The Local History Department houses historical sources that provide information on Bangor, the Penobscot Valley, the State of Maine, and New England.
Local history sources include historical accounts of Maine pioneers, who populated this area while Maine was still part of the state of Massachusetts. Our collection includes relevant legislative materials beginning in this period.
Maine citizens’ military involvement can be traced utilizing our local history collection. Sources on the Revolutionary War, War of 1812, Civil War, Spanish-American War, World War I, and World War II may be found in the Local History Department. Staff may assist patrons in online searches through the National Archives to find information on the Korean War and Vietnam War.
Our sources portray the world of Bangor, Maine inhabitants of yesterday and today. Historical references about Maine industries, such as logging and paper, provide useful information for a better understanding of this region. Biographies of area authors, artists, military leaders, and others can be found in this department. Local history accounts recreate the world of the people who lived and died in Bangor, Maine.
Bangor History: 1500-1700's By William Cook
The first European believed to have visited the site of Bangor is Esteban Gomez, the Portuguese explorer who sailed to the head of the tide, in the early 1500's. Samuel de Champlain (1567-1635), French explorer, and other explorers also visited the area in the early 1600's.
In 1605, five Indians are kidnapped from Pemaquid by an English vessel and kept to serve as guides for English seeking sites for settlement on the American coast. The kidnapping of indigenous peoples for slavery or servitude was a common practice of early European explorers of North America. French establish first European settlement in Maine, St. Sauveur, at Lamoine Point across from Mount Desert Island. They are driven out by the English, who establish permanent settlements on Damariscove and Monhegan Islands in 1614. 1616-1619: More than 75 percent of Maine's Indians die from diseases such as smallpox, cholera, measles and plague brought by Europeans.
Slaves began arriving in Maine with their white owners in the 1600s. Some slaves helped the British in their fight against the Native Americans in Maine, while others joined forces against the British. In 1689 a slave was killed while fighting the Indians.
With the establishment of Fort Pownal in 1759, by Massachusetts Royal Governor Thomas Pownal, people began to explore the upper reaches of the Penobscot River with the intention of settling. The first person to actually settle near the junction of the Kenduskeag and Penobscot Rivers was Jacob Buswell (Bussell). He built a cabin near what are now York and Boyd Streets in 1769 and shortly thereafter his in-laws, the Goodwins, also settled here.
In 1772-73 there was an influx of people that included: Thomas Howard, Jacob Dennet, Simon Crosby, Thomas, John and Hugh Smart, Andrew Webster, Joseph Rose, David Rowell, Solomon and Silas Harthorn, and Joseph Mansel. Joseph Mansel built both the first sawmill on the East side of the Penjejawock stream and the first gristmill.
Also in 1772, occurred the first birth in what is now Bangor, Mary Howard, daughter of Thomas Howard.Thomas Goldthwait built the first trading house in the area in that year. Abigail Ford taught the first school founded in 1773.
The first few years of the American Revolution were quiet in the Penobscot River Valley, as it was so isolated and far from the area of action. However, in 1779, that quiet changed as a British invasion fleet came up the Penobscot River and approached Bangor. There was a brief battle near Hampden where the local militia was no match for the British regulars. The area was then peacefully handed over to the control of the British forces. Later that year, ships from the American “Penobscot Expedition” came up the river to do battle with the British. The American fleet was trapped, and many of the ships were scuttled near the mouth of the Kenduskeag River. The Bangor area remained under British control till 1783. Massachusetts banned slavery in that year as well.
In 1787 the people of Condeskeag, as Bangor was once known, built their first meetinghouse. Shortly afterwards the inhabitants of Condeskeag changed the name of their town’s name to “Sunbury,”. On Sept. 11th, 1787 they petitioned the Massachusetts legislature, but this was rejected by the legislature, before Oct. 6, 1788. The town obviously dismayed by this rejection sent Rev. Seth Noble to Boston with a new Petition of Incorporation, which was left blank until Rev. Noble could choose a name that would be accepted by the legislature in Boston. The Incorporation Petition of 1790 was written by Seth Noble and the name of BANGOR was approved February 25, 1791 by John Hancock, Governor of the Commonwealth of Mass.
