June 25, 2018
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Bangor: auto Mecca on the Penobscot

Courtesy of Dick Shaw
Courtesy of Dick Shaw
Autos and horses had to share the road a century ago as this early post card of downtown Bangor shows. Horses remained in the majority.
By Wayne E. Reilly, Special to the BDN

“MANY AUTOS HERE: Bangor Is a Mecca for Motorists From All Points,” announced a headline in the Bangor Daily Commercial on July 9, 1913. A little more than a dozen years after the first automobile arrived in the Queen City of the East, it suddenly seemed to have become an auto hub for tourists. This was a development of great interest to merchants and hoteliers.

Just seeing three or four autos together on the street still astonished some folks, especially if the autos had out-of-state license plates.

“At the Union Street entrance of the Bangor House, Wednesday noon, there were drawn up three touring cars, one from Massachusetts, another from Rhode Island and a third from New York, this giving an idea of the general popularity for auto parties that the Queen City has,” recorded the Commercial’s hopeful scribe.

The largest auto party of the season had just been in town, staying at the Penobscot Exchange, another fine hotel, located on Exchange Street down by Union Station. Fifteen people from Caribou driving in four “machines” had headed out that morning for Owls Head. All their names were listed in the paper as if they were celebrities, as indeed anyone was who owned an auto back then.

Now that Bar Harbor’s ban on automobiles had been lifted, many of Bangor’s auto guests were headed for Mount Desert Island. For example, Mr. and Mrs. W.M. Rettew, their daughter and their “colored chauffeur” were spotted that same morning all the way from Norfolk, Va., on their way to the island. The arrival of these “devil carts” full of the nouveau riche and the almost rich was just the sort of thing many wealthy summer folks in their coastal mansions feared.

The Bangor economy was clearly getting a boost from this influx.

Many of these out-of-town autoists stayed for a day or two to rest up, shop and have some tinkering done on their vehicles. In an era when autos needed constant mechanical attention, big garages shared advertising space with big hotels in the bulletins of the Maine Automobile Association.

Most arrived in Bangor in their autos, but those in a rush shipped them by water.

“There are few days when one or more autos are not landed here from the Boston steamers,” noted the reporter.

Sometimes the drivers themselves were of special note, as when Mrs. J.H. Stelb and Mrs. H.J. Horn of Detroit, Mich., roared into town in their Hudson racer, according to a Bangor Daily News story on July 23. Women drivers were seldom seen so far from home.

Crippled by a “spike” in one tire, they stopped long enough at Robinson’s garage to get it fixed and then sped off to Bar Harbor. There had been no trouble on the trip, said Mrs. Stelb, except for another blowout in Portsmouth, N.H.

Thousands of autoists were entering Maine each summer. The number in July and August of 1913 would total between 50,000 and 60,000, predicted the Maine Automobile Association, which was conducting research to buttress its lobbying efforts in the Legislature. The promise of tourism dollars was a big carrot to get merchants to support better roads.

A story in the Bangor Daily Commercial on Aug. 2 reported that on selected days MAA volunteers had stood at York Corner and counted the “foreign cars” going by. For example, on July 20, they counted 209 out-of-state cars carrying 838 of these foreigners headed north. And, of course, York was only one of several entry points into Maine used by auto tourists.

How many actually made it to Bangor is unknown. Such a journey was considered an adventure and only the well-prepared would embark on such a trip, sometimes assisted by a professional chauffeur with mechanical knowledge.

The pitfalls faced in long-distance driving through unknown rural areas were constantly alluded to in newspaper stories based on accounts circulated by the MAA and Bangor Automobile Club.

“SOUND YOUR HORN,” warned a headline in the Commercial on July 3, based on a report in a bulletin from the Bangor auto club. “Numerous complaints are made regarding the carelessness of drivers in not sounding their horns in approaching curves, before topping a hill and in other places where caution is necessary.” A horse-drawn wagon might be just over the next rise.

The terrible condition of the mostly dirt roads was a constant source of complaints. The Bangor bulletin summed up things this way in one report: “Bangor to Augusta — Look out for ledges in the road through Hermon….Etna calls for care and slow driving in places….Newport to Skowhegan — All roads in Cornville north of Skowhegan are poor….Road from East Holden to East Eddington as far as Black Cap Mountain is rough and rocky….Holden to Long Pond — Sods piled in middle of road make rough traveling….”

“Rut riding” was an evil practiced by lazy drivers. AVOID THE RUTS, commanded an editorial in the Commercial on July 18. Apparently some drivers drove their autos in ruts made by previous drivers, making these ruts deeper and deeper until the road was impassable.

Motorists were urged to “ride all over the road” instead of in the tracks of previous drivers.

“Every city and town can show many examples of where rut riding has ruined an excellent piece of road.”

Yet another Commercial piece on Aug. 22 complained, “Autoists Say Towns Should Furnish Guides at Cross Roads: Lack of [Sign] Posts Often results in Trouble…..” A state law required it. The Bangor auto club was making up a list of towns that had failed to erect signposts.

With two or three thousand members, the Maine Automobile Association had developed considerable political clout by 1913. One of their goals was to get town road crews to establish detours and post signs around construction. Another reform effort aimed to stop these crews from leaving chunks of turf in the roads when making repairs.

The Bangor Automobile Club had an agenda, too. Five of the club’s members had been appointed to the positions of “special policemen” with the authority to arrest “small boys or others interfering in a malicious manner with the progress of automobiles,” The Bangor Daily Commercial reported on May 6.

Many spots in the roads in the Bangor area were deemed dangerous, but little was done to mark them. The Bangor club made available “a large number of ‘caution’ signs” for distribution to towns or individuals who wanted to mark “danger points on the roads.” A lot of towns didn’t bother with such frills any more than they bothered with detour signs.

One theme emerges from many of these warnings and attempts at reform. The cause usually had something to do with careless work or total neglect on the part of small town road commissioners and road contractors, many of whom were totally unqualified.

Modern road building techniques were also needed. The state would need to step in and provide more money and take more control over major road construction and maintenance before many of these problems would recede into the background. The process had already begun. The story of Maine’s good roads movement is told in an interesting article by Richard W. Judd, University of Maine history professor, in the June 2008 issue of Maine History, published by the Maine Historical Society.

Wayne E. Reilly’s column on Bangor a century ago appears in the newspaper every other Monday. His new book, “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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