Bangor In Focus

The Great Fire of 1911

The Morse-Oliver Building, at the corner of Exchange and State streets, was one of the largest buildings destroyed.
Unquestionably the worst disaster to strike the Queen City, the Great Fire of 1911 reshaped the city's landscape, burning 55 acres, destroying 267 buildings, damaging 100 more and causing $3,188,081.90 in losses and damage. The conflagration left 75 families homeless, most of whom had lived from Harlow Street to Center Street to lower French Street. It destroyed more than 100 businesses during a nine-hour span.

Sunday, April 30, 1911, began as any other spring day in the Queen City. Families went to church and a slight wind that is common at this time of year ebbed and flowed throughout the day. But at about 4 p.m. the alarm sounded after a fire was spotted in a hay shed owned by J. Frank Green at 176 Broad St., on the west bank of the Kenduskeag Stream. The fire spread quickly from building to building -- most of which were made of wood, providing more than enough fuel for a conflagration. Embers from the hay shed set ablaze the coal sheds at Bacon & Robinson. As embers multiplied, a strong wind carried them over the Kenduskeag Stream and onto other buildings.

The winds were so strong that they carried a burning piece of letterhead from the Morse-Oliver Co. in the heart of the conflagration 2 miles to the front yard of an Essex Street family.

Businesses and homes from the business district to York Street and then to Broadway went up in sparks and smoke. The Bangor Daily News reported that residents calmly evacuated their homes and took as many of their belongings as they could to the Broadway mall.

Flames were visible up to 25 miles away, the paper reported, and residents from neighboring towns flocked to the city to watch it burn. Light from the fire was visible 50 miles away in Bar Harbor, 33 miles away in Belfast and 107 miles away in Brunswick.

Postal employees moved mail to City Hall, then on lower Hammond Street, before the flames reached and destroyed the post office and custom house building on a man-made island in the Kenduskeag. But little else could be done to save records and historical documents in other public buildings. The fire consumed the Bangor Savings Bank and the Bangor Public Library's 70,000-volume collection including historical documents inside, tore through Bangor High School at Abbott Square, and even destroyed the Central Fire Station, then on Harlow Street. City Hall and the courthouse were the only public buildings that remained when the fire died.

When it became apparent the fire was too much for firefighters in Bangor and surrounding towns, newly elected Mayor Charles W. Mullen sent telegraph messages to Waterville, Augusta, Lewiston and Portland, asking for help. Firefighters in those cities boarded special trains to Bangor. It took Portland firefighters 3 hours and 20 minutes to arrive. A crew from Boston even began to make its way north, but it stopped in Portland to fight a fire that had broken out there.

Norumbega Hall, shown near the center in this 1890 photo, was destroyed by the conflagration. After the fire, the city bought the land and turned it into a park and a fire break.
In addition to the public buildings destroyed, Norumbega Hall burned, as well as the telephone exchange on Exchange Street, the Bangor & Aroostook Railroad offices and dispatch center, the Bangor Railway & Electric Co. substation on Park Street, the University of Maine College of Law, Windsor Hotel and seven churches. The substation's loss cut electricity to a large section of the city.

"Operators, all girls, of the telephone exchange stuck courageously to their posts and answered calls until the police by main force had to drag them from the switchboard," the Bangor Daily reported the next day. About 50 telephone employees, most of them women operators, were at work. Another newspaper account said some of the women fainted when they realized the building was doomed and that others became hysterical. Managers had peace of mind to contact Boston for a new switchboard before they abandoned the building. The new switchboard arrived by train less than 48 hours later.

The fire left most of the city without telephone service for 10 days.

The churches consumed by the fire were First Congregational Church at the corner of Broadway and State Street, Central Congregational Church on French Street, St. John's Episcopal Church on French Street, Universalist Church on Park Street, First Baptist Church on Center Street, Christian Advent Church on Center Street and a synogogue on Center Street.

The destruction of the First Parish Congregational Church provided one of the fire's more spectacular shows. At about 7:42 p.m., the steeple, which had been burning for some time, finally succumbed to the flames and collapsed, sending onlookers fleeing in fear.

One reporter described the flames as "demonic." Another said it was as though the flames had mocked the Sabbath because they destroyed seven churches with "amazing precision."

"The fight of the [Fire] Department was at Haynes Couat, just north of the High Sceool," the paper said. "Had it passed that point the wooden buildings north and Morses Mills would have been doomed, and the great amount of inflamable material at the Mill would have meant disaster for all that section."

The conflagration destroyed the post office and customs house, seen in this 1868 photo. The site of the building is now Kenduskeag Parkway.
Because the fire had knocked out gas and electricity, the newspaper could not use its linotypes to prepare the May 1 edition; editors had to set type by hand, which probably explains the careless typos in the above account. Indeed, the paper apologized to its readers in an announcement: "The News is obliged to ask the indulgence of its readers. Further editions will contain a more complete, accurate story of the conflagration."

Bangor High School students and their principal tried to save as much from the doomed school building as they could. They grabbed all of the school's trophies -- most were for athletics -- and 19 typewriters as flames approached.