The tune Bangor was written by William Tans’ur in 1734 and became very popular during the Revolution. It was so popular that it was reported to have been played at the eulogy for President George Washington.
Bangor History: 1800's BY WILLIAM COOK
The first survey of the Bangor area was done between 1797 and 1801 by Park Holland. He included all of the lots of the first settlers. Each who settled before 1784 was to receive a lot of 100 acres for the price of $8.70 and each who settled after that date could purchase a lot of 100 acres for $100. The population in 1800 was 277 and over the next thirty years it would grow to about 8,000.
As commerce flourished in Bangor access between the two areas on either side of the Kenduskeag became necessary so, in 1807, they built the first bridge. The toll was one cent for strangers and free for residents. Between 1807 and 1812 the Rev. John Seymour, during his stay here, founded the Bangor Theological Seminary.
Once again, during the War of 1812, Bangor was not immune from the warfare. The town was captured and occupied by the British in September of 1814. However, the occupation did not last long and by the middle of 1815 Bangor was once again American. In November of that same year, Peter Edes started the first newspaper titled the “Bangor Weekly Register.”
The year 1820 was a banner one for the new State of Maine, and Bangor, with a population of 1200, was instituted as the shire town of Penobscot River County. This decade ushered in a period of phenomenal growth in both population and prosperity. This was due to the lumber industry coming to the forefront of the Maine economy. Trees were harvested in the winter and skidded down to the Penobscot River and tributaries. In the spring the logs were driven down the rivers to Bangor, where they were sawn and then shipped to various destinations. Bangor became the center of the lumber industry, which included all levels of society: the timberland owners, lumber companies, sawmills, shingle mills, lumbermen and log drivers. The rough characters who worked in the woods and the waterfront lived and sought recreation in the part of town known as the “devil’s half acre” by the more pious residents. Bangor became a very prosperous town and grew incredibly fast.
Anti-slavery groups organize in Maine towns such as Hallowell, and the Maine Antislavery Society is created in 1834. Also in 1834, a series of brawls in the “devil’s half acre” erupted into riots, and the rioters rampaged through the city for a number of days. The town government was completely unable to cope with the riots and suggested some changes. The incorporation of Bangor, now with a population of over 8,000, as a City was the solution. Allen Gilman, the town’s first lawyer was elected the city’s first mayor. Bangor was referred to in the press as being a New York City in miniature.
Over the next three decades, Bangor grew in population and in wealth. In 1833, the Bangor House opened as a first class hotel.
The second “garden cemetery” in the country, Mount Hope Cemetery, was opened in 1834, as an indication of the progressive nature of the new city. 1836 saw the first railroad open: the Bangor and Piscataquis Canal Railway. In 1838, the “Daily Whig and Courier” newspaper began to publish. Also in that year a road was built to Houlton connecting the timberlands of the northeastern part of Maine to the rest of the state. Lumbering, in what is now Aroostook County, led to a border dispute between Maine and New Brunswick. It was a dispute that almost caused a war. By 1839 the dispute, called the Aroostook War, became so heated that militias and forces were called out on both sides of the border. Bangor was involved as the staging area for the Maine Militia. Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed and the dispute was settled through negotiation and the signing of the Webster–Ashburton Treaty.
The year 1846 brought the first disaster to Bangor. In the spring of that year the ice built up above the falls on the Penobscot River and when the water and ice finally broke loose, Bangor was flooded. On the up side this was the first year that Henry David Thoreau came to the area. In1847, Bangor became a “Port of Entry”, and in 1853 built its first customhouse. In the 1850s, the Underground Railroad funneled runaway slaves through Maine.
