So You Think You Know Bangor?
More than a few people — including a surprising number of Mainers — labor under some misperceptions about the city on the Penobs
Photograph by Lawrence Whittemore
It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s a space shuttle? Well, NASA never actually had to land any of their shuttles at Bangor International Airport, but they did keep the airport on the list of potential landing strips, should the space-age bird need someplace other than Cape Canaveral or California to set down. BIA’s 11,439-foot-long runway (yes, that’s more than two miles of straight pavement) was built in 1958 when the airstrip was Dow Air Force Base, and became the longest landing strip east of the Mississippi. It has proven helpful in getting everything from those giant B-52 Stratofortresses to chartered passenger flights full of American troops off the ground and onto Desert Storm, Iraq, and Afghanistan. The airport has also proven to be a vital air link for northern Maine, with Delta, US Airways, and the discount carrier Allegiant Air all providing regular service.
Stephen King gets all his inspiration from the zombies that roam the alleyways and cemeteries of Bangor, right? Wrong. Any fan of the master of horror knows that he has always gleaned his material from wherever he happens to find it. But King is without doubt the city’s most famous resident, and reminders of him (and his work) can be found all over the thirty-five-square-mile city. The wrought-iron fence on West Broadway is an obvious sign that you’ve reached the King homestead (unfortunately, too many deranged fans recognize it, too), but other landmarks that point out you’re in King country include the Thomas Hill Standpipe (which figures prominently in IT) and Mount Hope Cemetery (Pet Sematary).
Paul Bunyan — Bangorite?
Hey, there’s a thirty-two-foot-tall statue of the giant lumberjack across the street from Hollywood Slots, so in some sense there’s no disputing that big Paul hails from Bangor. Yes, the exploits of Bunyan and his blue ox, Babe (where’s her statue?), were actually the creations of copywriters for the Red River Lumber Company, of Westwood, California. But those writers used the legends of a giant bearded lumberjack, whose wanderings ranged from Ottawa to nearby Quebec, as the basis for their own tall tales. And sure, other states, including Minnesota and Michigan, claim they are home to Bunyan’s actual birthplace, but wouldn’t you think that the lumber capital of the world would be home to a giant logger? Artist Normand Martin thought so back in 1959 when he designed and built the statue as a way to publicize the city’s 125th anniversary. Perhaps we’ll find out the truth about Bunayn’s origins on February 12, 2084 — that’s when the time capsule encased in the big guy’s pedestal is due to be split open.
Queen for a Day
Of all the nicknames given to Maine cities, Bangor’s title of “The Queen City” is perhaps the most surprising — and misunderstood. While we would love to believe that Victoria Regina’s procession rolled down Hammond Street at some point (it didn’t), in fact the name comes from the writings of Charles P. Roberts, an early resident who was describing the creation of the city’s government in 1834. “The town came forth like a star in the forehead of the morning as the Queen City of the East,” Roberts wrote. The name stuck as the city’s fortunes rose with the lumber boom, and even today is used to reflect Bangor’s renewed sense of pride.
Compared to many communities in northern Maine, Bangor really is the big city — and yet its population of 33,039 would barely qualify it as a neighborhood in most places in America. Even by Maine metro standards it’s still dwarfed by its siblings to the south: Portland (66,194) or Lewiston-Auburn (59,647). But it wasn’t always so. In the first half of the nineteenth century, during the height of Bangor’s lumber boom, the Queen City was Maine’s second-largest metropolis, boasting more than 14,000 souls in 1850. The impact of the Civil War, growth of the railroad, and rise of textile industry elsewhere in the state spelled the end of Bangor’s No. 2 spot, as by 1880 Lewiston’s 19,083 people had eclipsed Bangor’s 16,856. Though the city would see a small population boom in the early 1960s, its growth has been modest ever since — and that’s just fine with most of the people who live here today.
Lumber Capital of the World
These days some towns’ claims to fame can seem a bit far-fetched (who really cares how big your ball of twine is?), but in the nineteenth century, Bangor’s claim to the title of “Lumber Capital of the World” carried some weight, literally. In 1872 more than 229 million board feet of lumber were shipped from the city at the head of the Penobscot, and no port anywhere in the world could rival its output. To handle the supply, every day up to thirty schooners and other sailing ships, most of them well over a hundred feet-long, would finish loading and ride the tide downstream to Penobscot Bay and points as near as Boston and as far away as the Caribbean and California. The joke at the time was that you could walk from deck to deck between Bangor and Brewer — and never get your feet wet. According to Trudy Irene Scee’s City on the Penobscot (published by the History Press), by one estimate enough lumber had been cut in the Maine woods and shipped through Bangor by 1899 to encircle the globe sixty-seven times!
Stephen King’s hometown seems like just the place for a neighborhood with a name like the Devil’s Half Acre, but this moniker was actually coined a full century before the master of horror was even born. In actuality a half-square-mile section of the city between Union and Main streets and the waterfront, the neighborhood got its name from the taverns and brothels that sprang up in the first half of the nineteenth century to support the waves of sailors coming up the Penobscot. And while this was hardly a quarter for the delicate, its business owners prided themselves on maintaining a sense of dignity and order. Even as one brothel owner outlined the rules of her establishment — “no fighting, no nastiness in my place, and no offensive language, either, not counting swearing” — she made no bones about the quality of the services she provided. “A man can spend a winter’s pay in my place in twenty-four hours and get his money’s worth, if he’s man enough,” boasted madam “Ma” Hogan.