Bangor’s rich and storied history can be seen even today, in the architecture, monuments, parks, and even the stories that are still a part of our community.
Nestled at the confluence of the Penobscot River and the Kenduskeag Stream, Bangor has not forgotten the Native communities that first settled these lands. The Wabanakis, or People of the Dawn Land, camped along the river’s shore, fished its tributaries, relied on its route for access to the sea, and gave to its beautiful valley a name: Penobscot.
Among the many monuments throughout downtown Bangor are two memorials dedicated to the first European chroniclers to land on these shores. Searching for gold in 1525, Portuguese explorer Estevan Gomez found a temperate country, and welcoming Native community – but no gold. And in 1604, Samuel de Champlain (more famously known for founding the City of Quebec) first explored Eastern Maine. His journey up the Penobscot River landed him near the Kenduskeag Stream, where today a memorial to his travels still stands.
The community of Kenduskeag Plantation began as a lumbering town when a sawmill was built at the mouth of the Penjajawock Stream in 1772, and within 20 years this small town had grown to 576 souls. Deciding that it was time to petition the Massachusetts legislature for an act of incorporation (Maine was still a part of the Massachusetts Bay Colony until 1820), the town sent Reverend Seth Noble to Boston. This “hard-drinking frontier Calvinist” set off with instructions to change the name of Kenduskeag Plantation to Sunbury. Stories about what subsequently happened are varied and doubtfully authentic; however, whether by accident or design, the plantation’s new name communicated by Rev. Noble at the crucial moment of incorporation was Bangor, a rather mournful Welsh hymn.
Bangor played a small role in the Revolutionary War in 1779, ten American ships were scuttled at the convergence of the Penobscot River and the Kenduskeag Stream, where they remained until the late 1950s, when construction of the Joshua Chamberlain Bridge disturbed the site. Six cannons were removed from the riverbed; five of which remain on display throughout the region (one was thrown back into the river by area residents angered that the archaeological site was destroyed for the bridge construction).
By the mid-1830s Bangor had grown into a thriving lumber town, the portal through which the bounty of the inland forests flowed through to the rest of the world. Bangor’s lumber barons built impressive mansions, many of which remain today in the City’s historic districts. By 1860, Bangor was the world’s largest lumber port, with 150 sawmills operating along the river. The city shipped over 150 million board feet of lumber a year, much of it in Bangor-built and Bangor-owned ships. In 1860 alone, Bangor’s waterfront saw 3,300 lumbering ships pass by its docks.
The river not only raised Maine’s lumber trade to the top of the global economy, but also bricks, leather, and even ice (which was cut and stored in winter, then shipped to Boston, and even China, the West Indies and South America).
In 1911, one event changed the face of Bangor forever. On April 30 a fire started in a hay shed and quickly spread to the surrounding downtown buildings and blazed through the night into the next day. When the damage was tallied, Bangor had lost its High School, Post Office & Custom House, Public Library, Norumbega Hall, telephone and telegraph companies, banks, two fire stations, nearly a hundred businesses, six churches, and synagogue and 285 private residences – a total of 55 acres.
The community rebuilt itself, and in the process became a showplace for a diverse range of architectural styles, including the Mansard style, Beaux Arts, Greek and Colonial Revival. The historic Bangor House served as one of the nation’s great palace hotels, and hosted luminaries including Jack Benny, John Philip Sousa, Gene Autry, Rudy Vallee, Bette Davis and Duke Ellington.
Just as every city’s history must contain its dark side, so, too, does Bangor’s. In 1937, downtown Bangor was the scene of the bloodiest shootout in Maine history, complete with big-time gangsters (the FBI’s Most Wanted: Al Brady and his gang) and federal agents. Thinking that Maine was a perfect hiding place to avoid the authorities, Brady and his gang came to Bangor to purchase weapons. However, their stories of purchasing semi-automatic pistols and Tommy guns for hunting didn’t sit with the Maine merchants, who called in the authorities.
What followed was the most infamous scene in Bangor’s history, with a shoot-out between Federal agents and gang members, not ending until the Brady gang members were either dead or in handcuffs. Central Street today features a memorial marker to this day, and the community that foiled the FBI’s Most Wanted. Though the frenzy of the lumbering industry has shifted to more western states, Bangor maintains its position as the cultural and economic center of Northern, Central and Eastern Maine. Sporting events, cultural activities, education, recreation, and shopping draw visitors from across Maine and beyond to the Bangor that has developed out of its vibrant history.