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What happened to Bangor’s ‘forest of masts’?

Of all the changes to Bangor in the past 150 years, none seems more dramatic today than the decline of maritime commerce in the city’s harbor. By 1916, the Queen City of the East’s “forest of masts” had all but disappeared.

Descriptions in the newspapers of commercial activity in the harbor had become a rarity. The city’s two dailies contained little mention of much going on along Bangor’s waterfront except fishing, swimming, skating, yachting and the arrival of the occasional coal barge.

Noticing a minor uptick in maritime activity, the Bangor Daily Commercial provided a welcome exception on Sept. 25, 1916, with a short story headlined BUSY IN HARBOR. An enterprising, if inexperienced reporter managed to squeeze a few column inches out of the arrival of a “mosquito fleet” and some other minor business.

This mosquito fleet, consisting of six two-masted schooners, was unloading coke (fuel made from coal) for the Bangor & Brewer Coke Co. from Boston. The little vessels were being used because of the shortage of bigger “bottoms” created by the demand for merchant ships during World War I.

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The next noteworthy event that day was the arrival in port of two brothers, both sea captains, from Brooksville in their schooners.

Capt. Thurman Gray in the Emily Bell was unloading Maine gravel onto railroad flatcars at the Broad Street end of the drawbridge that spanned the mouth of the Kenduskeag Stream. Old timers stood around expressing amazement at how much more quickly one could hoist tubs of gravel out of a ship’s hold with a gasoline engine than with the horse-powered rigs of yesterday.

The other brother, Capt. Irving Gray, was loading lumber for Northeast Harbor at another dock in his schooner, Kate L. Pray.

That same morning, the tug Walter Ross arrived in port towing the three-masted Miriam Ross with coal for the Maine Central Railroad sheds. A little later the busy tugboat guided the schooner Methebesec down river with a load of lumber from Sterns Lumber Co. bound for New York.

Such was “a busy day” in Bangor Harbor a century ago at least in the eyes of novices.

A week or so later, on Oct. 7, another much longer story appeared in the Bangor Daily News. The headline: REFLECTIONS ON A DESERTED PORT: A Contrast of Old Days with New on the Penobscot. Clearly, the Commercial’s fellow had missed the boat, so to speak, with his story about a busy port. The BDN planned to expose conditions as they really existed.

I suspect this anonymous piece was written or dictated by Lawrence T. Smyth, the paper’s once legendary editor. It is disguised as an interview with an old timer, someone who just happened to resemble Smyth, a recognized expert on Bangor’s nearly extinct maritime affairs.

Smyth dropped out of school at age 13 in 1875 and started working for the city’s harbor master collecting information on ship arrivals and departures. He provided information to the city’s newspapers for their shipping columns thus launching his journalism career.

“Reflections on a Deserted Port” was a fitting obituary for Bangor’s nearly empty harbor.

“A man who spent his boyhood along the wharves of Bangor, when this was one of the greatest lumber ports of the world, went down to get a look at the river the other day and saw where formerly was a forest of masts, one four-masted schooner, two three masters, seven two-masters, a couple of tugs and a few coal barges. Except for these the long line of wharves were deserted and decaying and the lonesome sight made the old timer heart sick,” the author began.

“He could remember when he could walk from the City Point [where Union Station later was located] to the lumber docks just below Bangor bridge [Bangor’s most northerly bridge to Brewer today] upon the decks of vessels moored there in a tier, with lines out astern to the piers and anchors in the stream; when there was another tier of vessels at the old Maine Central wharves below Railroad Street; when ships and barks were moored to the old toll bridge [the Bangor bridge] piers, while the Brewer shore was lined with vessels moored at the wharves, repairing at yards and docks or anchored on the flats; when half a dozen busy saw mills below the city each had a considerable fleet loading, and when at High Head [near Bangor’s “tin” bridge] docks flew the flags of all nations on all sorts of craft from the squat Italian brig to the proud Yankee ships fresh from the yards of Bath, Belfast, Camden and Thomaston.”

The harbor was often “choked” with coasters as well as rafts of logs headed for the down river sawmills. Some days parades of lumber schooners were towed “twenty sail at a time,” in tiers of four or five, by powerful steam tugs.

Smyth (or the reporter taking down his words) recalled that one of his jobs as the harbor master’s boy was to run to the offices of Ross and Haskell’s to get tugs to clear the channel so fast-moving steamers and sailing vessels headed down river could get through this chaotic mess.

In those days boarding houses inhabited by deep water sailors lined Front, lower Broad and Union streets.

“Today [1916] the boarding houses are inhabited mostly by woodsmen and laborers [and] a real sailorman is a rare being in those parts and the song of the sea [sung by the sailors in the old days] has given way to ragtime on cheap music machines.”

The author also provided a lengthy report entitled “Exchange Street, Then and Now” on the maritime-related business activity that once dominated that busy thoroughfare including the offices of ship brokers, lumber manufacturers, shipping agents, ship chandlers, tow boat offices and so on. “The whole neighborhood was redolent of the forest and the sea.”

“All these and more were there along Exchange Street, but few of them are left. Today their places are occupied by clothing stores, barber shops, shooting galleries, automobile show rooms.”

He made no mention of the dozens of saloons that had infiltrated the area now that the anti-prohibition folks were temporarily back in power in Bangor.

So what had happened to Bangor’s mast forest?

“Pulp Mills Ate It Up,” declared the next subhead in this lengthy tale of loss. Everything could be blamed on the growing paper industry, declared the author.

“The day the first pulp mill was built on the Penobscot was the beginning of the end of Bangor’s port prosperity,” he declared. “In former times before they began to make paper out of spruce logs, Bangor shipped away from 180 million to 225 million feet of lumber yearly, and in one year the record was 242 million feet. Now the greater part of the spruce is eaten up by the pulp plants, whose owners control the bulk of the timber, and the saw mill has been forced out of existence along the Penobscot, save for a few small concerns.

“In the saw mill days whatever profit was made stayed here on the Penobscot; now the money that is made goes into the pockets of New York stock and bond holders of the big paper corporations.”

The railroads had played a role in the decline of Bangor’s harbor as well.

“The forest products that once freighted fleets from Bangor’s port and gave employment to 600 stevedores, as many mill men, scores of ships carpenters and numerous others here, not to mention the log drivers and the boom crews, now pass through in railroad cars in the form of great rolls of newspaper, and Bangor gets nothing at all out of it save what trade is afforded in the supply of the paper mill villages up the river.”

The observer concluded: “Bangor is shipping this year about a quarter part of the lumber that it used to send away. The only feature of the port’s commerce, aside from the steamboat business, that holds up to past records is the coal trade and that is done almost entirely in barges. Few men along the wharves can remember when a square-rigged vessel was here.”

Of course, many Bangor boosters took a different view of these events. While it was true that the city’s port was on the decline, Bangor was becoming the shopping hub of eastern and northern Maine. Its population was growing. People came from miles around to see its fairs and attend its schools.

The Queen City was still rich! Hadn’t it recently overcome a disastrous fire, raising new, imposing buildings all over the fire district? The railroad, of course, was just a more efficient way to make more money.

Meanwhile, the logging industry remained healthy even if the wood was used for something else. Thousands of loggers passed through the Queen City every year on their way to the woods even if most of what they cut never saw Bangor’s harbor. Things weren’t as picturesque as they used to be, but money continued flowing through the city like the swift current in the Penobscot River.

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 wreilly.bdn@gmail.com.


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