In partnership with the Maine Memory Network Maine Memory Network

Life on a Tidal River

Ebb and Flow of Bangor History



Text by David Bergquist, Ed.D., L.H.D.

Image selection by Dana Lippitt, Curator, Bangor Historical Society; Bill Cook, Special Collections Librarian, Bangor Public Library; Lori Patterson, School Library Media Specialist at James F. Doughty School; and Priscilla Soucie, School Library Media Specialist, William S. Cohen School

Howard House, Bangor, 1869
Howard House, Bangor, 1869Item Contributed by
Bangor Public Library

"We came to a little river near which it was necessary to anchor, as we saw before us a great many rocks which are uncovered at low tide... But excepting for the fall, the river is beautiful..." Samuel de Champlain, 1604

Champlain's pleasing description underscores Bangor's natural physical attributes and geographical qualities. No doubt the Portuguese explorer Estevao Gomes in 1525 and perhaps before him, the Vikings, noted the same remarkable features: a deep river that rose and fell dramatically with each tide, a shallow falls that invited exploration to the north, and a smaller river that meandered into the vast interior to the west. The confluence of the Kenduskeag River with that of the Penobscot River beckoned development. Yet, it would be more than a hundred and fifty years before conditions in colonial New England would allow any attempt at permanent settlement.

The conclusion of the French and Indian War in 1763 brought a brief era of peace to the region. Fort Pownall now guarded the entrance to the Penobscot Valley; stalwart and hardy settlers began to settle where the two rivers met. James Buswell was first to arrive in 1769. Others soon followed so that by 1771 twelve families had settled in a village area they called Conduskeag.

The potentials of the land attracted early settlers. The soil was rich and well drained; abundant forests spread over the landscape; smaller water sources provided sites for future mills. The Penobscot River itself provided a smooth and reliable source of transportation to the Atlantic ocean which was crucial for trade and commerce.

Slack Tide

"Now...this our petition...will represent our distressed case and condition to your Excellencies...the ability of our village was incompetent to the payment of so great a sum..." Moses Patten, 1814

The Revolutionary War Years challenged the tiny hamlet on the western shores of the Penobscot. The movement of new people into the settlement stopped, money became scarce, and the economic situation worsened. When the British seized control of Castine in 1779 and American revolutionaries scuttled much of its navy in the Penobscot River, some settlers withdrew to safer areas in southern New England. Others stayed but barely survived.

Conditions improved after the Revolutionary War but only gradually. By 1790, just169 people counted Conduskeag their home while the surrounding farm settlements of Orrington and Hampden grew with fresh migrations from Cape Cod. The Rev. Seth Noble, the settlement's first permanent minister, arrived in 1786 and insisted on calling the village Sunbury. The settlement's leaders, seeing the potential of this place and hoping for a brighter future, petitioned the General Court in Boston to incorporate their plantation into a town. They asked Rev. Noble to travel to the capital to represent them. There, ever humming his favorite hymn entitled Bangor, as local legend has it, he attended the necessary committee meeting on the hamlet's request. When asked about the name for the town, Rev Noble replied "Bangor" thinking he had been asked about the name of the tune he hummed. By 1800, the new town of Bangor had grown by a mere 110 people.

The War of 1812 roused divergent sectional feelings within the United States. In New England, this war was hated as the years prior to its outbreak caused great economic difficulty to a region dependent upon maritime trade. By 1814, the tiny town of Bangor with 850 people had seen its share of hard times. Yet its greatest hardship would come in the late summer when British troops, victorious over the 10th Militia Division of Massachusetts in a rout in nearby Hampden, traveled up the Penobscot River and ransacked stores and rifled provisions from local merchants. The British seized ships in the harbor and burned eight. Selectmen Patten and Bradbury, fearing that the British would burn their village, negotiated a $30,000 bond, a considerable sum for those days. The citizens of Bangor surrendered in humiliation to the British and promised obedience. The British spared the buildings, but made themselves unwelcome guests for nearly three days before retreating down river.

The selectmen had no idea how they would pay the sum of the bond to the British; further negotiations with them failed. The near term future looked bleak. Fortunately, at the national level, cooler heads prevailed and the war came to an end with the Treaty of Ghent.

