Bangoreans had reached the political boiling point a century ago as the long, cold winter settled over the Queen City of the East. A titanic battle over whether the city should adopt a new charter was raging. Negotiations with the trolley company over its franchise seemed hopelessly stalled.
Still trying to rebuild after the conflagration that had destroyed much of the downtown less than two years before, Bangor was bogged down in economic stagnation. Many people accused Mayor Charles W. Mullen, the hero of the fire, of being the spendthrift of its aftermath. The Democrats, of which Mullen was one, were divided among themselves, hanging on to control of city government by their fingernails.
Into this slough of despond rode a knight in shining armor with a big diamond ring, an irrepressible septuagenarian whose life had been intertwined with almost every popular development in the city for the past two decades. Flavius Orlando Beal, a self-made man who had started out in life as a baggage handler and conductor for the railroad, was one of the most popular and colorful politicians in the city’s history. He had run 12 times for mayor and been elected to the one-year office eight of those times since 1892, back in the days when who was mayor mattered.
Beal had played a major role in starting such popular Bangor institutions as the Eastern Maine State Fair and the Maine Music Festival. He had owned and operated the Bangor House and the Penobscot Exchange, the city’s finest hotels, and founded the Bangor Creamery.
The towering city hall at the corner of Hammond and Columbia streets, a symbol of city pride, was one of the many public improvements associated with his name, as well as the huge controversy that erupted over how the building would be funded. Railroad and trolley line promoter, famous horseman, founder of the popular Bangor & Bar Harbor Tally Ho stagecoach line, Beal was a man on the move.
Bangor folks loved a noisy political brawl and this looked like a good one. Beal easily brushed aside a youngster, Alderman Benjamin Blanchard, for the Republican nomination. Blanchard immediately jumped aboard the Beal bandwagon.
After his nomination, Beal took the stage, “his face wreathed in smiles, his big diamond blazing.” The crowd roared, “Bully for Beal.” He was on his way once again to “the big oak chair” in the mayor’s office.
The Bangor Daily News immediately unleashed its Republican juggernaut with a series of editorials and biased reporting endorsing Beal. Old F.O. was an honest mayor, a warm friend, an approachable and courteous citizen. In particular, reporters loved him, especially Republican reporters.
Mullen, who had decided to run again after two terms in office, was blamed for virtually everything except starting the Great Fire, including the city’s inability to settle the trolley franchise renewal and get the electric cars moving over the bridge to Brewer.
Mullen, however, like Beal, remains one of Bangor’s popular heroes. A University of Maine graduate, he was known as the man who discovered Millinocket’s waterpower potential, and played an important role in organizing the effort to turn it into a papermaking capital. As “fire mayor,” he had led the city through its time of greatest tribulation, stitching together a plan that despite major opposition eventually brought Bangor back to life. In doing so, however, he had defied J.P. Bass, a former mayor and the publisher of the Bangor Daily Commercial, the voice of Democrats in the Queen City.
Bass had ridiculed the plan to rebuild the downtown as something out of a Jules Verne novel. Not only had property valuation climbed, but Mullen had the audacity to appoint a Republican, Frank Davis, to be police chief. Davis’ administration had become the subject of an embarrassing, Republican-inspired investigation by city councilors into its enforcement of the state’s prohibition law.
The radical charter proposal, a product of the city’s progressive reform forces, was Mullen’s undoing. Four ballot questions appeared. The first one, the most radical and the one Mullen said he favored, would place control of city affairs in the hands of an elected board of five — the mayor and four commissioners responsible for various aspects of city government such as public safety and public works. The next two questions called for progressive revisions of the current charter. The last question simply asked, “Shall the present charter be retained?”
The most radical proposal provoked a tidal wave of inflammatory rhetoric in the Bangor Daily News. The morning of the election, the newspaper called the commission proposal socialistic, anarchistic, despotic, a plan meant to “corral the city” and “brand it with the copyrighted Mullen mark.”
Did Mullen think Bangor people weren’t bright enough to govern themselves? Did he fear Bangor might “establish a gambling hades like Monte Carlo, authorize open seraglios, as Chicago and New York have done, [or] plunge with open eyes into debt and bankruptcy.” The present charter had its faults, but “if we have a rat to kill there is no reason to burn the barn … let us not jump out of the frying pan into the fire.”
The Republicans held a rally at headquarters on Park Street on the Saturday night before the election. Beal entered the smoke-filled room, his “great diamond blazing,” where he outlined his position with old-time vigor.
Speaker after speaker denounced the charter plan as “vicious, dangerous and un-American.” Trolley magnate John R. Graham got behind the podium to blame Democrats for the franchise snafu. Graham’s appearance caused the assembled hundreds to cheer, stamp their feet and applaud until the racket could be heard in the street.
On Monday, Beal won by 501 votes, a big margin considering that Mullen had won by nearly the same amount in the last election. The new charter was “buried,” while the current one was endorsed. Republicans seized control of both branches of the council.
“The man who put the bang in Bangor” had returned “with a hurrah that could be heard from the Hampden line to the Red Bridge, and on St. Patrick’s Day, at the very top of the morning, he will for the ninth time take his seat as mayor of this wise and lucky old town,” wrote an enthusiastic Bangor Daily News reporter. The reference to St. Patrick’s Day could not be anything but an added swipe at the Democrats, who counted among their numbers a goodly portion of the city’s Irish Catholics.
On March 17, 1913, at the mayoral inauguration, Beal’s friend Walter Chapman, director of the Maine Music Festival, appeared with two professional opera singers and a cellist to provide entertainment. Besides Verdi, the large audience at city hall heard a rendition of a piece called “St. Patrick’s Day” with the legendary Mr. Chapman himself at the piano. It was said to be the most colorful mayoral inauguration in Bangor history for one of the city’s most colorful characters. But it was F.O. Beal’s last hurrah.
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.