Realizing that the Universalist Church could not be saved, firefighters -- short on resources -- dynamited the building in hopes of slowing the inferno and protecting adjacent buildings.

Miraculously, only two people died in the fire. A falling chimney struck George Abbott, a 41-year-old firefighter from Brewer. He had been battling flames at a house on Penobscot Street. Rescuers rushed him to Eastern Maine General Hospital, but he died 10 minutes later. A collapsed wall of the Morse-Oliver building, at the corner of Exchange and State Street, pinned John N. Scribner, 71, also a firefighter from Brewer. Rescuers could not reach Scribner in time and he burned to death.

Scribner, according to one news report, had poor eyesight. He unwittingly walked into the flames and smoke at the corner of State, Harlow and Exchange streets, where some of the most intense flames were. He became disoriented as hundreds of people watched, helpless. Falling telephone and electrical wires made matters worse for Scribner, as he became tangled in them. Women fainted and men turned away as flames fed off Scribner's clothes. He fell once, then managed to get to his feet. But a wall from the seven-story Morse-Oliver Building collapsed, crushing his burning body.

ROTC cadets from the University of Maine guarded residents' belongings on the Broadway mall and the Police Department swore new officers in during the chaos to help preserve order.

"A truck was sent to Orono for the cadets' rifles and they were prepared to insist effectually whenever cause for such effectual insistence occured," the Bangor Daily reported.

The remains of what appear to be one of the seven churches and synagogues gutted.
In all, about 450 police officers -- most of them sworn in temporarily for fire duty -- and National Guardsmen patrolled the fire district. Even the city's Boy Scouts pitched in to guard salvaged belongings that littered nearby parks.

Residents of the Queen City handled the conflagration as well as any other Maine Yankees would. Looting was virtually non-existent and those helping to fight the blaze or help families escape with their belongings carried a rather collected air about them. A reporter for the Bangor Daily News recounted in the May 4 issue the following conversation:

At the corner of Broadway and Somerset street, a young physician sat in an automobile cooly smoking a cigarette. In fact, he was the coolest one in the vicinity, which was rather feverish at the time. The sky rained burning embers; automobiles whizzed past, and there was a constant jar and rumbling from fire trucks and from moving vans piled with the household furniture of unfortunates who were fleeing from the danger zone.

"Busy, doctor?" asked a passing newspaper man.

"Not just now," he answered. "I'm waiting to hear from Mason, but I suppose he's lost somewhere in the thick of things."

"What you got in the big packing box there?"

"Dynamite. They are going to use it on the Unitarian Church."

"Great Scott!" said the reporter, involuntarily retreating a step. "Why, there's enough there to blow up the street."

"Yes, but it's not going to blow up here," was the calm answer. "They don't pack dynamite that way, my boy."

The police made only four arrests during the fire -- all for public drunkenness and all "old-time offenders," the Bangor Daily Commercial reported.

One resident was brash enough to ask a Bangor Daily reporter for a favor.

"In the midst of the conflagration a reporter was asked by someone to put in the paper announcing a coming dance," the paper said. "He was obliged -- not."

There were, of course, those left distraught by the heavy losses. A "pretty girl" who attended Bangor High School cried to a reporter and said, "I was to have graduated in June. Now where will we go?"

An old woman wearing a shawl pointed to the leveled ruins that remained of her home.

"I had just paid the last dollar on my home yesterday, and there it is," she said.

Mayor Mullen kept his composure while watching the fire burn out shortly after midnight. "The city has suffered a terrible blow, but I have every confidence Bangor will come back," he said.

Relief came from a chilling rain and downpour that helped firefighters put out the remaining flames, which had died down with the winds. The last embers went out at about 7 a.m.

From 9 a.m. the day of the fire to 9 a.m. the next day, the Bangor Water Works had pumped 7,108,575 gallons of water. During the course of four days the water works pumped a total of 25,866,000 gallons of water, most of which was wasted through broken water mains and faucets that fleeing homeowners had turned on in hopes of slowing the flames. Much of the water was unfiltered so firefighters could have it immediately, rendering the public water supply undrinkable until it was flushed from the system and the filter house put back online.

An entire neighborhood wiped out.
When morning arrived after one of the city's longest nights, hundreds of curious onlookers boarded trains to the city to see for themselves the devastation wrought by the flames they had seen from miles around. Many brought their cameras. To accommodate curiosity seekers in southern Maine, Central Maine Railroad offered a $4 roundtrip ticket from Portland to Bangor, good for Wednesdays only.

In the days following the disaster, business man Joseph P. Bass, for whom Bass Park is named, announced he would pay extra in taxes to help those left homeless or unemployed. He donated $1,000 to the fireman's relief association, $100 to Hose 2 Company, $100 to Hose 4 Company, $50 to the hook and ladder company and $100 to the city of Waterville for its help.

Coincidentally, a brick firewall that Bass had built on his business block that extended from Franklin Street to Central Street had prevented the fire from spreading.

Merchants on Main Street, which escaped the flames, gave the city a 25 percent discount on goods and supplies bought for those left destitute.

