June 20, 2018
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Why is Bangor called The Queen City?

By Wayne E. Reilly, Special to the BDN

Bangor is still sometimes called the Queen City of the East or just the Queen City. People frequently ask where this name came from, as if there was a specific event or set of unique circumstances associated with its invention. In fact, boosters in many cities in the 19th century nicknamed their communities the queen of something. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Bangoreans’ choice is that they didn’t pick something more original.

Recently, while driving across Iowa, I encountered one of these aspiring Queen Cities. A large sign in an Interstate rest area near Davenport said that as early as 1838, area boosters declared the city would one day be known as the Queen City of the Far West thanks to a promising set of economic circumstances. Later, after the “far west” moved even farther west, Davenport seems to have been downgraded to the Queen City of Iowa, at least on the highway sign I perused.

I have found no evidence that Davenport claims this nickname today (or ever did). The appellation “Queen City of Iowa,” apparently a courtesy title, however, was used to refer politely to at least three other Iowa cities in historical documents I encountered during a brief search of the Internet.

All one has to do is look in Wikipedia to discover a long list of cities nicknamed Queen City. In the United States there are at least 29 of these queens including Bangor.

Cincinnati was the Queen City of the West, making it important that Davenport boosters aspired to be the Queen City of the Far West. I didn’t see a Queen City of the Far, Far West, but there’s a Queen City of the Plains (Denver) and a Queen City of the Rio Grande (Del Rio, Texas.) I’ll bet there’s a lot more queens that Wikipedia missed. Davenport isn’t on the list.

Everyone who has tried to discover how Bangor got its nickname has failed as far as I have been able to tell. There have, however, been lots of theories.

Dick Shaw, local historian and a prodigious reader of old Bangor newspapers, has found some early references to Bangor as “little Queen” (1842) or as “Queen City of the East” (1859 and later) in the Bangor Whig & Courier. A local steamboat was named Queen City in 1881, a sure sign the name was widely known by then.

These references date from when Bangor was a major lumbering port. Aggressive capitalists were making fortunes buying and selling timberlands, cutting down trees and running sawmills. The sky was the limit. People believed the city might someday rival Boston and New York City.

Some years ago, on Nov. 22, 1982, Shaw wrote a piece in the Bangor Daily News enumerating a few theories he had heard on the origins of the expression Queen City in Bangor. One theory suggests the city was named Queen because the circle of lights at the top of the Bangor Standpipe resembled the jewels in a queen’s crown. Very poetic, but the standpipe wasn’t completed until 1898, long after the nickname was common, noted Shaw.

Another theory involves Henry David Thoreau’s reference to Bangor as “a star on the edge of night.” Some people associated stars with diamonds and there’s that royal crown again. Not likely, however. Not only is this mixed up metaphor something of a stretch, but the Queen City nickname was being used some years before Thoreau made his famous journeys to Bangor and beyond.

Shaw relates that historian Jim Vickery once suggested Bangoreans chose the queenly designation after receiving the state’s second city charter. Portland received the first one. Local boosters knew they were second to Portland, not just chronologically, but in many other ways as well. Portland was the king — Bangor, the Queen, its “consort.”

This story seems amiss to me. Bangor boosters never conceded anything to Portland on the record.

The reasons why Bangor would have considered itself a Queen in the 19th century are summed up in a book called “American Nicknames” by George Earlie Shankle quoted in a paper on file at the Bangor Public Library. It says, “Bangor is nicknamed the Queen City of the East because [of] its location on the Penobscot River, its magnificent residences and its standing among cities of Eastern Maine.” Certainly no one can argue with that, but I’ve never heard anyone calling Bangor the Queen City of Eastern Maine.

Some people have even tried to identify the person who first labeled Bangor the Queen City. The name that has been popping up in various sources is Charles Phelps Roberts, a distinguished Bangor native. Roberts was a lawyer (briefly), a newspaper editor, superintendent of schools and a member of the city council, according to a profile of him in one of the histories of his alma mater, Bowdoin College. He was also a poet, a sure launch pad for verbal mischief.

After Bangor’s city charter was granted by the Legislature in 1834, Roberts supposedly wrote, “… the town came forth like a star in the forehead of the morning as The Queen City, an event which was enthusiastically celebrated with bonfires and general illumination.” The only trouble with the date is that Roberts was only 12 years old in 1834.

He actually appears to have written the line in a memoir penned a year before the 50th anniversary of the city’s incorporation in 1884. That was way too late for Roberts to have invented the term unless he repeated himself from an earlier date.

There are too many “Queens” out there not to suspect that local boosters copied each other. Another commentator on this subject, Ed Foley, has even suggested that perhaps Bangor was inspired by Cincinnati, Queen City of the West, or vice versa.

I think it unfortunate that Bangoreans didn’t pick something a little more original, something having to do with lumbering or logging, which made the city famous, or else the great river that created the city.

In Maine, Wikipedia tells us we have the towns of Strong, “Toothpick Capital of the World” and Cherryfield, “Blueberry Capital of the World.” Farmington, “Earmuff Capital of the World” is certainly distinctive as is Rockland, “Lobster Capital of the World.”

Such expressions date from a different era, however, one where exaggeration and ironic humor were common. The Queen City may be vague and out of date, but at least it is dignified and stimulates our imaginations to wonder what it means, even if it means nothing but what is obvious.

Wayne E. Reilly’s column on Bangor a century ago appears in the newspaper every other Monday. A new illustrated collection of his columns, “Hidden History of Bangor: From Lumbering Days to the Progressive Era,” is available where books are sold. Comments can be sent to him at wreilly.bdn@gmail.com.


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