMBER IS KING IN THE NORTHWEST: What the Maine Lumbermen Have Done to Develop the Valuable Forests of the Far-Off and Rich Northwest. By then Bangor was no longer the “lumber capital of the world.”
A few whose stories were told in the Bangor papers during the first decade of the twentieth century included Edward Kent, Jr., son of a famous Maine governor and a former Bangor resident, who was chief justice of the supreme court in the Arizona territory; Myron T. Gilmore, who worked his way up from a farm and blacksmith shop in Dedham to the presidency of the San Diego Savings Bank; and Miss Florence Estes, a school teacher in Pittsfield who left for Montana to go into wheat farming with her brothers.
Others included Newport native Julius Ordway who became a pioneer lumberman in California and Oregon; and Martin Rourk, formerly of Bangor, who owned a large “fruit ranch” not far from Vancouver, British Columbia purchased with money he made selling gold mining claims.
Some of these western pioneers had hair raising adventures to relate — assuming they lived to tell them. Harry O. Robinson, a mining engineer from Bangor, was working in Mexico when his train was attacked by Zapatiste rebels who killed 39 soldiers and passengers. Robinson survived.
Not so lucky were Edgar Maurice Titus, formerly of Rockland, who either died of thirst or was murdered on an expedition near Death Valley, and Timothy O’Leary, from Brewer, who was killed by robbers in Mexico while carrying a large sum of money.
Mainers maintained ties where they settled, formalizing their connections with organizations like the Pine Tree State Association of Los Angeles. One result was a book entitled “Maine Men and Women in Southern California,” which concentrated primarily on the Los Angeles area featuring “Maine Men and Women of Note And Substantial Achievement….”
Among those profiled were Jotham Bixby, a Norridgewock native who arrived in California during the gold rush, later making a fortune raising sheep, cattle and horses, developing property and starting a bank. Others were the Rev. Dana Webster Bartlett, a Bangor native who had become well known for his work among immigrants in Los Angeles, and Frank Sumner Forbes, from Brooks, a prominent Los Angeles judge and progressive Republican.
Besides lumber and potatoes, Maine, it seems, had become an exporter of prominent people. The Bangor Daily Commercial boasted on Aug. 31, 1912 that the new edition of Who’s Who in America listed a total of 523 Maine natives, most of whom lived in other states. Maine’s prominent natives were exceeded by only seven other states with much bigger populations. This impressive number, however, was only one more reminder that Maine was losing its best and brightest.
Another number that should have alarmed state leaders even more was the decline in the state’s delegation to the U.S. House of Representatives. The delegation’s size fell from eight in 1830 to two by 1960 during this period that the state’s population failed to keep up with the rest of the nation.
Bangor newspaper editorial writers occasionally became disgusted with all this talk about going west. “The impression is widespread, particularly among boys and youth of immature age, that it is the first duty of a boy who was reared and educated in Maine to emigrate to some state — no matter what one so long as it is not Maine — and then and there become immensely rich and live happily and famously forever after,” wrote the editorial writer at the Bangor Daily News on June, 21, 1909.
The idea that going west meant getting rich was fostered by the newspapers, but they were not to blame for repeating success stories (some of which were exaggerated), or for not reporting on “obscure men remaining in obscurity,” the fate of so many of the adventurers who crossed the country.
In fact, there was no difference between the success of people who went west and those who stayed behind, the writer fumed.
“All over this broad land are former Maine boys who are struggling to keep the wolf from the door, who are toiling on farms and in mills and mines and factories, who are climbing up the ladder today and falling back tomorrow. The fact that a boy was born in Maine confers upon him no royal patent of success.”
Indeed, the subjects of these success stories sometimes proffered oblique warnings. Maine offered as many opportunities for ambitious, hard working people as other states, some reported. Others urged Mainers to stay home.
One such warning appeared in the Bangor Daily Commercial on Oct. 23, 1912. It came from a Maine man living in Seattle.
“Our correspondent urges the Commercial to advise all journeymen tradesmen to keep away from Seattle as he says that men in droves are walking the streets trying to find employment….it is hard to get a job and harder still to keep it as there are so many applicants….Everything is high but wages,” warned the editorial. Tacoma was even worse, advised this correspondent whose letter was but one of many the editorial writer had received over the years about the downside of moving West.
Still the young people flowed West on trains and later in broken down jalopies and even motorcycles. Years later they were still doing it when I was young and later still when my children were young despite plenty of evidence that the “Golden Hills” of California are not made of gold.
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 email@example.com