Rising Tide

View of the City of Bangor, 1837
View of the City of Bangor, 1837Item Contributed by
Bangor Historical Society

"The mission of the men there seems to be, like so many busy demons, to drive the forest all out of the soon as possible..." Henry David Thoreau, 1846

The District of Maine, Commonwealth of Massachusetts, became its own state as a result of the Missouri Compromise of 1820. Now this vast region of northern New England could manage its own affairs, and the citizens' optimism towards the future improved. They could realize the potential of their town's river location.

The rapid expansion of the American population during the 1820s and 30s forced the building of new housing. Much of the lumber stock along the east coast was already gone. Builders looked to the vast and nearly untouched lumber resources of Maine particularly within the Penobscot watershed. This led to Bangor's rapid development as "The Lumber Capital of the World," a moniker it would carry into the next century.

The Penobscot River played no little part in Bangor's growing commercial success. The deep unobstructed river afforded lumbermen a natural highway to national and even international markets. Soon wharfs, booms, and mills lined the Penobscot and Kenduskeag Rivers.

In response to this economic phenomenon, the population of the town began to grow dramatically with increased immigration from northern Europe. By 1834, the population increased four times over from the mid-1820s, and prompted town officials to incorporate itself as a city. Existing institutions expanded while the increased population brought about the establishment of new schools and churches, many of which continue to be active today. Early on, Bangor was selected as the seat of Penobscot County.

The year 1842, was the first 100,000,000 board foot year, and six years later lumber merchants shipped double this amount of lumber from Bangor's port. Henry David Thoreau during his 1846 visit to the city noted how Bangor was a bustling lumber town.

Lumber along waterfront, Bangor, ca. 1860
Lumber along waterfront, Bangor, ca. 1860Item Contributed by
Bangor Historical Society

The settlement of a long-standing boundary dispute between the United States and Great Britain in 1842 also contributed to Bangor's growing prosperity. Prior to this settlement, tension particularly among lumbermen threatened to break out in fighting. By the late 1830s, war seemed imminent. Bangor served as the terminus for fighters should war break out along the Maine-New Brunswick borders. The state built an armory in Bangor and mustered troops there. Bangor's elite Rifle Corps volunteered its services. The so called Aroostook War was avoided, however, when Gen. Winfield Scott, President Van Buren's emissary, convinced Governor Fairfield to resolve this dispute with Great Britain through negotiations.

The city expanded rapidly in population and services to meet the demands of its growing lumber industry. The commercial district expanded along Main, Central, State, and Harlow Streets. Norumbega Hall on Central Street was completed in 1855 to meet the needs of Bangor's growing community and its demand for more business space and for a place to host community activities. Its ground floor provided space for merchants, while its second level provided a large hall that hosted plays, concerts, visiting speakers, political and religious meetings, and other cultural gatherings.

Bangor was one of the first cities in the United States to have a railroad. The Bangor and Piscataquis Canal and Railroad Company operated twelve miles of track between Bangor and Old Town beginning in 1836. Years later, this company would be sold. By 1855, the Maine Central Railroad came into the city and tied Bangor to other parts of the country. The Bangor and Aroostook Railroad soon followed. About this same time, the Boston and Bangor Steamship Company launched weekly trips to coastal stops and then went on to Boston using its new ship appropriately named "Bangor."

Dangerous Currents

"The hunter of slaves, in our day, does consign them to perpetual slavery and often to punishment." Enoch Pond

Three major social movements mark the first half of 19th century American history: suffrage, temperance, and abolition. In Bangor, the last two caused considerable debate and some consternation among the citizenry. Maine became a dry state, the first one to do so, in 1851. The effort to control and to limit alcoholic consumption in Bangor was basically ignored, though. The "Devil's Half-Acre" continued to flourish with its drinking establishments and flop houses.

With the abolition movement, however, Bangoreans displayed great anti-slavery sentiment and zeal. Bangor Theological Seminary professor and later its president Enoch Pond published Slavery and the Bible in 1850. Pond's main thesis was that slavery violated man's God given rights to freedom; slavery must be ended. Other abolitionists found receptive audiences in Bangor during the 1850s. By the time of the national presidential election of 1860, the abolition of slavery had become a major issue for the newly formed Republican Party. Bangor's own Hannibal Hamlin was the vice presidential candidate along with the Illinois colossus Abraham Lincoln as the presidential candidate.

