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“There stands the city of Bangor, fifty miles up the Penobscot, at the head of navigation for vessels of the largest class, the principal lumber depot on this continent . . . sending its vessels to Spain, to England, and to the West Indies for its groceries.”
Henry David Thoreau, The Maine Woods, 1862
In 1769 Jacob Buswell and his family settled at Conduskeag Plantation on high ground on the eastern side of Kenduskeag stream, they followed the footsteps of many others who scouted the area but did not remain. Indians used the rich hunting and fishing grounds annually, Portuguese explorer Esteban Gomez looked for riches in the early 1500s, and Frenchman Samuel de Champlain sought the fabled “Norumbega”( a fabled region of gold and riches) in 1604.
The Reverend Seth Noble, the plantation’s first installed minister, went to Boston to petition the General Court of Massachusetts for an act of incorporation. Before his departure, citizens agreed that the town’s new name would be “Sunbury.” Legend has it that Noble was humming a favorite hymn as he participated in the official proceedings and mistakenly answered “Bangor”-the name of the hymn-when asked the town’s name. Bangor incorporated as a city in 1834, Charles P. Roberts noted that “the town came forth like a star in the forehead of the morning as the Queen City of the East.,” a nickname that exists to this day.
Lumber & Railroads
Bangor lies along the banks of the Penobscot River, one of the largest rivers on the eastern seaboard north of the Hudson. In Downtown Bangor where Kenduskeag Stream joins the Penobscot, the river changes as it meets the flood tides of Penobscot Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. Twice a day the water rises twelve feet. The bustling metropolis became lumber port to the world, shipping millions of board feet of timber out of Maine’s forests and growing a wide range of businesses to support that industry. In 1860, Bangor shipped 250 million board feet of lumber on more than 200 ships a day that sailed downriver. In 1872, close to 2300 coastal vessels loaded lumber in Bangor-filled their holds and piled it five or six feet deep on deck-and departed for ports all over the world. Businessmen boasted that at the height of the lumber trade, you could walk from Bangor to Brewer from deck to deck without getting wet. By the time the lumber boom passed, railroads helped to make Bangor the retail, financial, and service center for the region, a gateway to both the North Woods and Downeast Maine.
The Penobscot River established Bangor as a central transportation hub in Maine, and the coming of the railroad did nothing to change the city’s status. Maine’s first steam railroad-one of the first in the country-began service in 1836. By mid-century, Bangor’s rail lines became Maine Central Railroad and linked Bangor with cities and towns throughout northern and southern Maine and points beyond. Trains arrived and departed from the company’s terminal on the Penobscot River. Nearby wharves welcomed a variety of vessels on the Bangor waterfront welcoming passengers and cargo. Hotels and other businesses that served travelers and the railroads quickly surrounded the stations, maintaining Bangor’s standing as a transportation and communication center.
Significant Events that Changed Downtown
The Great Flood of 1846
It all began on an early March morning, when an ice jam in the Penobscot River broke, carrying with it the remains of 44 sawmills. In Bangor, water and debris swept over the banks of the Kenduskeag, rising to a height of 10’ in West Market Square and shoved huge buildings into the streets. At midnight, the jam broke again for a short time, before fetching up at High Head, about half a mile downriver. Almost instantly, the water flowed back into the city and remained near second-story level for most of the next day. When the jam broke a final time-around 7:00 P.M. on Sunday, March 29-the water and debris surged away, sweeping much of downtown Bangor with it. There have been other serious floods since: 1902, 1923, and 1976. But none of the subsequent inundations rose to the heights of 1846.
The Great Fire of 1911
In 1911 Bangor experienced “The Great Fire” At 4:00 pm on Sunday April 30,1911 fire broke out in a large hay shed on lower Broad Street.”Thousands of sparks, carried on the high wind, leaped the stream and ignited several sheds in the rear of Exchange Street businesses.”
24 hours later Bangor had lost:
- 100 businesses
- 267 dwellings
- 8 churches
- 2 Brewer men
- P.O /Customs Ho.
- City Library
- Norombega Hall
- High School
J. Frank Green Hay Shed where The Great Fiire began (Photo: Bangor Museum & Center for History)
Area in Gray Depicts Burn Area of Great Fire (Photo: WBRC)
After the Great Fire
After the Great Fire of 1911, the City of Bangor hired Warren Manning, a Boston landscape architect, to provide a plan for the redevelopment of downtown, one third of which had been burned. He used Kenduskeag Stream as a key element in his proposed design. Bangor City Plan,the Burned District proposed the following: Norembega Mall (firebreak) , Washington St. bridge, Library & High School on Harlow St Civic center in city core.
Sketch of Manning Plan (Photo: Bangor Public Library)
Bangor became a different City after the Great Fire. Most of the sawmills, warehouses and ice-houses disappeared for good. The business district was widened and expanded. Buildings with retail and offices became the new style of commercial construction and Downtown became a retail center in the 1920s.
Freese’s opened on Main Street in 1892 and expanded and enlarged until it was the largest department store in Maine. It was referred to as the “Fifth Avenue in Maine.” Chain stores began to move into downtown including; F.W. Woolworth, W.T. Grant and Sears and Roebuck.
Urban Renewal & The Rise of Strip Malls
In 1964 Bangor residents narrowly approved a measure that allowed the city to secure $5.5 million in federal money to wipe out the "slums" some said had invaded the downtown business district. Urban Renewal's goal was to clean up the downtown by tearing down decrepit buildings in favor of constructing modern buildings. The idea being that modern buildings would invite new businesses and increase property values
Unfortunately, few of the projects the Urban Renewal supporters envisioned came true; the Kenduskeag Stream's path was not narrowed, newer buildings were devoid of character, Union Station was demolished in favor of a small strip mall, Bijou Theatre closed, and City Hall with its highly visible clock tower came down.
Construction of the Interstate system in the late 50s and Urban Renewal prompted the exodus of commercial activity from Downtown and the development of outlying shopping centers began. 1968- Broadway Shopping Center opens, 1972- Airport Mall opens as Maine’s first indoor shopping center and largest shopping mall and in 1978- the Bangor Mall opened. Additionally, Freese's, which had been the largest department store closed in the 1980s, which drastically contributed to the change in Downtown’s character.
View of Downtown (City Hall in Background) just prior to City Hall demolition (Photo: City of Bangor)
Groundbreaking, Bangor Mall (Photo: City of Bangor)
Since the mid 1980s Bangor has focused on downtown revitalization. The Bangor Center Management Corporation (now the Downtown Bangor Partnership) was created as a separate entity from the City of Bangor to further goals of downtown revitalization and inspires growth. The City has supported residential and mixed use development, specialty retail and restaurants as well as arts and cultural activities to revitalize downtown. A few examples of projects supported by the City:
The long vacant Freese’s building was rehabilitated and now holds 73 residential units, commercial space and the Maine Discovery Museum; $8.7 million dollar project funded by Federal, state, local and private funds.
The City of Bangor continues to take a proactive and collaborative approach to redevelopment of downtown properties. Additionally the City recognizes the important role that arts and culture play in attraction of business, residents and visitors. Today arts and culture, infrastructure improvements such as broadband access and signage as well as waterfront redevelopment play a critical role in shaping the future of Downtown Bangor.
Fireworks light up the night sky over Downtown Bangor (Photo: City of Bangor)
For more on the history of Bangor read the following:
"The Queen City" (Bangor Metro, March 2013)
"20th Century Bangor" (Bangor Metro, December 2009) not available online
Bangor Museum and History Center