The First World War had an impact in Maine years before the nation actually entered the fighting in Europe in 1917. Bangor’s two daily newspapers were full of war news generated both abroad and at home, and much of it was about events going on in the Pine Tree State.
A century ago, a relief effort was underway to help countries that had been stricken by early fighting, especially “little Belgium,” which had been invaded early on by Germany.
“Everybody is busy,” announced a headline in the Bangor Daily Commercial on Nov. 6, 1914. “Women Everywhere Engaged In Knitting for the Soldiers.” Women were seen knitting on streetcars and at concerts, as well as at home. The stock of knitting needles in Bangor stores had been “very much reduced.”
A “tag day” held on Dec. 5 “for the benefit of the Belgian sufferers” collected $2,033. Young women had been out on the street collecting money, and “not a disagreeable incident marred the day,” the Bangor Daily News declared. There had been “some anxiety as to possible affronts” to these unprotected young ladies as had happened in other cities.
On Jan. 5, the Bangor Daily Commercial announced that a Bangor & Aroostook train carrying 17 carloads of potatoes was on its way south to help “the unfortunate people of brave little Belgium.” A month later, on Feb. 8, the paper announced a meeting in the memorial parlors in Bangor to launch a citywide movement to collect more cash and supplies for a state of Maine ship scheduled to leave in March for “stricken Belgium.”
Celebrities were jumping on the bandwagon to help out in the war effort. Waldo Peirce, son of one of Bangor’s wealthy families and a recent Harvard graduate and promising artist, offered his services as “chauffeur for the field ambulance service of the American Hospital in Paris,” the Bangor Daily News said on Nov. 20, 1914. Maxine Elliott, the famous stage actress from Rockland, had converted her expensive car into an ambulance. “Miss Elliott is fetching in a very smart adaptation of the conventional nurse’s costume,” the Bangor Daily Commercial informed readers on Nov. 24.
Some less well-known folks – Maine’s immigrant workers – were heading home to fight for their countries. They included five Italian laborers, who were working on a section of “state road” between Northport and Lincolnville Beach, the Bangor Daily Commercial said on Nov. 9, 1914.
They hiked all the way from the beach to Belfast with their trunks on their backs.
Meanwhile, Mainers were arguing who was to blame for the war – Germany or England. The United States was still neutral, and it was still safe to stand up for Germany.
William E. Waltz, dean of the University of Maine Law School delivered “an impassioned defense” of Germany in several addresses to groups, like the Twentieth Century Club in Bangor, while Emma Eames, the famous opera diva, “flayed” the Germans from her home in Bath.
Most commentators, like former Chief Justice of the Maine Supreme Court L. A. Emery, urged Americans to remain neutral no matter whose side they were on.
Actual hostilities involving Mainers were few. Canada was a good place for such things to happen, however. An anonymous Bangor man, a forester who was employed evaluating large tracts of timberland in Maine and New Brunswick, was arrested and incarcerated briefly on the Canadian side of the border on charges of being a German spy, according to a story in the Bangor Daily Commercial on Nov. 10, 1914.
Another fellow, a Bangor telegraph messenger, met a similar fate when he seemed to be studying a bridge a little too closely at St. Stephen, New Brunswick, the Bangor Daily News said on Feb. 9, 1915.
The high seas would soon become a dangerous place for vessels from neutral countries. The captain of a Bangor-based fishing vessel, the Lizzie Griffin, reported being chased briefly by what appeared to be a French naval cruiser off the Newfoundland coast, the Bangor Daily Commercial reported on Dec. 21, 1914.
Much was made of reports that Bangor’s National Guard might soon be assigned “a machine gun company,” which would be an object of pride in the Queen City. Meanwhile, officials were searching parts of the Maine woods for a wireless believed to be communicating with German ships.
The event that briefly rocked the state, shocking people out of their convictions that they were protected by the Atlantic Ocean from the destruction shattering much of Europe, was the effort to sabotage the Canadian-Pacific railroad bridge that crossed the St. Croix River between Vanceboro, Maine, and St. Croix, New Brunswick on Feb. 2, 1915, a century ago.
The bridge bombing was the first real sign Mainers could no longer take their isolation for granted, that in fact they were located along a major transportation route used by Canada to benefit Great Britain and her allies.
Werner Horn, an officer in the German army reserve, was summoned from his job managing a coffee plantation in Guatemala to sabotage the bridge, which was jointly owned by the Canadian-Pacific and the Maine Central railroads.
The tracks crossed Maine on the shortest route between Montreal and St. John, a major port. While the Canadian-Pacific was not allowed to carry troops or war materials across neutral Maine, it was well known that its trains were transporting large amounts of food and other provisions to St. John, the Bangor Daily News said in an unusual third edition of the newspaper – entitled “War Extra!” – announcing the raid.
Horn carried a suitcase full of dynamite onto the bridge from the Vanceboro side, where he was staying in a hotel, on the night of Feb. 1. Then he waited for hours in temperatures 30 below zero until he was sure no trains were coming.
After midnight, he placed the suitcase on the Canadian side, arranged the fuse for three minutes and lit it with his cigar. He returned quickly to his hotel, where his suspicious activities were reported to authorities after the bomb blast.
The terrific explosion at 1:10 a.m. damaged the bridge, shutting it down for repairs for a day or so, and broke many windows in Vanceboro and St. Croix. Suffering from frostbite, Horn surrendered to American authorities wearing his uniform so that he would not be mistaken for a spy, a capital offense.
Bangoreans got a look at a real German soldier when Horn spent two hours in Bangor on Feb. 5 on his way by train to Machias to serve 30 days in jail for damaging property in Vanceboro, one part of the prison time he would serve in the United States and Canada in the next few years.
Hundreds of curious people met him at the train station and many followed him up Exchange Street to the Penobscot Exchange, where he had a lunch consisting of clam chowder, corned beef, spaghetti and raspberry pie. Bellboys were stationed at the hotel doors to keep out people not entering on business.
Upon being interviewed by reporters, Horn lost his good humor only once when he was asked how much he had been paid.
“I did not blow up the bridge for money. I am a soldier, not a mercenary. I acted for the good of the Fatherland!” he responded angrily in a heavy accent.
His orders came directly from Germany, he said. In fact, they came from Franz von Papen, then the military attaché of the German Embassy in Washington, D.C., who would be removed from his position that year after the United States complained about his alleged involvement in cases of espionage and sabotage. Years later, as a major figure in the German government, he would help Hitler rise to power.
Meanwhile, the countryside was up in arms around Vanceboro and across the river in St. Croix, because of the damage done there by the bomb. “The Lynch Law was suggested for Horn,” a front page headline in the Bangor Daily News said on Feb. 8, summing up some of the public feeling.
There was a report that Horn had also been involved in the burning of a war supply factory in New Jersey. Other stories in the Bangor papers documented the posting of guards at railroad bridges all over Maine.
The war was coming closer. The country’s isolationist sentiment wouldn’t last much longer. Before long it wouldn’t be safe for anyone to express pro-German sentiments. The bombing of the Vanceboro bridge was only one more small step.
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.