The events leading to summer in Bangor a century ago began with ice-out in the Penobscot River, usually in April or March, and culminated with the Fourth of July. In between were many notable happenings including the return of the Boston boats and the opening of Riverside Park in Hampden. Even the first straw hat of the season, worn by some raffish gent when the sky was still spitting snow, could merit notice in the newspapers.
Any slight modification of these traditions was fodder for the news hounds.
One of the gauges they used to measure Bangor’s moral health was the noise and accompanying carnage caused by fireworks on Independence Day. A little noise was patriotic; too much was a big nuisance. Injuries were unacceptable, even to the dumbest of the thugs who set out to terrorize the city.
For many years, the Battle of Bangor had begun on the night of July 3 and run into the early hours of July 5. Nobody was safe from such celebratory concoctions as cannon crackers, torpedo canes and revolvers that fired blank cartridges, or perhaps real ones. Women, the elderly and people traveling by horse were targeted by the gangs who roamed the streets.
The culmination of this mayhem occurred in 1909 when “a Jewish frankfurt sausage man” with a lunch cart at the corner of Main and Union streets, as described in the Bangor Daily Commercial on July 6, was blinded in one eye by a blast from one of these incendiary devices thrown by a “street hoodlum.” Several other people, including children, were severely injured that year with severed fingers and serious burns.
By 1913, the city council had banned some of the most lethal of these devices from sale within city limits, but there were rumors that plenty of dangerous material had been sold anyway. The Bangor Daily Commercial noted that while the city had “taken measures to prevent the barbaric style of celebration that has caused so many deaths and injuries,” it was still up to parents to set an example and protect their children.
The police were on the lookout in an effort to prevent another “carnival of dynamite” as the Bangor Daily News had labeled the night before the Fourth a few years previously.
On the evening of Thursday, July 3, the Bangor Daily News sent a reporter into the streets to record the expected mayhem. He was disappointed.
The headline over his story the next morning summed things up: CROWDS FILLED THE STREETS BUT POLICE LID WAS DOWN. The “night before” was a bit noisy, which was to be expected, but “free from the destructive rowdyism which has marred so many other celebrations in years past.”
Policemen were out in force. Two night shifts worked together until relieved by the day men. They “flooded” the downtown confiscating “revolvers and big crackers” and any other “ammunition” that didn’t fall within the city ordinance’s spirit and letter.
A big crowd appeared at Davenport Park for a band concert. Scores of autos “drawn up in Main, Cedar and First streets, encircling the park and illuminating the crowd with their flaring headlights, [were] quite imposing and spectacular.” Noise was confined to “rattlers” and the tooting of horns, noted the reporter. “Nobody so much as exploded a torpedo.”
“For an hour or so after the concert ended, the business streets were filled with gay crowds, parading up and down in holiday style; but they were on their good behavior and went home early,” noted the reporter.
Meanwhile, the city’s residential streets were patrolled by automobile — one borrowed automobile because the police department as yet had no motorcar to call its own. Headquartersman Bean drove and Capt. Smith was his passenger.
Capt. Golden spelled them at midnight. They kept the suburbs as quiet as possible.
The next day, a reporter for the Bangor Daily Commercial could find only one fireworks accident to report. A 10-year-old boy’s face “was filled with powder” when his companion accidentally “exploded a 32 blank cartridge in a revolver in front of him.” He was taken to the Eastern Maine General Hospital, where no injury to his eyes was found.
Was the annual Battle of Bangor finally over? Were the bad boys with the noisemakers getting soft?
Blank cartridges and big crackers had been plentiful in the stores, but by July 3 there were none to be had. One theory was that more and more people were buying the explosives and then leaving town to blow them up at the rapidly growing number of camps on the ponds and streams in the area and down on the seacoast.
“A few years ago they bought their gunpowder and burned it here,” explained the reporter for the Bangor Daily News. “Now they take it away — to hundreds and hundreds of outlying camps, and the city proper is deserted.”
In fact, the city had offered little for entertainment this year to keep people at home except a baseball game. Only Bar Harbor and the quiet, little town of Hampden next door offered parades and other festivities that attracted many.
The lack of entertainment (except in the movie theaters) and the police show of strength apparently had thrown a damper on the usual rowdiness that made “the day hideous and the streets unsafe,” in the words of the newspaper scribe.
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.