Bangor In Focus

Bangor Water Works

Future uncertain, the eight buildings that comprise the Bangor Water Works at Treat's Falls, across State Street from Cascade Park, were once part of an engineering marvel as the largest water pump in New England.

Before the Water Works' construction in 1875, Bangor had no public water system; residents and businesses had to get their water from wells or cisterns that collected rain water. This presented a problem for poor residents of the growing city who could not afford to dig a well or store water in a cistern. The lack of a public water supply also made it difficult for the Fire Department to put out fires because firefighters had to rely on "hand engines."

"Without an adequate supply of water, no city can be clean or healthy, to say nothing whatever of comfort," Bangor health officer Henry Gale wrote in his 1875-76 report.

So, in 1874, the city resolved to build a public water system. The only question was where the city would draw its water from.

There were only two realistic choices: the Penobscot River or a nearby pond or lake.

At the time, the Penobscot was the most obvious and practical source for such a large project, and it could generate power for the system. Bangor obtained permission in February 1875 from the Legislature to build a water works on the Penobscot and Bangor residents approved funding the project, 2,776-79. The city financed the project with $300,000 in bonds at 6 percent interest.

Originally, the Water Works consisted of a 900-foot long dam across the Penobscot, a wheelhouse, a pump house and a hose house. The city did not add the filter house until 1907 after 540 cases of waterborne typhoid fever were reported in 1904. The filter house treated the water with liquid chlorine to disinfect it.

Work began in August 1875, when construction crews dug up the city streets and buried pipes.

The gate house.
"The streets are much torn up for the Holly Water Works," Bangor probate judge John Edwards Godfrey wrote in his journal on Oct. 3, 1875. "Morse's Hill is blown half to pieces, and there is a 7-feet deep valley in the ledge up and down it. Some of the pipes are laid and streets finished."

Upon completion, the Water Works actually served two functions: In addition to pumping water from the Penobscot throughout the city, the Water Works also generated electricity for the city's streetlights and buildings. With a capacity of 5 million gallons per day, the system had the largest water-powered pump in New England. However, although the pump had five turbines, Bangor needed to operate only two, leaving three in reserve.

"The motive power furnished by the dam is enormous, and the supply of water unlimited," Mayor Augustus Hamlin said in 1877.

The city had installed more than 20 miles of pipes under the streets and installed 149 fire hydrants throughout the city.

Only 12 years after building the Water Works, Bangor needed a water tower at a high elevation to increase water pressure to the expanding city, thus came the Thomas Hill Standpipe on the city's west side in 1897. Upon the standpipe's completion, the Water Works pumped water to the 1.75-million gallon standpipe. At 160 feet above the Water Works, the standpipe's elevation provided more than enough pressure through gravity to supply the entire city with water.

But after years of timber's being dumped from the northern Maine woods into the Penobscot and the proliferation of industries that relied on the river as a power source and dumping ground for waste, the Penobscot's water became no longer fit to drink, even after being filtered. In the late-1940s, city officials began to look for another water source.

"Bangor's water has a nauseating taste," the Bangor Daily News said in its Feb. 26, 1948, editorial.

One proposal would have had the city boring a series of wells along its bank of the Penobscot. Water from the river would filter naturally through the earth and be pumped up through the wells. However, the water would still taste terrible.

Although their water tasted terrible, Bangor voters repeatedly rejected plans to abandon the Water Works. Then, toward the end of the 1950s, voters agreed to allow the city to join Brewer, Eddington, Hermon, Hampden, Orono and Orrington to create a water district. The six cities and towns were also looking either to improve their water systems or establish one. By joining forces, Bangor and the surrounding cities and towns could establish a new water system together and keep costs down.

Pushaw Lake, just over the Bangor/Orono line, was one option, as were a cluster of ponds. Eventually, the newly formed Bangor Water District chose to create a watershed at Floods Pond in Otis.

The Water Works' close proximity to railroad tracks will make it difficult for developers to take advantage of the complex's priceless location on the Penobscot River.
Today, the Water Works' eight buildings are abandoned and decaying. Floors and roofs are rotting and windows are broken and boarded. There were plans in the mid-1990s to sell the complex to a developer who would renovate the buildings into a restaurant, but the developer found the $250,000 cost of installing a railroad crossing prohibitive. There are now plans to turn the waterworks into a museum honoring the Penobscot River's importance to central Maine.

The buildings were last used by the filmmakers of "Graveyard Shift," perhaps the worst movie ever made of a Stephen King story.

1995-2012, Ryan R. Robbins. All rights reserved.

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