On a Monday afternoon in May a century ago a band of gypsies arrived in Bangor, part of a flow of adventurous people north that included hoboes and a newer class of wanderers called auto tourists.
Five wagons were in the parade hauled by some worn out horses. The women wore bright gowns and valuable jewels, at least in the imagination of the reporter for the Bangor Daily News.
“The same old fortunes are in stock for the telling after the lily-white palms have been properly crossed with silver, and it may be said that summer is now well upon us,” the newspaper reported on May 23, 1916. (The gypsies were promptly ordered by the police to get out of town, because of some trouble in which they had been involved the year before.)
Another arrival marking the coming of Bangor’s brief high season was the sudden appearance of street musicians who could be heard downtown at all hours of the day and night. George and Joe Nicholi were Bangor’s favorite street musicians, “with their sunshine, their song and their hurdy gurdy,” the Bangor Daily Commercial noted on Aug. 10, 1915. The duo had been coming to Bangor for 29 years.
Joe and George were Italians, though they were born in Germany and educated in Paris, according to the reporter. Their winter home was in Worcester, Massachusetts.
They had become prosperous entertaining the multitudes; so prosperous, in fact, that Joe’s son had graduated from Harvard. Unfortunately, he died soon after he received his degree. So went the unusual story of Joe and George as spun in the newspaper, complete with a photograph.
As the weather grew warmer, more and more passenger trains steamed through the Queen City of the East. So did Boston Boats, the big overnight steamboats that took people from Bangor to Boston and points in between, landing at the terminal in the Devil’s Half Acre, where the Sea Dog Restaurant is located today.
The first Boston Boat appeared immediately after the ice left the Penobscot, and by the Fourth of July in 1916 they were making seven round trips per week, their bellowing horns adding to the commotion that made Bangor such an exciting place back then.
Trains and steamboats were old hat, however. It was the new “motor parties,” sputtering and hacking, that attracted the most attention. Even though Bangor was hardly a tourist attraction, this new class of travelers came through town leaving great amounts of money at the Queen City’s hotels, restaurants, auto repair garages and stores.
“The time of auto parties from all over the country coming into Bangor while making tours through the state as well as going to Bar Harbor and other summer resorts is just beginning and the Bangor hotels are now receiving a number of these guests,” the Commercial noted on July 6, 1916. “Bangor serves as a delightful resting place while passing through this section of Maine and a number of the tourists have adopted Bangor as a center from which tours to the outlying beauty spots may be made.”
Appended to this piece was a list of recent auto visitors from Providence, Rhode Island, Boston and other places. Many of these folks, accompanied by chauffeurs, were looking for a more adventurous route to Bar Harbor. Their luggage, servants and horses arrived in the conventional manner.
Big motor yachts carrying the richest of the rich also found their way to Bangor’s harbor each summer as the commercial traffic declined. “Steam Yacht Lyndonia, owned by Cyrus H. K. Curtis of Philadelphia arrived in the harbor Wednesday morning, with Mrs. Curtis and party aboard,” the Commercial notified the public on July 12, 1916.
The publishing tycoon’s 161-foot, 1,200 horsepower pleasure boat “presented a pretty picture as she lay anchored in the stream with her white paint glistening, and the shining brass work scintillating in the sunlight,” wrote the newspaper bard.
One of the big events of summer at this time was the opening of Riverside Park on the bank of the Penobscot River in Hampden. The first show on June 26 featured The Kinkaid Kilties, Scotch singers and dancers performing “old favorite tunes” and a Scotch comedian with Scotch stories, along with the Old Town band.
The park was operated by the trolley company as a way to make some extra revenue in the warm months, when open cars were put on the tracks through Hampden to attract customers looking for a way to cool off and attend a vaudeville show or a concert at the same time. The park was located on a spur just off the main track at a beautiful spot on the river just south of where Avalon Village is located today.
Hampden continued to grow as a recreational destination for Bangoreans. Besides their camps that dotted the shore, country clubs such as the Conduskeag Canoe Club, the Bangor Yacht Club and a new place, the Columbia Country Club, were readily accessible by trolley and auto.
