June 21, 2018
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Autos transformed Maine a century ago

Courtesy of Dick Shaw
Courtesy of Dick Shaw
The old Bangor Auditorium was the scene of opera and roller skating as well as the annual Eastern Maine Automobile Show
By Wayne E. Reilly, Special to the BDN

The automobile was transforming Maine a century ago. Only a dozen years after the first machine chugged hesitantly through Bangor, scaring horses and angering farmers, the future was clear. Here are a few examples of the changes on the horizon taken from Bangor’s two daily newspapers leading up to the Queen City’s annual auto show in the winter of 1913.

The auto already posed a threat to railroad passenger service. The Bangor & Aroostook Railroad conducted “a careful estimate of the number of machines owned” along its tracks, which stretched from Searsport to Madawaska. The grand total was 1,259, according to the Bangor Daily Commercial on Nov. 22, 1912.

That didn’t include Bangor, where the tracks and station were operated by the Maine Central Railroad. It did include Old Town, which registered 40 vehicles. But the most vehicles among the towns surveyed were located in Aroostook County potato towns: Fort Fairfield, 200; Caribou, 170; Houlton, 100; and Presque Isle, 75.

The impact of all these automobiles on the “short ride business” between neighboring towns was already being felt, said B&A officials. For example, the station agent in one Aroostook County town noticed that only 13 people took advantage of advertised excursion rates to one event in a neighboring community, “but he knew of over 50 that went by machine.”

Would the next development be “automobile street cars,” which were “interfering” with the earnings of trolley systems in England, wondered the Commercial on Dec. 30, 1912? We call them buses today.

Despite the mechanical unreliability of autos and the bad roads, tourists were showing up in Bangor in record numbers. “The city was thronged with automobile parties of out of state people Tuesday” headed for coastal resorts, lakeside camps and mountain retreats, noted the Commercial on July 20, 1912. Some of these autos were weighted down with camping equipment that looks ridiculously primitive today.

The battle over whether motorized vehicles would be allowed to drive in Bar Harbor, which had been raging for a decade, would soon be settled. Of course, autos would win.

Local people used their autos to travel to local amusement spots like Riverside Park, at the end of the Bangor trolley line in Hampden — not exactly what the trolley promoters had in mind. The freedom provided by auto travel would soon put trolley-line parks like Riverside out of business, however, as autoists searched for adventure further away.

Those local amusements included football games at the University of Maine. In 1912, the UM athletic board banned autoists from parking on Alumni Field during football games because they were blocking the view and blinding players with their bright lights, said the Commercial on Oct. 4.

Young people were finding new freedom. When 19-year-old Miss Lillian Ward of Pittsfield drove her new model T Ford 5,000 miles in less than 10 months, the Bangor Daily News ran a picture of car and driver in the newspaper on Feb. 25, 1913. She had made the run between Newport and Togus and back in one day, a miraculous feat for a mere girl.

Rural postmen were debating whether to use autos for delivering mail, while motorized trucks and tractors were already hauling loads of all sorts.

Although Bangor police had yet to obtain a motor vehicle, they occasionally borrowed one. After two policemen borrowed a vehicle on the Fourth of July to patrol the outskirts of the city warning crowds of boys about the dangers of fireworks, the Bangor Daily News commented the next day, “they accomplished more than the entire police force could have done — on foot.”

Meanwhile, crooks were using autos to make getaways. They were stealing them, too. In what was probably the first car theft in Bangor, two men stole a 1908 Cadillac from the Bangor Motor Company after taking it out for a test ride, said the Commercial on March 8, 1911. Using another Cadillac provided by the dealership for the chase, police arrested the thieves after they ran out of gas on their way to Canada.

Of course, the fate of the horse was clear, and nobody was heard complaining. “The departure of horse-drawn vehicles will make the city streets cleaner and less of a menace to the public health, when the dust and flies will be eliminated together,” commented a Commercial editorial writer on March 15, 1912.

The condition of the mostly narrow, dirt roads was an object of endless analysis. A little rain, but not too much, was ideal. “The recent rain has been enough to lay the dust….There was not enough moisture to make much mud,” a Bangor newspaper reported.

Improvements in roads were a necessity to keep up with the demands of drivers, who now had their own lobbying group — the Maine Automobile Association. Many streets in Bangor were being “macadamized,” including the whole of East Market Square, State Street from French to Otis streets, the entire length of Third Street and other stretches of busy thoroughfares, noted the Commercial on Oct. 22, 1912.

Early in 1913, a $2 million “good roads bill” supported by “Grange, automobile and hotel interests” was being debated in the Legislature. The goal was to create a reliable road system planned by engineers and built according to the most modern specifications so that a road trip through the Pine Tree State would no longer be a hazardous adventure.

The Eastern Maine Automobile Show of 1913 was in many ways the culmination of much that was happening. Held for six days in February at the old Bangor Auditorium, the big barnlike structure that used to stand at the corner of Main and Buck streets, the show was now an annual event, attracting more than 2,300 ticket purchasers from as far away as Aroostook County.

Bangor auto dealers had plenty of competition. A 16-car train full of new autos steamed up the tracks to the Queen City from Portland and unloaded for the show.

Day after day, the Bangor newspapers spewed out promotional folderol about automotive wonders. For instance, a Michigan Forty could be had for $1,500 complete with an astounding array of features: “mohair top, storm curtains, dust envelope, ventilating windshield, Jones speedometer, electric warning signal, illuminated dash, license plate bracket, extra tire carrier, robe rail, foot rest, tire repair outfit, pump, jack and a complete set of tools in roll.”

Ramblers, Maxwells, Americans, Peerless Sixes, IHC Trucks — all were on display along with many more. One could even buy a Krit touring car on runners (under the front wheels) designed by Lawrence L. Treworgy of Bangor.

But the star of the show, sold by the S.L. Crosby Co. of Bangor, appears to have been a car with a future — the latest Ford touring car, better known today as the Model T. Thirteen were sold after four days of the show, more sales than any other vehicle mentioned in the extensive press coverage.

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 wreilly.bdn@gmail.com.


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