women inspecting howitzer shells
Photograph courtesy of Collections of Maine Historical Society

What’s in a Picture

From the April 2017 issue of Down East magazine.

A hundred years ago this month, the U.S. entered World War I. As young men left Maine for the front, women took key industrial jobs, like inspecting howitzer shells at the Portland Company factory on Fore Street. Edwin Costrell, a Bangor native who later worked as a State Department historian, had just finished a master’s thesis at UMaine when, in 1940, he authored a survey of prewar newspapers in Bangor, Lewiston, Augusta, and Portland. He observed that when war broke out in Europe in 1914, after years of escalating nationalism and militarism, the Maine populace “gasped momentarily in dazed bewilderment.” Rumors of German spies in the North Woods and a secret telegraph station near Bar Harbor stoked anxieties, but Mainers mostly expressed “profound relief that the United States had escaped involvement.” But U-boat attacks on commercial ships — including the Lyman M. Law, en route from Maine to Italy in 1917 — eventually swayed opinion. Bowdoin College president William Hyde told students to ready for the trenches, and the state legislature approved a million-dollar war bond. “Maine wanted war fervently when war came,” Costrell concluded. The Portland Company factory, still standing today, churned out munitions until Armistice Day — and of 35,000 Mainers who served, 1,026 didn’t come home.