This would be the last season Riverside Park would operate, however. The increasing number of movie and vaudeville houses in Bangor accompanied by the freedom people had to go anywhere they wanted when they wanted in their new automobiles diminished the allure of trolley parks across the country.
Meanwhile, back in Bangor, after being closed for some time, the newly renovated Nickel Theater, the city’s first movie theater, reopened July 7 under new management showing some Charlie Chaplin films.
The original Nickel had burned in the great fire of 1911. Its successor had moved to Union Street across from the Bangor House, closed again and then reopened in 1916. Years later it would be named the Olympia Theater, also known fondly as the rat hole by later generations.
Meanwhile, a new form of entertainment, organized by the Bangor Chautauqua Association, was scheduled to set up shop in Bangor for a week in July. A series of concerts, lectures “and other pleasant and instructive events” would be offered in a big tent in Abbott Square on Harlow Street across from the Bangor Public Library. Whether Bangoreans would choose self-improvement over Charlie Chaplin or picnics in Hampden remained to be seen.
In order to get ready for all these new folks and attractions, many people thought Bangor should clean up its rough hewn image as a lumbering town. In 1916, the Bangor Chamber of Commerce and the city’s women’s clubs helped pave the way for the beautification of the city by supporting the removal of rubbish, closing neighborhood dumps and the like.
Among the areas singled out by the clubwomen were the banks of the Kenduskeag Stream, which had been targeted as one of the city’s beauty spots since the fire of 1911. Seventeen of these courageous women accompanied by a newspaper reporter toured the area above the State Street Bridge near where the old post office sat before the fire. The word “trash” does not do justice to the stuff they found littering the stream banks.
“On the eastern bank the committee found many empty boxes, barrels, large piles of coal ash, large amounts of excelsior [packing material] and scrap paper as well as a few tumble down buildings that seemed to have no legitimate excuse for existence,” the reporter for the Bangor Daily News noted on May 29.
On the west bank of the stream “a dump had filled up with decaying vegetable matter in such a manner as to call for a visit from the Board of Health.” Another open dump filled with rubbish was found behind the county building.
Now it was time for the Fourth of July weekend, the heart of the summer. In fact, the celebration had already begun days earlier with the arrival of the Barnum and Bailey Circus at Maplewood [Bass] Park.
Circus day had long been a big event in Bangor. The long, noisy parade wound down Main Street from Maplewood Park around the downtown as far as the new post office [City Hall today] and back to the park.
Thousands of people arrived on the trains, and automobiles jammed the streets — twice as many as had been attracted by the last circus two years before, the reporter claimed, a sure sign the popularity of the motor car was increasing rapidly.
The Fourth was the culmination of summer revelry. Fireworks in 1916 were being sold from tents pitched on the site of the old post office in the Kenduskeag. Mayor John Woodman issued an edict that no explosives were to be discharged before 4 a.m., July 4, but that didn’t stop the mayhem that caused many people to leave the city.
“All over the city, during the last three or four days, residents have been keenly annoyed by the constant popping of firecrackers and the heavier detonations of cannon crackers and revolvers. … It has been years since so much powder has been burned so far in advance of the holiday,” a reporter for the Bangor Daily News commented on June 29.
Things were particularly bad on the corner of Pine and Cumberland streets. Floods of complaints poured into the Bangor Daily News. Some of the newer fireworks were “shaking the clapboards from the houses.”
Of course, soldiers had recently been marching in the streets getting ready to go protect the Mexican border from Pancho Villa. The fireworks exploding all over the city were merely a part of the patriotism inspired by the cheering and the speeches when Bangor’s National Guard units had left for a possible war a few days earlier.
Despite all this enthusiasm, it rained the night before the Fourth, which dampened the Fourth itself. Some people managed to squeeze out a little fun under the circumstances. The destroyer McDougall still came up the river to entertain folks. The Bangor Band still held concerts at Abbott Square, Broadway Park and Davenport Park. Riverside Park still attracted crowds as did the downtown theaters.
But a disgruntled reporter the day after the festivities complained, “Nothing happened here to get excited about.” The weather was bad, athletic events were canceled, stores were closed and the streets were almost deserted.
The best news: “Only 10 persons were arrested for drunkenness.” But in Bangor back then, that was a cause for disappointment, a sure sign the Fourth had been a flop.
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