Bangor Theological Seminary allowed the university's law school to use the seminary's lecture halls. The YMCA allowed the post office and Bangor & Aroostook Railroad to set up shop temporarily in its building. The Portland Public Library, Bowdoin College library and Maine State Library helped Bangor Public Library to rebuild its collection.

The telephone company wasted little time in trying to restore communications with the outside world. The day after, workers tapped into phone wires outside the fire district and set up phone booths. Boys were recruited to run messages from the outside world to residents.

Cities throughout the state and New England pledged financial support as well. But there could be no replacing the lost records and documents of Bangor's early years as a town and city that were lost when the library's collection burned. Nor could the pipe organs of the destroyed churches be replaced for sentimentality's sake. The value of the organs was estimated at $20,000 to $25,000.

Intersection of State and Harlow streets. The Unitarian Church is in the upper left.
Massachusetts Gov. Eugene Foss sent this telegram to Mayor Mullen: "Massachusetts deeply sympathizes with your stricken city. Can we render any aid or be of service in any way?"

Boston Mayor John Fitzgerald also offered to help.

But Mullen resolved that the Queen City should rebuild itself without help unless absolutely necessary. "We thank you for your offer of assistance, but believe that we will be able to take care of our people in need without outside help," he said in a telegram to Fitzgerald.

Other cities and towns that offered their condolences and help included Chelsea, Mass.; Lawrence, Mass.; Providence, R.I.; and Patterson, N.J.

Fortunately, most families that had lost their homes were well-off and covered by insurance so they could rebuild quickly.

"Bangor will get its breath and courage, and then we will go right at building again," Mullen said to the city's people. "We are going to find out first how many there are in the city who are without homes, and then we will begin to clean up and open the streets."

Despite losing their school, Bangor High students lost little time. When shipments of textbooks arrived from Boston they attended classes at Abraham Lincoln School on Palm Street from 8 a.m. to noon, beginning the Friday after the fire. The elementary school students attended from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m.

Within a week, many businesses announced plans to rebuild. John R. Graham, president of the Bangor Railway & Electric Co., put men to work the day after the fire to clear debris so they could put down a foundation for a new building. At a special City Council meeting, he urged the Council to act quickly to prevent another major fire.

"We need a strict building law and a properly enforced one," Graham said. "And if the situation demands that wooden buildings be placed anywhere in the burned business district, then let them be built only with the understanding that they shall be only temporary."

Days later, the City Council enacted an ordinance setting tougher building standards. The ordinance allowed businesses to use temporary wooden shelters until Jan. 1, 1912.

Even with almost half of the city destroyed and the business district all but gone, residents remained optimistic.

"Let Bangor take new heart from her temporary afflictions," the Bangor Daily News said in a commentary published May 3. "Sorrow endures for a night, but joy cometh in the morning. It is ever true that the darkest hour is before day. The same hope, which gave the Down East fathers courage to work on, will put stronger courage into their descendants, and what is called a disaster today, next year may be known as a temporary mishap, which ultimately shall become a blessing disguised under a harsh exterior."

The calamity didn't dampen the spirits of many who had bought tickets in advance to see "Madame Sherry" at the Bangor Opera House only two days after the fire. A Bangor Daily reporter recounted the following conversation he was either told or overheard:

"Hello, Joe. How did you make out?"

"Well, my house burned."

"Save anything?"

Toward State Street Hill.

"Any insurance?"

"Not a cent."

"Well, anyway, you've got a job."

"Nope -- place of business burned out."

"Come in, let's talk."

"Can't stop now, old man -- I'm going to the theater."

A large gas-powered chandelier provided the theater's only light to the packed house.

"The big audience streamed into a pitch-black night -- not a light anywhere, save for the angry red glow still reflected in the sky," the Bangor Daily reported. "Never was darkness deeper, and in it lurked many dangers, imaginable and real."

Electricity and light soon returned to the Queen City as the electric streetcars resumed their runs a week later. Residents in need of public assistance applied at the chamber of commerce, which provided space to city workers for the purpose.

One victim had the gall to ask whether the city was providing Turkish cigarettes to those left homeless, a woman told a reporter.

"There was a man whose home had been burned flat, and instead of his asking for bread for his starving wife and children, he wanted cigarettes!" the woman said.

Approximate area of the fire. The red dot shows where the fire began. Click for larger view.
Within only a few years downtown Bangor rose once again. Bangor Public Library opened the doors to its new home on Harlow Street in December 1913, only a few months after the new Bangor High School opened next door. Although the library had lost irreplaceable documents on the city's history, its collection grew to more than 80,000 by the end of the decade. The Universalist Church rebuilt over the ashes of the old structure. The federal government built a new and larger post office, but at the junction of Harlow and Center streets instead of at its former home on the Kenduskeag Stream. The city turned that land and the land on which Norumbega Hall had stood into a parkway and fire break.

All Souls Congregational Church now stands where the First Parish Congregational Church stood. St. John's Episcopal Church rebuilt, as did the First Baptist Church and the Jewish synagogue.

There are no visible reminders of the largest calamity in city history, unless, of course you count the stronger, more graceful buildings that rose in the stead of those destroyed. Abbott Square remains empty, for the most part, as a parking lot built over the buried remains of that fateful April day.