Lieut. Col. John F. Godfrey, Bangor, 1863
Lieut. Col. John F. Godfrey, Bangor, 1863Item Contributed by
Bangor Public Library

When war between the South and the North broke out in April 1861, Bangor eagerly answered President Lincoln's call for troops. A large rally was held at Norumbega Hall and the speakers called for volunteers to suppress the rebellion. Citizens responded with the formation of the Second Maine Infantry, the 22nd Maine Infantry, the 26th Maine Infantry, and the First Maine Heavy Artillery. All were mustered in Bangor.

Troops soon gathered at the state armory on Essex Street and quickly left for the South. Bangor soldiers saw action at Bull Run, Manassas, Antietam, Port Hudson, Irish Bend, Fredericksburg, and Cold Harbor among others. Bangor sailors also saw action even aboard the famous ironclad, the U.S. Monitor. Nearly 2,700 men from Bangor served during the Civil War, 236 of whom did not return home to their city on the Penobscot.

High Tide

"Bangor (is) a city universally recognized as the business center of Eastern Maine, and rapidly coming to the front as the metropolis of the Northeast." Edward Blanding, 1899
The defeat of the Confederacy in the spring of 1865 brought the Civil War to a close, and allowed the United States to focus on the development of vast tracts of its western lands. Once again, immigration into the United States increased rapidly and drove up the demand for lumber.

Bangor hit its zenith production year in 1872 when lumber merchants shipped 246,000,000 board feet of lumber from its port. The great spring river drives down the Penobscot brought the lumber to mills lining the river's shore where it was made ready for market. Coastal ships carried this cache to eastern coastal cities for distribution across America.

Bangor's river location defined its character; the lumber industry in Bangor seemed secure far into the future. Change, though, was in the offing.

View of Downtown Bangor from City Hall Tower, ca. 1870
View of Downtown Bangor from City Hall Tower, ca. 1870Item Contributed by
Bangor Public Library

At this same time, Bangor saw the rise of small "non-lumber" industries. Several foundries could be found in the city during the 1870s. These specialized ventures produced items to support lumbering but also made commercial products such as stoves. The boot industry was also well established at this time. Paper-making was coming into Maine and promised to be an expanding industry. Future paper mills would be located near Bangor but not in the city itself.

The Morrill Act of 1862 established the land grant colleges across the United States. For Maine, its college would be founded in 1865 just eight miles up river from Bangor. Initially known as the Maine State College, Maine's public institution of higher learning would later be called The University of Maine. Over time, the proximity of the University to Bangor would positively influence its cultural and intellectual life.

Haymarket Square, Bangor, ca. 1890
Haymarket Square, Bangor, ca. 1890Item Contributed by
Bangor Historical Society

Rapid expansion, increased prosperity, and the desire for personal improvement marked for Bangor the years toward the end and immediately following the Civil War. Enlightened citizens founded the Bangor Historical Society in 1864. In 1867, the Young Men's Christian Association was organized. The Bangor Children's Home was dedicated in 1869 and the Bangor Art Association established in 1875. The city founded a public library in 1883 and by 1892, Bangor General Hospital opened as a state of the art medical facility. Over the course of a few short years, numerous theaters were built and cultural organizations to advance the arts such as the Bangor Symphony Orchestra began.

Individuals founded new schools of specialized higher learning. What was occurring in Bangor was all part of the great spirit of Progressivism then sweeping across the United States. Improvements to how people lived in the confines of a city not only included advancements in the arts and in the social sphere, but also embraced the technological advances of the age in communications, electrification, transportation, and public works. In 1875, the city established a water system and 13 years later, the Bangor Street Railway began to lay track to provide transportation service to a city that had spread out. Downtown Bangor expanded and the city planned for new neighborhoods with parks included. By 1890, Bangor's population approached 20,000. It was indeed an era of progress.

