Bangor, the third largest city in Maine and the county seat of Penobscot County, sprawls upon the hills along the west bank of the Penobscot River. Twenty-three miles from deep-sea anchorage and at the head of tidewater, the city faces in another direction the hundreds of miles of historic and playground areas that lie to the south along Penobscot Bay and eastward. Kenduskeag Stream enters the city from a northerly direction, running through the central and business districts from which other hills rise sharply to residential Bangor.
Were it not for its advantageous geographical position, Bangor might well be a city of ghosts: the ghosts of hordes of lusty caulk-booted river drivers, of merchants, mariners, and mill hands of a dozen nationalities, who once swarmed about the present vital city. The lumber industry, largely responsible for Bangor's growth, is now restricted to pulp-wood operations at Brewer across the river, while the days when scores of vessels filled the Penobscot at Bangor are long departed. Today, the city is predominantly commercial. In addition, it is a focal point for thousands of tourists who pour through the city each year over highways which were once well-beaten Indian trails along the Penobscot.
The first authentic record of the site of present-day Bangor occurs in Samuel de Champlain's journals. Champlain, cruising out of St. Croix in September, 1604, piloted his sixteen-ton vessel up the Penobscot until, as he writes, 'we came to a little river [the Kenduskeag] in the vicinity of which we had to anchor. [We] could not have proceeded more than half a league on account of waterfall [Treats Falls] which descends a slope of some seven to eight feet.' The explorer landed 'to see the country,' went hunting, and found the locality 'most pleasant and agreeable.' He was much impressed by the oaks which originally covered the site of Bangor, and from which the present Oak and Grove Streets derive their names. The place was an important Indian rendezvous, and Champlain conferred here with the Etchimin Indian chief, Bessabez. Champlain's tactful and courteous conduct at this time was largely responsible for the amicable French-Indian relationships which lasted as long as the French had control of Acadia.
Bangor's early history, begun by the settlement of Jacob Buswell of Salisbury, Massachusetts, in 1769, was the usual one of a slowly growing pioneer community whose chief revenues were derived from the exportation of fish, furs, and lumber. The settlement was known as Kenduskeag Plantation until 1787, and as Sunbury from 1787 to 1791. In 1779, the Revolutionary expedition against Castine under the command of Commodore Richard Saltonstall and General Solomon Lovell was routed by a British fleet commanded by Sir George Collier. Retreating to Kenduskeag Plantation, the Americans destroyed their own fleet of nine ships and fled westward through the forest. With them went the settlers, except those who were unable to leave and who later were obliged to take an oath of allegiance to the British Crown. Twelve years later, the community had recovered sufficiently to petition for incorporation. The Reverend Seth Noble, Bangor's first installed pastor, was sent to Boston to obtain the incorporation from the General Court. It is said that, while the clergyman was attending to the town's registration, he was humming the old hymn tune known as 'Bangor.' When the clerk, filling out the necessary papers, asked Noble the name of the community, the pastor misunderstood the question and replied with the name of the hymn, and thus the latter name was written into the incorporation papers.
By the turn of the century, Bangor was beginning to enjoy a brisk export trade in lumber. But embargoes, and the War of 1812, with British ships lying off-shore and threatening the very life of the Penobscot Bay settlements, made financial gain possible only by privateering or the running of contraband. In September, 1814, a British fleet and army descended upon the defenseless town and forced its unconditional surrender. Considerable plundering and pillaging followed notwithstanding the town's petition that life and property be spared and the giving of a bond to assure the delivery of certain vessels, then under construction, to the British at Castine. Four years later, the most important news on the first day of the year was an announcement in The Eastern Argus that 'Mr. Holmes had a new suit of clothes before he went to Congress.'
Between 1830 and 1834, the early boom in lumber and allied industries resulted in an increase in Bangor 's population from 2808 to 8000. The forests were cut back and away from the Penobscot, up the river to the East Branch and West Branch that great woods country which produced men and legends as integrally a part of Maine as its pine trees. Bangor's rise to eminence coincided with the 'pine period' between 1820 and 1860, when real lumbermen rather scorned the lowly spruce. After the Civil War, as the supply of pine became depleted, spruce began to come into its own as a forest product, until today the cut of spruce considerably exceeds that of the other species. Millions of logs were tumbled down the Penobscot to be converted into lumber, clapboards, laths, shingles, and staves in the Bangor mills. In the 1850's, Bangor was probably the leading lumber port of the world, while in the sixties and seventies it was second only to Chicago in the extent of its lumber shipments.
