BANGOR, Maine — At 2:55 p.m. Monday, Sept. 28, a century ago, electric trolley car No. 9 of the Bangor Railway & Electric Co. rolled away from the Bangor House on a historic journey.
Big signs on either side of the car told the story: “All Aboard for Brewer: … At last we have trolley cars over the bridge — 1914.” The crowd of dignitaries from both cities offered proof the “sister cities” had more in common than the river dividing them.
After years of construction delays and political squabbling over the trolley company’s new franchise, the first electric trolley was about to connect Bangor and Brewer across the sturdy new steel bridge, located where the Penobscot River Bridge is today.
Traveling between the two cities is relatively easy on one of three bridges, the Penobscot River Bridge being the most northerly. In 1914, however, crossing the river was an inconvenience, if not an ordeal, for dozens of people who traveled back and forth daily.
There was only one bridge then, known as the Bangor-Brewer Bridge. It was also called the toll bridge, even though no toll had been collected for years. If you had an automobile or a horse-drawn buggy, you could drive yourself. But most people could not afford such luxuries, and the traffic frequently was heavy.
For the rest, that left walking, perhaps from as far away as South Brewer — if you didn’t have the fare for the trolley that ran through Brewer parallel to the river since 1890 — a long haul at best, or, for the courageous, across the ever-fracturing ice on the Penobscot River in winter.
In warmer weather, the little Bon Ton Ferry brought people to and fro, sometimes dodging ice floes or loose logs, on a route located approximately below where the Joshua Chamberlain Bridge is today.
The Bangor-Brewer bridge had a long, spotty history. Built in 1832, it was carried away in a flood or freshet in 1846. Rebuilt in 1847, its middle span was demolished in another flood in 1902 but was replaced by a steel span. By 1914, after multiple delays and lots of bickering, the whole bridge had been replaced with steel capable of carrying trolley cars.
By then, tempers on both sides of the river were frayed; people were sick and tired of the political posturing and the construction delays.
After the first electric trolley ran down Bangor’s Main Street in 1889, the company managed to extend its tracks from Hampden to Old Town and from Bangor to Charleston as well, as maintaining its isolated route through Brewer. Just one year earlier, it opened a mile of new track in Hampden out to the Dorothea Dix Park, so why couldn’t the company cross the river?
Car No. 9 rattled and clanged to the middle of the bridge by 3:10 p.m. A few minutes later, it reached South Brewer, turned around and traveled back.
Along the way, small crowds waved and cheered. In South Brewer, Daniel Rooney offered up “a torpedo celebration” in front of his grocery store on South Main Street, while the whistles of the Eastern Manufacturing Co. “shrieked their approval” as the car went by.
At the square at the Brewer end of the bridge, the car stopped long enough to allow a few dignitaries to offer brief comments.
“The cars are over the bridge, and I can die now in happiness,” said John R. Graham, president of the trolley company, who did, in fact, die the next year. Graham worked to get the project done for a dozen years. “Two years after my arrival in Bangor, the Panama Canal was started and it was finished before the cars crossed the Bangor-Brewer Bridge,” he noted acidly.
Patrick Dunn, a former state representative who sponsored the first legislation to rebuild the bridge, said, “I remember my people, in my boyhood, frequently speaking of two great grievances. … The first was Ireland seeking freedom, and the second, Brewer seeking emancipation.” Not only had the Panama Canal been completed before cars crossed the bridge, but Ireland had achieved home rule.
Bangor Mayor John Utterback praised the “cementing of communications” between the two cities. He said the cities had identical interests. The prosperity of one meant the prosperity of the other.
Brewer’s Mayor Frank Nickerson, however, gave the landmark event a different interpretation reflecting some of the irritation with Bangor on his side of the river. He commented on the length of time the project had taken, suggesting Bangor businessmen seemed to be “neglecting an opportunity of making their city the business center of eastern Maine.”
From a business standpoint, he predicted Bangor would be the winner and Brewer the loser in this cooperative effort, but Brewer would gain by having better railroad and steamboat connections and more residential development.
With a touch of irony, the mayor noted “some people called Brewer Bangor’s bedroom. But in the manufacturing industries of Brewer, there are more laborers than in Bangor’s plants.” Brewer’s many brick yards were famous, as was the Eastern Manufacturing Co., which made pulp and paper and lumber.
Nickerson went so far as to suggest construction of a canal through Brewer from the dam spanning the Penobscot River that “would furnish more power to drive spindles than the Androscoggin ever dreamed of.” Then Brewer doubtlessly would become a major mill town, leaving Bangor in its shadow.
For his part, trolley magnate Graham predicted Bangor and Brewer would be combined into “one city” in five years, a comment that did not endear him to anyone, except a few Bangor imperialists.
The amount of time saved by the new track did not actually amount to much for an average traveler. It promised a 20-minute ride between West Market Square in Bangor and the end of the line in South Brewer, a savings of only about 10 minutes.
For some months before the crossing’s completion, trolley riders had been able to take a line to one end of the bridge and walk across about 200 feet to another trolley car that would take them as far as downtown Bangor or South Brewer. But on the bridge and its approaches, they needed to walk “in the roadway,” already clogged with horse and motor traffic because of construction, the Bangor Daily Commercial said July 30, 1914.
The only major extension of Bangor’s trolley system after the Bangor-Brewer Bridge project occurred in 1922 when the Westland Avenue extension opened in Bangor, “bringing together the outer ends of the Hammond Street and Ohio Street lines, forming a loop around which cars ran in both directions,” according to Charles D. Heseltine, historian of Bangor’s street railway.
The end of the trolley system was already near. In less than a decade, when better roads existed and competition from automobiles, trucks and buses increased, the city’s trolley system began to unravel with the closing of the Charleston line in 1931.
Wayne E. Reilly’s column on Bangor a century ago appears in the newspaper every other Monday. His latest 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.