City Spotlight: Bangor, ME

Brief History of Bangor, Maine

The history of Bangor, Maine is a humble one, which suits the equally humble town perfectly. The first known visitor to what would one day be Bangor, was a European gentleman named David Ingram. He sailed up the Penobscot River in the late 1500s, and believed the place he discovered to be Norumbega, the lost city of gold. Upon his return to Europe, Ingram reported finding a wealthy city whose streets were lined with gold, and tall buildings with casements of silver. Later, in 1604, encouraged by Ingram’s tale, Samuel de Champlain set sail for the lost city, only to discover an American-Indian tribe, the Tarrantines, with whom the Europeans later engaged in fur trading.

The first settlers of the area didn’t arrive until much later, in 1769. While accounts vary as to how many people actually resided there, it appears to have been only a couple hundred. These settlers decided in 1791 to formally incorporate themselves into a town. Because Maine was a part of Massachusetts at the time, it was necessary to petition the Massachusetts General Court for incorporation.

The Reverend Seth Noble was nominated by his neighbors to travel to Boston to petition the court, and request that the town be named Sunbury. The story goes that while waiting to present his petition, Noble, an organist and composer, began whistling one of his favorite tunes, a Welsh hymn called Bangor. Supposedly caught off guard when his name was announced, Noble answered “Bangor” when asked what the city would be named, mistakenly thinking he’d been asked the name of the tune he’d been whistling. Thus the General Court approved “Bangor” for the new town’s name, and officially incorporated it on February 25, 1791.

Bangor’s biggest claim to fame, the Lumber Capital of the World, occurred in the mid-1800s. Home to over 300 sawmills, and dense, wooded forests, the city’s prosperity was derived from its prominence in the lumber industry. However, as Americans began to move and settle farther west, where equally wooded forests were found in states like Minnesota and Oregon, Bangor’s prosperity in the lumber industry began to fade. By the end of the century, the city began to lose its mills, with none surviving to this day.

Today, Bangor is known as the Queen City, though the origins of its new nickname are unknown. Yet, lights which sit atop the banister of the Thomas Hill Standpipe are often referred to as the city’s crown jewels. Regardless of the origins of the nickname, Bangor is a place of natural beauty, and deserving of its nickname.  

Historic Photos of Bangor

Bangor Postcard, 1912

A 1912 novelty card showing formally dressed young people seems innocent by today's standards. Few lifelong residents would deny that Bangor is "a dandy place." [Reprinted from Bangor in Vintage Postcards by Richard R. Shaw (Pg. 4, Arcadia Publishing, 2004).] 

Tall ships taking on lumber and other goods, c. 1880s. The largest vessels also carried ice to ports around the world and returned with cold weather necessities such as coal. [Reprinted from Bangor by Richard R. Shaw (Pg. 10, Arcadia Publishing, 2004).] 

Bangor Tigers

River drivers, or Bangor Tigers, had nimble feet and nerves of steel. Rafting logs involved separating timber from large booms and marking it for delivery to its rightful owners in the city. Branding cattle followed the same technique. [Reprinted from Bangor by Richard R. Shaw (Pg. 18, Arcadia Publishing, 2004).] 

Old Exchange St. Station

This three-story 19th-century railroad terminal stood on the site of the later Union Station on Washington Street. Renovated in 1874 by the European and North American Railroad, it was a landmark at the end of Exchange Street for more than 30 years, before railroad and city planners razed it in favor of a larger, more substantial modern terminal. [Reprinted from Bangor in Vintage Postcards by Richard R. Shaw (Pg. 12, Arcadia Publishing, 2004).] 

Bangor Auditorium
This barn-like building, which had near perfect acoustics, was the old Bangor Auditorium on lower Main Street. A 1913 postcard shows dignitaries arriving at the annual Maine Music Festival, which attracted crowds of 3,000. Maj. James M. Davis built this landmark in six months in 1897, before finishing the standpipe in a similar amount of time. [Reprinted from Bangor in Vintage Postcards by Richard R. Shaw (Pg. 19, Arcadia Publishing, 2004).] 

Eastern Steamship Co.

Men and women in full dress stand on the passenger slip of the Eastern Steamship Company, c. 1913. The terminal was conveniently located near downtown hotels and businesses that prospered from its proximity. Many people preferred the luxury of steamboat travel to trains. [Reprinted from Bangor by Richard R. Shaw (Pg. 12, Arcadia Publishing, 2004).] 

Bangor Flood of 1902
Massive logs were tossed around like matchsticks in the Bangor Flood of 1902. In March, just prior to the great spring log drives of April and May, a mighty wall of ice swept down the Penobscot River and slammed into the Bangor-Brewer Brdige, ripping out its middle span and part of the railroad bridge beside it. Nobody died in the disaster, but spectators standing on the bridge and on railroad cars along the riverbank ran for their lives when the ice floes shifted violently. To many, it seemed like a replay of the Great Flood of 1846, although without the damage to public and personal property.  [Reprinted from Bangor by Richard R. Shaw (Pg. 19, Arcadia Publishing, 2004).] 

Bangor, ME

A tranquil river scene from the late 1800s. A raft of logs lies in the Penobscot, just upstream from the covered railroad and toll bridges. The colorful neighborhood near the bridges was long remembered for its grog shops and brothels. Standing tall over these landmarks are church spires, just blocks away. Until the 1950s, when the Joshua Chamberlain Bridge added a second link between the Bangor and the Brewer, the "Old Bridge" was the only way vehicles could pass from one city to the other. Today, a third link, the Veterans Remembrance Bridge, ties the Twin Cities together in yet another location.  [Reprinted from Bangor by Richard R. Shaw (Pg. 20, Arcadia Publishing, 2004).] 

For more on the history of Bangor and historic photos of Bangor, Maine, consider these other sources:


Bangor in Vintage Postcards

Legendary Locals of Bangor

Bangor Volume II: The Twentieth Century

The Lower Penobscot River Region

City on the Penobscot: A Comprehensive History of Bangor, Maine

Remembering Bangor: The Queen City Before the Great Fire

Mount Hope Cemetery of Bangor, Maine: The Complete History

Hidden History of Bangor: From Lumbering Days to the Progressive Era

Bangor in World War II: From the Homefront to the Embattled Skies

All Bangor, ME titles