For approximately fifty years in the middle of the nineteenth century, a section of the city which compared with San Francisco's Barbary Coast in its palmy days flourished in the vicinity of Washington, Hancock, and Exchange Streets. This part of Bangor was known as the 'Devil's Half-Acre.' Here were the taverns and grogshops, the lodging-houses and brothels, which catered to the teeming life of the busy seaport. In the spring, when hundreds of lumbermen and rivermen thronged into Bangor fresh from the log-drives with a winter's wages and the accumulation of a winter's thirsts and hungers, the population of the Half-Acre swelled. After months of hard and dangerous labor, the men of the North Woods were ready for relaxation; and there was nothing half-hearted in the way they went about it. Today, there is no trace of this riotous quarter, where salt-water shellbacks and tall-timber-men swapped tales, drinks, and blows.
The pulse of Bangor quickened during the exciting days of 1834-36 when land speculation was at its height in Maine. Land which sold for only a few cents an acre in the morning might command a price of as many dollars in the afternoon; townships and lots were sold over and over again 'sight unseen.' Brokers' offices were established in Bangor, a courier line was set up to Boston, and the city overflowed with speculators, gamblers, and the human flotsam and jetsam which is always attracted by the prospect of 'easy money.' One company, after advertising extensively in New England and New York papers, held a land auction at which 'champagne from the original bottles [was poured] into huge wash tubs from which each man helped himself at his own sweet will.' The Baltimore Niks' Register of June, 1835, contained this item: 'It is rumored that one evening last week, two paupers escaped from the Bangor almshouse, and though they were caught early the next morning, yet in the meantime, before they were secured, they had made $1800 each by speculating in timber lands.' The bubble burst when people stopped long enough to look at the lands they had purchased; and the web of dishonest surveyors' reports, deception, and swindling fell to pieces.
Essential to the lumber industry were the ships, many of them Bangor-built and Bangor-owned, which sailed with pine boards and brought back molasses, sugar, and rum from the West Indies. From April until late November, the harbor was crowded with vessels of all rigs and sizes, ranging from bay coasters to full-rigged ships. Records show that as many as seven hundred vessels of from four hundred to four thousand tons have been anchored in the harbor at one time. A brisk trade was developed with the United Kingdom and the Continent, while many coasters carried cargoes to all ports along the western Atlantic seaboard. The harvesting and shipping of Penobscot River ice in the vicinity of Bangor flourished between 1840 and 1890.
Beginning with the construction of the 'Red Bridge' in 1791, scores of vessels were launched at Bangor, to carry that name all over the globe. The 'Thinks-I-to-Myself' was one of the Bangor vessels captured by the British during the War of 1812; it was later reported as a privateer under British colors. The 'Gold Hunter,' Bangor-built, was the first to carry a band of adventurers around the Horn to California in the gold rush of '49. The age of steam navigation was inaugurated at Bangor with the arrival of the steamboat 'Bangor' from Boston, in May, 1824. This wooden side-wheeler was later engaged in conveying pilgrims from Alexandria, Egypt, to Mecca but not until its white coat had been painted black to satisfy the Mohammedans, who refused to embark on a vessel that flaunted their mourning color. Still later, the 'Bangor' was used as a royal yacht by the Sultan of Turkey. Another ship of the same name, one of the first American steamboats with an iron propeller, was built in 1845 to run between Bangor and Boston.
Many of Bangor's twenty-eight churches are architecturally important, and a survey made in 1935 revealed some eighty residences dating from more than a century ago. Charles Bulfinch, distinguished Boston architect who assisted in designing the National Capitol, surveyed a hundred-acre lot in Bangor about 1830 and laid out the streets lying south of State Street. Some of the older streets, particularly Broadway, Essex, Hammond, Ohio, and State, contain many fine old houses of Federal design. These were built mainly by the early gentry, prominent landowners and merchants. In addition, there are many later homes of varied design, stately structures built by 'lumber barons' of the city's boom days, from 1840 to 1880. Growth and civic improvement have gone on undeterred by several public disasters, such as the $3,000,000 fire which swept through the business district in 1911.
Henry D. Thoreau, describing Bangor as it was in 1846, wrote: 'There stands the city of Bangor, fifty miles up the Penobscot, at the head of navigation for vessels of the larger class, the principal lumber depot on this continent, with a population of twelve thousand, like a star on the edge of the night, still hewing at the forest of which it is built, already overflowing with the luxuries and refinements of Europe, and sending its vessels to Spain, to England, and to the West Indies for its groceries and yet only a few axe-men have gone "up-river," into the howling wilderness which feeds it.'