Winter came early to the Queen City of the East a century ago, delivering a devastating one-two punch that made a mess of the primitive country roads, emptied Bangor’s harbor early and sent a Belfast bowling team on a memorable odyssey through a howling blizzard.
Weather forecasting was primitive back then and people were more likely to learn about impending storms from passengers getting off the train at Union Station than from newspapers.
RECORD BREAKING COLD WAVE AND BIG STORM MOVING NORTH, reported the Bangor Daily Commercial on Nov. 13, 1916. The story vaguely detailed conditions in western and southern states that might be headed up the Atlantic coast.
It was already snowing in Bangor. The first sign the storm might be troublesome had to do with horses. They were slipping and falling down at a rate of one a minute on the “treacherous” wood block paving at the busy intersection at State and Exchange streets. “It is claimed that ten horses fell in seven minutes,” the Bangor Daily News reported the morning of Nov. 14.
The electric trolley cars were also having trouble. The light snow and sleet on the tracks caused intermittent power outages, making for much starting and stopping.
This first storm, however, was hardly the disaster that was to come. In the midst of this early storm several “automobile parties” arrived in Bangor. The 6-inch snowfall had “no serious effect on motor navigation, the roads having been hard and smooth for some time.”
The cold snap and early snow made some people happy. Hunters were happy because it made it easier for them to sneak up on game. The Maine Central Railroad placed advertisements in the newspapers that HUNTING IS GOOD IN MAINE, sporting camps were open, guides available and passenger trains were waiting to take folks to the Moosehead Lake country, Washington County and the Rangeley or Dead River regions.
Choate & Simpson’s hardware store at 32 Broad St. had plenty of sleds and toboggans in stock, while Lyford-Woodford Co. at 10 State St. advertised a multitude of fur coats, hats and other clothing.
Meanwhile, the ice skaters were lobbying again for the city to flood fields in various neighborhoods so there would be plenty of safe skating spots. Many parents worried about their children drowning when they went out on the river to skate.
The early ice in the river was causing anxiety in other quarters as well. The area’s natural timetable was upset. No one was sure whether winter had arrived. North of Old Town logs were caught in the ice in temporary booms. In the spring, they would break away down river and many would be lost if the river didn’t thaw again.
Some people were making provisions to burn wood in their stoves that winter because of the fear they would not be able to get cheap coal, which was less expensive when shipped up river by water than by railroad. The price in Old Town had already climbed to $12 a ton, said the Commercial on Nov. 22.
Warm weather did return, however, and by early December the area’s roads had been badly damaged by freezing and thawing accompanied by rain. Automobiles had created “deep furrows and ruts.” A Bangor man reported that he had driven to Bucksport recently in low gear because of the terrible conditions.
State Sen. C.M. Conant of Winterport told the Bangor Daily News in a story Dec. 7 that something needed to be done to restrict driving on the roads in autos at this time of year under such conditions. It would cost more than $100,000 to restore them in the spring.
Sudden cold weather returned a few days later, threatening once again to close the river early, according to the Bangor Daily News on Dec. 15. Boat owners scrambled to get their vessels out of Bangor’s nearly deserted harbor so they wouldn’t be trapped for the winter.
Bangor’s winter coal supply was still arriving by river. Barges unloading coal at Bacon & Robinson, at High Head for the Canadian Pacific railway and at the Connor Coal & Wood Co. were towed down river to finish the job at Bucksport, where the coal would have to be hauled back to Bangor by train. Unloading in Bucksport would drive the price up a dollar a ton.
The schooner Ida B. Gibson meanwhile continued loading lumber at Sargent Mill in South Brewer despite the danger of being trapped in the ice.
The next morning, on Dec. 16, the weather report on the front page of the newspaper predicted snow. One of the worst blizzards in memory had already begun in Bangor.
The succinct headline in the Commercial that afternoon summed it up: BANGOR STRUCK BY WORST NORTHEASTER IN YEARS, Street Cars Tied Up by 40 Mile Gale and Three Feet of Snow — Business at a Standstill — Trains Stuck for Hours.
The reporter believed he had witnessed an event that “will give the children of today material for reminiscent tales to their descendants in 1965 of the good, old fashioned winters we used to have early in the twentieth century … It was a whopper.”
At its peak between 2 a.m. and noon, the white stuff was falling at about 4 inches an hour. No official figures could be had because the University of Maine “weather observer failed to answer the telephone when called repeatedly.” Later, this led to a discussion of how it was about time Bangor got a federal weather bureau, considering its importance as a railroad hub, if no longer a major shipping port.
Most people worked on Saturdays back then, and many — including women — walked there on snowshoes, even though some trolley cars were still running slowly behind snowplows. Not a single train arrived or left Bangor on time, and the train to Houlton was reportedly five hours late. Some workers who commuted between Bangor and Old Town found it easier to take the train than the trolley, however.
Mount Desert Island appears to have been hit the worst of any town in the area. Telephones were knocked out below Ellsworth after 98 poles blew down. Electric lights all over Bar Harbor were out, and as in other coastal communities, dozens of small vessels were wrecked or washed ashore in the steady gale.
Three days later, Bangor finally had to admit that its harbor was closed for the season, choked with “congealed slush” for about a mile downriver as far as Stearns mills in Hampden.
The Boston boat Belfast retreated from Bangor to Winterport, while the other Boston boat that served Bangor, the Camden, took refuge in Bucksport. Nearly as long as a football field, the Boston boats were done for the season as far as Bangor was concerned.
Meanwhile, the schooner Ida B. Gibson, still awaiting its load of lumber, was declared frozen in at Sargent’s Mill at South Brewer until spring.
DO YOU LOVE THE OLD TIME WINTER? asked a bold headline in the Bangor Daily News on Dec. 18 after it was all over. They should have directed that question to members of the Belfast bowling team who had spent 20 hours conquering the 25 miles between Rockland and Belfast after “cleaning up” the Rockland team.
Driving “an able touring car with plenty of gasoline,” the team left Rockland around midnight headed home. Doubtlessly some liquid refreshment had boosted their courage as they plunged into the snowy night. This was the era before big motorized highway plows, police rescue units and rural street lights.
Going through Lincolnville, “it appeared as if all the snow in the Camden Mountains was being dumped down in the road for their benefit.” They continued to push ahead through the increasing drifts, “making detours and pounding on a few rods at a time.” Finally at 6:30 a.m., the game was up. A giant snow drift blocked the way. Some claimed it was 12 feet high.
After digging out and pushing their auto into a nearby barn, these sturdy bowlers were fortified by a hot breakfast at a nearby farm house. Then they started walking through the knee-high and hip-deep drifts. They arrived home long after dark at around 9 p.m.
In Bangor the tumult ended predictably in a spat over who was responsible for shoveling downtown sidewalks. Mayor Woodman produced an ordinance proving it was the job of the merchants and other property owners.
The streets remained a mess. The limousine belonging to Mrs. Henry Apple, doubtlessly a celebrity of some sort, got stuck in a drift in front of the Park Theater and had to be hauled out by two horses “while a sidewalk committee of 50 or 60 watched and offered advice.”
Meanwhile, good times triumphed as they always do after a snowstorm. Kids were skating on the river near the ferry slip on a patch of smooth ice magically ignored by the snow. To my knowledge, nobody drowned.
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