Lumber Mill on the Penobscot, Bangor, ca. 1895
Lumber Mill on the Penobscot, Bangor, ca. 1895Item Contributed by
Bangor Public Library

By the turn of the 20th century, the lumber industry and Bangor's port were waning. Yet the "can-do" spirit of Bangor business and community leaders worked to develop a diversified economy. Many of the industries in existence then, such as Morse and Company, offered wood products for home and business. Long term, but small foundries consolidated in an effort to survive. A ceramics industry met with initial success, and the boot and shoe industry continued to be viable for many more years. The professional and banking community was well established and continued to meet Bangor's needs. Lumbering in Bangor, as it had been known during the nineteenth century, now faded into the city's past. The opening of the vast timber reserves of the northwestern part of the United States and the completion of the transcontinental railroads helped to bring this chapter to a close. It seemed as though Bangor's vitality was no longer connected to its rivers. With its well-established business and commercial interests, however, Bangor began to take on the aura of a regional service center.

Norumbega Hall ruins, Bangor Fire, 1911
Norumbega Hall ruins, Bangor Fire, 1911 Item Contributed by
Bangor Public Library

A stiff southerly breeze blew on that warm Sunday afternoon April 30, 1911 that caused hot embers from a fire on Broad Street to jump the Kenduskeag River and to ravage Bangor's downtown. Before long, the conflagration swept up the Park Street hill, across French Street, and onto Broadway. Within a few short hours, the massive fire claimed seven houses of worship, 100 businesses, 300 homes, and two lives. More than $3,000,000 in property value was lost. Yet from this fire, a revitalized city rose and endowed the city with beautiful educational, cultural, governmental, business, and residential structures that still grace Bangor today.

Ebb and Flow

"What is good for Dow is good for Bangor." Robert N. Haskell, 1959

Despite its best efforts, the United States could no longer avoid being drawn into the Great War of 1914. Men from Bangor answered their country's call when Congress declared war on the Central Powers in April 1917. Like the Spanish American war of 1898, Bangor citizens came to the aid of their country. Bangor had almost 2000 men who qualified for military service; many would serve in either the Army or the Navy. Bangor citizens readily subscribed to several Liberty Loan drives, often raising more money than expected. By November 11, 1918 when an armistice brought WW I to a close, over 30 Bangor men had died.

Bangor entered the "Roaring Twenties" like other cities across the United States. Prosperity returned and people were glad to be done with that European war "Over There."

The automobile and the aircraft were all the rage of this new age. In the early 1920s, futuristic local businessman Edward Godfrey constructed a small airfield from two farms on outer Union Street. Bangor would not be left behind in the age of the aircraft! Commercial flights began by 1931

The stock market crash of 1929, however, brought the country's prosperity to a sudden end, and in Bangor tested the city's mettle. Gradually, over the period known as the Great Depression, families that received some sort of city/state relief grew from 200 in 1929 to a height of 700 in 1938. City workers took a 12.5 percent pay cut, and Bangor actively sought participation in every federal program to spur employment.

The city operated a city hospital, almshouse (which provided housing and daily meals), and a city farm in an effort to care for and meet the needs of its citizenry. The city's population, during this trying economic time, grew very slowly from 28749 in 1930 to 29822 in 1940. Bangor remained a very safe city though.

Children could walk anywhere they pleased within the city that bordered the shores of the Penobscot and Kenduskeag Rivers. What a surprise October 25, 1937 was then to Bangor when the Federal Bureau of Investigation trapped the notorious Brady Gang on its Central Street and an a gun battle ensued.

Dow Field Anniversary Parade
Dow Field Anniversary ParadeItem Contributed by
Bangor Public Library

By 1940, war had broken out in Europe once again. In the Far East, Japan had invaded China. During this year, the U.S. Army had declared Bangor a crucial location for its aerial defense system, and by 1941, the building of an Army air base was underway that incorporated the city's municipal airport. Two thousand civilians labored around the clock during that spring to build the new Army cantonment which became known as Dow Field. December 7, 1941 was a climactic event that threw the nation into a two-ocean war that forever changed its history. Hundreds of young men and women from the city on the Penobscot left to serve their country in every corner of the globe. And Dow Field, as an embarkation point for the Army Air Forces, saw more than 100,000 airmen pass through on their way to Fortress Europe. By the time World War II finally ended on September 2, 1945, 112 Bangor citizens had made the ultimate sacrifice. (For more information on this time period, see Bangor in the 1940s.)

