Hundreds of men looking for river-driving jobs were stranded penniless in Bangor a century ago after a mixup in the work schedule — Mother Nature’s work schedule, that is. City officials interceded quickly to keep order and protect the Queen City’s reputation as a logging employment mecca. They were fearful that the situation could degenerate into a massive panhandling epidemic or even violence. The story unfolded in the newspapers over a period of several weeks.
“Bangor had a breadline of its own last night, when two hundred men — it would be no exaggeration to say some were almost starving — were fed by the police. Golden and Largay’s employment agency furnished the setting; bread, coffee and bologna sausage was the menu,” reported the Bangor Daily News on April 3, 1914. Each man was given “an empty bean can” to use as a coffee cup.
Twelve hundred unemployed men were in Bangor, and 400 of them were “absolutely broke,” reported the newspaper. Back then violent strikes were commonplace in the United States, and large groups of unemployed men roamed the country. Although Bangor was no stranger to hoboes and labor unrest, these men were neither bums nor activists, the Bangor reporter assured his audience.
“This is the result of a local economic condition, not a national one, and it hasn’t anything to do with the reduction of the tariff, and bears no similarity to the picturesque doings of the armies of the unemployed in the big cities,” the reporter wrote. “It means simply that swarms of men came down from the woods somewhat earlier than usual, and are waiting for the drives to open. There is an interval in which they had to loaf and many didn’t have the money to carry them through.”
Woodsmen cut trees in the winter and moved logs to the shores of rivers and streams. Then they returned to Bangor to await the driving season when the ice melted and logs could be floated down to sawmills. This year there had been plenty of snow, and the logging season ended early. The thick ice in the rivers and streams, however, had slowed the start to the log driving season.
“These aren’t tramps or bums,” said Police Chief Thomas O’Donahue. “Of course, there may be a few bums among them. But the great majority of them are willing to work, and if we have to feed them it’s because they can’t find it.”
The police station was too small to put up the horde of men, so Golden and Largay was “thrown open” under the “guidance of a half dozen patrolmen.” The men lined up for their food and slept on benches in the agency.
Sam Golden, the proprietor, was worried about the situation. “I wish you would make it plain that this is merely a temporary and extremely unusual condition,” he told the reporter. “It would be mighty unfortunate if it should get out that Bangor is really a city of the unemployed — that any man of good health, willing to work, can’t come here and get a job.” As soon as there was “a touch of spring,” there would be jobs for all of them and many more.
The next day, April 4, another story explained more fully the new conditions that were changing the recruitment of woods workers. Mother Nature was not the only force affecting the crisis.
All or most of the idle workers were European immigrants, and “those who are acquainted with the lumbering industry” were “amused” that anyone thought they would be hired as river drivers, which generally took a higher skill level than those who cut down the trees.
“There probably isn’t a driver in the lot,” guessed the reporter. “That is a kind of work requiring not only strength and endurance but the agility of an acrobat and the admirable daring that has made the name and fame of Hancock Street and the Hampden road echo through the land. It takes the Bangor boys — the Irish and Yankees, the Old Town Indians and the lithe and wiry French Canadians to work in white water and handle the cantdog and setting pole. Germany, Sweden, Russia and Finland would be merely in the way on the East Branch [of the Penobscot River].”
Meanwhile, many Bangor folks were surprised that woodsmen would be “dead broke” in the Queen City. In the old days (just a few years ago), woods workers had come to Bangor in the spring, spent all their money on liquor and women and then got staked by woodsmen’s hotels run by celebrity proprietors like Barney Kelley, Bob Crawford and Bob Cassidy until the river drives started. When they returned with their paychecks they would pay off past debts and run up some new ones.
“But in those days the loggers were all Maine or New Brunswick or Prince Edward Island boys who were well known, who came year after year, often working for 10 seasons in succession for the same boss,” the reporter continued. “The boarding house keepers knew them … The pay was sure. Now it is very different. The throngs in Bangor today are all foreigners who no one knows and who scarcely know each other.”
The prediction from the reporter’s various sources was that most of the men would have woods jobs soon, but most wouldn’t be on the log drives. Meanwhile, the free food and coffee flowed, and the police watched the scene carefully.
“We simply won’t have them swarming into the residential section,” said Police Chief O’Donahue. “We intend to keep them right in Exchange and Washington streets where they belong, until the problem is solved.”
A few days later, on April 8, the editorial writer for the Bangor Daily News took umbrage at some of the unpleasant things that were being said about these foreign workers. His editorial on April 8 was titled “BANGOR’S IDLE ARMY.”
“They may be no more than Polacks, Italians, Slavonians and rebellious Russians … [but] they are simple honest men who are hungry and out of work. They are mostly the victim of circumstances,” the editorialist penned in response to the fears being expressed that they were hoboes or anarchists looking for trouble.
By April 13, more than a week after the first breadline had appeared on Exchange Street, the care of the men had been turned over to the Salvation Army. Ensign Arthur Armstrong appeared to be less than pleased. It was costing his organization $25 a day to feed them.
The men were going to be served “a hearty breakfast” and another meal late in the afternoon, but in the evening they would have to shift for themselves. The staples remained “bread, coffee, bologna sausage and occasional baked beans.”
“I won’t let ’em starve,” commented Ensign Armstrong. “They are all human beings and many are good fellows who are willing to work. And so I shall keep on feeding them since nobody else seems willing to take the job.”
Just four days later, a story in the Bangor Daily News declared the worker logjam had broken up. “ARMSTRONG SOUNDS TAPS,” wrote a clever headline writer. “Bangor’s Army of the Unemployed is Now No More.”
Only about 50 of the original 200-plus men remained at the Salvation Army barracks. On Thursday, an agent from Great Northern Paper Co. had hired 10 men, another 25 were promised work soon and 15 others were told they were “nonusable.” The latter “will be sent forth to shift for themselves, as the Salvation Army cannot keep them any longer.”
A new system had been adopted to sort out the “needy and deserving from a class who are nothing but bums and street corner loafers.” To get lodging at the barracks, men would have to show a paper obtained from employment agents promising them jobs as soon as possible. Ensign Armstrong thought this system would prevent a repetition of the crisis.
Meanwhile, city fathers were still angry. On May 4, they had their say when the proprietors of the city’s employment agencies stepped up to renew their licenses. A motion was made to table their requests.
“Your advertisements are misleading,” charged Mayor Utterback. “You said 2,000 men were wanted. You only had one kind of work for them.”
He said the location of the agencies on Exchange Street near the railroad station “is very unfortunate” because travelers often received their first impression of the city — men hanging around on the sidewalk — there. Unescorted women tried to avoid the area completely.
But Alderman Day warned, “We should be careful. The men must congregate in Bangor. They patronize our hotels and haberdasheries. The agents should be held responsible, but they should not be handicapped in their business by being held up now.”
Golden and Largay, the biggest agency and the target of most of the criticism, was then granted its license without delay. Bangor’s position as the employment center for Maine’s north woods was safe for awhile.
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 email@example.com.