Bangor’s first fatal automobile accident occurred on State Street in 1908, when a small boy jumped in front of a vehicle driven by a chauffeur for a local merchant. The chauffeur might have been driving without lights after dark, but he was exonerated at a trial. Onlookers wept, and then they cheered. It was a victory for “The Machine.”
Now move ahead just eight years. The newspapers were full of accident stories involving automobiles almost on a daily basis. Fatal accidents in faraway places like Iowa or New York used to make front page news in the two Bangor dailies. Now there were enough bad accidents locally to satisfy the public’s lust for tales of gore and twisted metal.
Safety was hardly a major concern. Shatter-proof glass, seat belts, directional signals and other safety features had yet to appear.
Experimental street paving materials like wooden blocks and granite slabs were having mixed results when it came to making driving safer. When the wood blocks got wet on Exchange Street they caused horses to slip and fall down and autos to skid out of control.
Trolley tracks, train crossings and even horse-drawn wagons were menaces.
One of the worst accidents occurred Sept. 24, 1916, when three people were killed instantly by a Maine Central freight train at Enfield station, north of Bangor. The driver apparently neither heard nor saw the oncoming train, which was only 50 feet up the tracks at the moment his car passed a shed next to the crossing that blocked his vision.
A survivor said from his hospital bed, “We weren’t going very fast — just an easy, moderate speed.” No one was talking until members of the party cried out ‘A train!’ simultaneously.
The survivor added there was “no warning signal from the freight … no whistle or bell … the crossing [is] perhaps the blindest and most dangerous on the whole Maine Central system.”
The number of automobiles was skyrocketing. Between 1915 and 1916, the number of cars owned in Bangor increased 38 percent, from 547 to 756, according to a story in the Bangor Daily Commercial on Sept. 11.
In the summer that number swelled markedly with hundreds of drivers moving through the Queen City of the East from as far away as California and Florida on their way to Bar Harbor and other scenic spots. Lists of these folks and the hotels they stayed in — usually the Bangor House, the Penobscot Exchange or the Windsor — ran on a daily basis in the papers.
A typical entry in the Bangor Daily Commercial on Aug. 4 said, “Miss Rosalie Spang of Nice, France, and Mrs. Len Eyck Wendell [Wendell Ten Eyck?] of Washington DC, with a maid, were guests at the Bangor House Thursday.” Like most people who traveled with maids, they were on their way to Bar Harbor.
The Daniel Johnston family traveled all the way from California to Detroit, Michigan, where they bought a new Hudson “at the factory” and then headed to Bangor before going to Castine. They noted the roads were in good condition “east of Buffalo,” the Bangor Daily Commercial reported on Aug. 19.
Meanwhile, the number of carriages in Bangor had declined from 295 to 261; the number of horses from 1,399 to 1,259. A whole way of life was declining as well.
Under pressure from “autoists,” particularly the wealthy members of the Bangor Automobile Club, city officials did what they could to cut back on accidents and traffic jams. Many of the new drivers hardly knew a clutch from a brake pedal. Turning corners where there were no painted lines was an ordeal for many.
A complex traffic ordinance was adopted that clearly spelled out certain rules of the road that most people take for granted today. People were told to drive on the right side of the road and to pass slower moving vehicles on the left. They were told how to turn corners and back up using hand signals. It’s doubtful too many people read this material, however.
The job of traffic cop at busy intersections like the one at State and Exchange streets was becoming more important as well as dangerous. “Silent policemen” signs that helped drivers see which way they should go had been purchased for the city by the Bangor Automobile Club.
To many people, automobiles were mainly a nuisance, belching clouds of smoke, noisier even than horse-drawn wagons and dangerous. Cars were dangerous even when they were not moving as Dr. A.W. Rowe of Old Town discovered when he broke his arm “cranking his auto.”
A species of drivers simply called “road hogs” were causing a great deal of irritation among polite folks. One could receive that label for a variety of bad habits. For example, many young men removed their mufflers creating huge amounts of noise when they went joy riding through residential neighborhoods at night.
Parking one’s auto by the side of the street at a spot where a trolley car stopped to let people out, thus creating “a blockade of traffic,” was another obnoxious habit.
The most annoying, however, were those hogs who passed open-sided trolley cars on hot, dry summer days and then slowed down covering the passengers with dust.
Automobiles also added a new dimension to the city’s liquor problem. Not having access to personal police cars, Bangor cops were at a decided disadvantage in running down inebriated drivers unless they borrowed a civilian vehicle.
Capt. Sproul “overhauled” a drunk driver one night, and then made the mistake of jumping into the vehicle and ordering him to drive to the police garage, the Bangor Daily News reported on Aug. 7. But Sproul, like most Bangoreans, did not know how to drive.
“Being unaware of the method employed in stopping or running a car, the captain was a bit helpless,” the reporter commented. Despite moving in “parabolical curves” on “a roundabout course,” the drunk and his captive captain made it safely without wrecking the car.
Harsher punishments were needed for reckless drivers, cried critics, and officialdom listened. On Aug. 11, the Bangor Daily News recorded that Joseph Winston became the first “motor maniac” to be sent to jail by the municipal court. Winston was sentenced to two days and fined $5.23 for drunken driving and for operating without a license.
A new class of criminals called “auto thieves” also had emerged. After a series of similar breaks in stores and post offices in Etna, Palmyra and at the Essex Street Pharmacy in Bangor, police theorized a gang of auto thieves was at work, according to an Aug. 10 Bangor Daily News article.
Meanwhile, Bangor had apparently developed such a reputation for automotive mayhem that an inspector for the Maine secretary of state’s office showed up one day in August to make sure state driving laws were being enforced.
Traffic was stopped on some streets so licenses and registration plates could be checked. Joy riders operating under the influence of liquor were threatened with loss of license, and a review of children under the age of 16 who were driving cars illegally was conducted.
“It is conceded by Bangor citizens that the automobile nuisance is in full blast here,” the Bangor Daily News concluded on Aug. 12 while the inspector still was in town. “The local authorities make comparatively little effort to check the large amount of reckless driving … It is evident that there will be a tightening of the line of enforcement here after this.”
The number of autos might be increasing, but the number of licenses might soon be shrinking, it was suggested.
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