The peace that followed WWII was short-lived. Veterans returned home, and civilian life resumed. Dow Field was deactivated. Soon a new war in Korea broke out and a new term coined: "The Cold War." The air base was reactivated in the early 1950s and was now called Dow Air Force Base. It would serve as part of the Strategic Air Command. The City of Bangor welcomed the build-up of the air base and maintained a close relationship with the U.S. Air Force. Robert N. Haskell, President of Bangor Hydro and Chairman of the Civilian Advisory Council underscored this partnership when he stated "What is good for Dow is good for Bangor." At its peak in 1960, Dow Air Force Base was home to nearly 10,000 military personnel and their families.

Flood Tide

"Bangor needs to grow for the benefit of our young people, as well as for those of us ready to make some new memories... bring back the Queen City heyday--today..." Mark T. Wellman, 2009

As was true elsewhere across the United States, the decade of the 1960s for Bangor would prove to be an exciting but troubling era. Bangor began to experience urban sprawl with the opening of its first malls. These malls gave Bangor citizens up-to-date shopping facilities with plenty of parking; shoppers, though, began to neglect downtown.

New high speed highways cut through the city but doomed rail transportation. City officials struggled with ways to revitalize its city core along the banks of the Kenduskeag and Penobscot Rivers and settled on an ambitious but bittersweet urban renewal program. The city removed many old and dilapidated structures, but many city landmarks also fell before the wrecking ball. Adding to the city's challenges was the closing of Dow Air Force Base in 1968.

In the ensuing decades, Bangor faced social and economic challenges with perseverance and determination-challenges shared with other American cities. The city witnessed reductions in manufacturing and industry but countered with increases in its commercial base with the opening of the Bangor Mall in 1978. Soon, other shopping facilities dotted the nearby landscape. The medical facilities within the city also expanded dramatically.

Today Bangor serves as a commercial hub and medical center for the vast region of Eastern Maine. The rediscovery by the city of the value of its rivers to its economic and cultural life led to the removal of old warehouses that lined the shores of the rivers and to the creation of new parks along the Penobscot and Kenduskeag. The beauty of the Penobscot and Kenduskeag Rivers, as first described by Champlain, is again seen as a vital part of the history, heritage, and future of the place called Bangor.

Resource Page

Burrage, Henry S. Maine in the Northeastern Boundary Controversy. Portland: Marks Printing House, 1919. Print.

City of Bangor, Maine. Annual Reports. 1930-1940. Print.

Godfrey, John E. History of Penobscot County Maine. Cleveland: Williams, Chase and Co., 1882. Print.

Jones, Howard. To the Webster-Ashburton Treaty. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1977. Print.

Kjenstad, Lowell G. The Collection-Cole Land Transportation Museum. Bangor: Furbush-Roberts Printing Company, 1998. Print.

Lossing, Benson J. The Pictorial Field Book. New York: Harper Brothers, 1896. Print.

Scott, Geraldin Tidd. Ties of Common Blood: A History of Maine's Northeast Boundary Dispute with Great Britain, 1783-1842. Bowie: Heritage Books, Inc. 1992. Print.

Shaw, Richard. "20th Century Bangor" Bangor Metro. December 2009: 25-50. Print.

Sprague, John Francis. Sprague's Journal of Maine History. 2 Vols., October 1914. Print.

Thoreau, Henry David. The Maine Woods. New York: Bramhall House, 1950. Print.

Vickery, James B. Made in Bangor. Bangor: Bangor Historical Society, 1984, Print.

Zelz, Abigail E. and Marilyn Zoidis. Woodsmen and Whigs. Virginia Beach: The Donning Company, 1991. Print.

Vickery, James B. An Illustrated History of Bangor, Maine. Bangor: Bangor Bi-Centennial Committee, 1976. Print.

Bangor Chamber of Commerce. Bangor, The Center of Maine. Bangor: Chamber of Commerce, 1947.Print

Bookmarc's Publishing. The Story of Bangor. Bangor: Furbush-Roberts Printing, 1991. Print

Britton, Tori. "Bangor's Heyday" Bangor Metro, Summer 2009: 48-72: Print.