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Great Bangor Fire of 1911 – Part 1 

Catherine Pegram

It’s one of the most defining moments in Bangor history – a moment that changed the face of the city forever. The Great Fire of 1911 wiped out nearly half of downtown, leaving the heart of Bangor in ruins. Amazingly, only two people were killed. On April 30th, the city will mark the 100 anniversary of the fire by looking back at what Bangor was – and what it became. “I don’t think all of the training in the world probably could have saved Bangor that afternoon.”It was Sunday, April 30th, 1911. Historian Dick Shaw says as the story goes, about 4 o’clock that day, two men were smoking and playing cards in a hay warehouse on Broad Street.”They carelessly dropped either a match or a cigar or a cigarette and then took off and the next thing that happened is the whole hayshed just exploded.”Shaw says strong winds fanned the flames to create the perfect storm. Embers from the hayshed jumped the Kenduskeag Stream and landed on other buildings that quickly started to burn. “The fire departments responded. They were there on Harlow Street and they were having to deal with the fact their firehouse was on fire. They had another fire house on the State Street on the steep part of the hill that also was on fire. So they had a lot to worry about.”Captain Matt Costello with the Bangor Fire Department says there’s only one way to describe it. “It had to have been total chaos. It had to have a been a matter of where do we begin, who’s doing what, where to we try to prevent and stop this. Not everybody fighting that fire were firefighters. You had people that were just civilians that just started grabbing hoses, trying to do whatever they could to prevent that fire.”Shaw says for many onlookers drawn to the flames, it wasn’t worry that overcame them – it was disbelief. “People were out strolling with their parasols and men had bowler hats and to go from worshipping to walking around downtown to seeing it reduced to rubble by midnight was almost just too much.”He adds, “That night the fire burned so brightly that the local newspapers reported that you cold sit in a window in downtown and you could read the finest print newspaper by the light of the fire without any kerosene lights, no electric lights, gas.”By the time the flames were contained eight hours later, the loss was staggering.More than 250 buildings were gone, including six churches, a synagogue, the high school, the post office, the library and the historical society along with banks, businesses and homes. Bill Cook, a special collections librarian at the Bangor Public Library says, “There basically wasn’t anything left of the library. Bangor had to start over from scratch.”Dana Lippitt, curator at the Bangor Museum and Center for History says, “It’s the culture that’s important and a lot can be retrieved in many ways, but a lot of its just lost … it’s just gone.” Two people were also killed – Brewer firefighter George Abbott, who was hit by a collapsing chimney. And John Scribner, a shoemaker from Brewer who joined the onlookers, was trapped and then buried beneath burning debris.75 families were also left without a place to live. City leaders were faced with more than three-million dollars in losses. “Any historian will talk about Bangor before 1911 and after 1911 cause it’s a milestone,” says Shaw. “It’s one of those pivotal events in history that hopefully will never be repeated.”In our second report, we’ll see how the Great Fire of 1911 cleared the way for a new future for the city. And how the impact of that fire still lives on today.