Several years after the great fire of 1911 reduced much of downtown Bangor to ashes, “miracles” were still occurring. The Bowlodrome was about to rise from the rubble, reviving a sport that few Bangoreans were familiar with anymore. It would cost only 10 cents to bowl a string and 60 cents an hour to shoot pool. The press celebrated.
“Four years ago this morning, the business district of Bangor presented a dismal aspect, the big fire of April 30, 1911, having burned a wide path along the easterly bank of the Kenduskeag from the foot of York street north, and also swept away nearly all the buildings in Central and Franklin streets on the west side of the stream…” a reporter recalled in the Bangor Daily News May 1, 1915. “Since that mournful May Day, however, wonders have been accomplished in the rebuilding of the city on a better plan and in one spot something that must be regarded as almost a miracle has been worked.”
That spot was between the bank of the Kenduskeag Stream and Harlow Street on a slice of property also bounded by State and Central streets. Before the fire the old Central fire station had sat there, according to the newspaper reporter, along with a collection of wooden shops and stables. In the rear, along the stream, “were some rickety old traps, one occupied by a carriage factory, built upon a decaying wharf. The place was an eyesore and a fire menace.”
The U.S. Post Office and Custom House building, which burned in the fire, had been located across from this spot in the stream itself on what at the moment was being called Post Office plaza. Today, a statue of Hannibal Hamlin sits in this park that later came to be known as the Kenduskeag Parkway.
Now, in a few days, the area would be occupied by “one of the largest and finest buildings in Maine.” The “miracle worker” behind it all was Charles W. Morse, a Central Street livery stable owner and horse dealer.
Morse had hired Victor Hodgins, one of the area’s well-known architects. The Morse building is Hodgins’ masterpiece, according to Deborah Thompson, Bangor’s architectural historian.
The ornate red brick, three-story building would become Bangor’s latest “palatial new amusement center,” comparable in size, some said, to certain entertainment venues in Boston and certainly Portland, places that the Queen City of the East was always trying to emulate.
The original plan for the Morse building called for a “convention center” on the top floor and a bowling establishment on the second, according to Thompson. On the Harlow Street side, Morse operated his “sales stables,” listed in the 1914 city directory.
In the newspapers, there was also vague talk about a storage facility for carriages and automobiles and an automobile showroom. Sometimes it’s difficult to sort out all the uses the building was put to and where they were located over the years.
The civic center on the top floor, where there was a stage complete with a proscenium arch, came to be used for many things, including the city’s most famous dance hall, the Chateau Ballroom.
“Twelve great double windows admit floods of daylight, and the very latest electric system will provide illumination at night,” a Bangor Daily News reporter enthused. He realized many people still needed assurance that modern conveniences such as electricity would be available even in the newest buildings.
But it was the next floor down that attracted all the attention as opening day approached in early May 1915. The Portland “amusement king,” L.D. Mathis, had installed nine bowling alleys and 10 pool and billiard tables into what would be the “largest amusement hall in the state.”
In an effort to clean up the questionable image that many people had of bowling back then, three of the alleys were reserved for ladies, being curtained off “so that entire privacy will be insured.”
Roller skating, political rallies, boxing matches, concerts, movies and other crowd-pleasing events were also conducted at one time or another on both floors, in the ballroom space and below where the bowling alleys were situated.
The Bowlodrome was apparently the only commercial bowling place in the city for some time. The only bowling alleys mentioned in the Bangor city directory just before that time were at the YMCA.
A contest was held in the newspaper for a name for the new amusement center. The winner of a $5 prize, chosen from hundreds of entries, was F.O. Moore, an employee of the Bangor Daily News’ composing room. His choice of the name Bowlodrome beat The Pantheon — “a new temple on the Kenduskeag” — and even “A Bowl of Joy,” among other catchy entries.
The building wasn’t finished on opening day, Saturday, May 8. Among other things yet to be done, the ornamental iron bridges into the Bowlodrome from the Post Office plaza had yet to be completed, so first-day curiosity seekers had to enter from the Harlow Street side.
Nevertheless, a crowd 4,000 strong visited “the great Morse building where formerly there had stood a group of ramshackle sheds,” the Bangor Daily News reported. Doubtless, many of them were carrying newspapers under their arms with the shocking news that the Lusitania had been sunk by a German U-Boat.
L.D. Mathis himself was on hand for the opening. He was most impressed by the readiness with which Bangor people took to bowling, “a sport comparatively new to most of them,” and the adeptness of the pin boys, all new to the work. An advertisement calling for 15 pin boys to work at the Bowlodrome had been running in the newspapers.
An exhibition match between champion Portland and Bangor bowlers was staged. The Bangor men, Dinsmore and Olinto (no first names given), were handily beaten by the Portlanders, who, it was pointed out, had a good deal more practice.
Within a few days bowling leagues were created. “Half a dozen leagues and countless clubs are being formed and in a few days the whole town will be ‘rolling ‘em,’” a news reporter predicted on May 12. They included the All-Star League, the City League and even a league for University of Maine law students.
The presence of many women was noted. An advertisement for these leagues claimed “it is beginning to look as though the women may soon forget all about suffrage and finery and devote their time to the new sport.”
The Morse building continued to function as an amusement center, as well as a place to hold large meetings in the downtown area for some years after that. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the Democratic vice presidential nominee, was scheduled to speak in the Bowlodrome in 1920, but he canceled to attend an uncle’s funeral, according to Bangor historian Dick Shaw.
Those also were the days when on occasion “the pungent aroma of Cuban cigars, draft beer and sweating prizefighters” filled the air, Shaw says. A boxer from Hampden died after he was thrown out of the ring in 1921.
As the age of consumerism blossomed, Sears and Roebuck Co. moved into the building during the 1930s, forcing the Chateau and the Bowlodrome out in the 1940s, according to Shaw. Since then Sears has left for the Bangor Mall, and the building has had new developers and owners.
Renamed Norumbega Hall, apparently in honor of the old theater and commercial center on Central Street that burned in the 1911 fire, its occupants today include the University of Maine Museum of Art and the Eastern Maine Development Corporation.
Put to modern uses with a modern design, the Morse building has lost most of the exciting glamour it had in the days when Bangor’s young men and women crowded the Chateau Ballroom and the Bowlodrome. A walk along the Kenduskeag Parkway or a visit to the UMMA, however, gives one a chance to ponder these ghostly presences and others.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org