Editor’s note: This story originally ran on Feb. 26, 2016. We are republishing this story as part of our ongoing bicentennial coverage. These stories tell us about key moments in Maine’s history that shaped the world around us today.
BANGOR, Maine — On Feb. 25, 1791, the Massachusetts General Court leadership and John Hancock — yes, that John Hancock — signed an act to incorporate Bangor as a town in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
Hancock, who is most famous for his bold, emphatic signature on the Declaration of Independence, was governor of Massachusetts from 1780 until 1785, when he resigned because of deteriorating health. Still, he returned in 1787, when he was re-elected governor, and died in office in 1793.
The charter document makes Bangor sound like a barren wasteland. The boundaries of what would become a bustling municipality are described as follows:
“Beginning at a stake and stones on the bank of the Penobscot River on the westerly side thereof, near Simon Crosby’s, and at the corner of township number one in the first range, thence running northwest about two hundred rods [a surveyor’s measurement equal to about 5½ yards] to a small birch tree, then west on the north line of number one first range two miles and a half to a poplar tree, then north by number two in the second range six miles to a poplar tree, thence east six miles to a large white pine tree standing in a great bog, thence south 33 degrees east three miles and a half to a small poplar on the bank of the Penobscot River, then down the said river to the first mentioned bounds.”
The charter then states that the above land, formerly known as the “plantation of Kenduskeeg” would be incorporated as a town named Bangor, and directs the town to hold annual meetings on town affairs in March or April.
The description of boundaries doesn’t make Bangor sound like much to write home about, but the new town was fast becoming a turn-of-the-century powerhouse driven by lumber. The first mill opened in the 1770s. By the 1830s, the “town” was home to more than 300 sawmills, and Bangor boasted the title “Lumber Capital of the World.” A bustling, if sometimes seedy downtown grew to serve loggers, shippers and merchants who descended on the hub.
Maine wouldn’t become a state until 1820, as part of the Missouri Compromise. Many Mainers were still fired up about the War of 1812, during which British troops occupied towns along the Maine coast and looted Hampden and Bangor. Massachusetts didn’t seem to care much about driving away the incursions into the “far-away” part of its state, or helping the locals.
That lack of action strained relationships between future Mainers and Massachusetts, and, in part, drove the call for statehood.
That’s why Bangor’s city flag, seals and commemorative coins all proclaim Feb. 12, 1834, as the incorporation date. That more oft-cited birthdate marks Bangor’s incorporation as a city within the state of Maine. The town’s rapid growth — from 800 residents in 1800 to more than 8,000 in 1834 — spurred the desire to become a city so it could raise its own fire department, public services, and police force to counter its rougher developing areas.
Where did the name Bangor come from? The story is disputed, but involves the Rev. Seth Noble, a pastor who moved to what would become Bangor in the late 1780s. He and neighbors decided to petition to become a town, and Noble was chosen to head to Boston to deliver documents.
Apparently, Noble and the neighbors had decided on the name Sunbury, but that’s not the name that got to Boston. “Bangor” was the name of a popular Welsh tune of the day, said to be one of Noble’s favorites.
One of the most popular versions of the story has a clerk in Boston asking Noble for the name of the proposed town. Some say Noble thought the person asked what tune he was humming, and he answered “Bangor,” prompting the error. Others believe Noble may have had a slip of the tongue or been a bit tired or tipsy and uttered the name of the song rather than the name of the town.
Another version of the story has Noble writing “Bangor” on the petition on his own, either because of a slip-up or because he had second thoughts about the name in the 11th hour. If it was a mistake, Noble never bothered correcting the record, and Massachusetts approved Bangor, not Sunbury, on Feb. 25.
Still others believe that the explanation is much simpler, and that Bangor was just named after the cities in either Wales or Northern Ireland.
There has never been a strong answer as to which of these stories is true. Nonetheless, Bangor was born.