1855 was a year of culture and chaos. Norumbega Hall was built for cultural events and expositions, and it indicated the prosperity that the city was enjoying. The new wealth in the area, though, attracted immigrants, and the Irish were a large portion of these people who supplied labor. In that year the “Know Nothing” Party was elected to office. They were anti-immigrant and pro-temperance - a combination that is at odds with the labor force. In the late summer of 1855, the enforcement of temperance and the anti-foreign feelings led to violence. The Irish and their taverns were the targets of the “Know Nothings.” The rioting was not quelled until October when the agents of enforcement were disbanded.
The War Between the States began in 1861 and the sons of Bangor did their part. The 2nd Maine Infantry was raised in the Bangor area and was known as the “Bangor Regiment.” Bangor supplied a large number of men to many Maine regiments throughout the war and after the war things returned to normal in Bangor. Civil War President Abraham Lincoln’s first vice-president was Bangor native Hannibal Hamlin.
The lumber and shipping economy reached a high point in the 1870’s. The European and North American Rail Road opened withPresident Ulysses S. Grant in attendance. President Grant stayed at the Bangor House, which still stands at the corner of Maine and Union streets. In the 1890’s both the Bangor and Aroostook and Maine Central Railroads served the Bangor area and made possible the success of Great Northern Paper Company. In 1906-07 the Union Station was completed and helped make Bangor the hub of transportation for northern and eastern Maine.
In 1896 the Bangor Symphony Orchestra was founded, and continues as the oldest community orchestra in the country. A Bangor landmark, the standpipe on Thomas Hill, was built in 1897. At the same time, a dam on the Penobscot River allowed water to be pumped to the standpipe and electricity to be generated for a newly electrified city. This decade saw Bangor’s streets paved, sewers, telephone service, electric utilities, and street railways instituted.
Lumber was not the only industry to support Bangor. The ice industry tapped another abundant commodity of the area and flourished between 1876 and 1906. Every winter the Penobscot River froze and the ice was harvested. Penobscot River ice was considered to be the finest in the world and was shipped as far as India. Many icehouses could be found around the Bangor waterfront.
Bangor History: 1900's BY WILLIAM COOK
April 30, 1911 is a day that forever changed Bangor. That is the day of the great fire. It began in a hay barn and because of high winds spread rapidly across the Kenduskeag and in the nine hours it raged, it destroyed over 100 buildings and 285 residences. Most of the waterfront sawmills, warehouses and icehouses were not rebuilt afterward.
A change had taken place; the old economies of lumbering and ice were on the decline and these were being replaced by retail businesses and numerous other small enterprises. Bangor never did cultivate any new industries to replace the resource based ones. The current Bangor Public Library and the Bangor High School were rebuilt next to each other, on Harlow Street in 1912. In 1913, Milton R. Geary graduated from the University of Maine and opened his law practice in Bangor.
During World War I Bangor was represented in the ranks of the 103rd Infantry 26th Division. In 1917 women’s suffrage appeared on the ballot for the first time and it was overwhelmingly defeated. The 1918 influenza hit Bangor and over 1600 people contracted the virus and over 100 died.
The Post-war years saw the influx of new technology in the Bangor landscape and some new issues. Automobiles and the related parking problem was the biggest change. In November of 1924, WABI began broadcasting as the first radio station in the area.
The years of the depression did not hit Bangor as hard as some cities. No banks closed and only a few businesses closed. An airfield opened in the early 1920’s, and was visited by General “Billy” Mitchell with fifteen Martin Bombers and eight fighters. This landing field soon became Godfrey Field and scheduled air service arrived in the 1930’s. Steamship service, however, did cease in 1936 reflecting not only the effect of the depression, but also the effect of the new and emerging modes of transportation supplanting the old.
One day in October of 1937 one could find Central Street littered with bodies. Federal Agents gunned down public enemy number one, Al Brady, and a couple of his associates after patronizing a local gun shop. By 1940, Freeses, the largest department store in town expanded even more.
During World War II the airfield became a large air base known as Dow Field, which became the eastern end of the ferry route to Europe. Again, as in previous national emergencies, Bangor contributed her share of service personnel for the Second World War. One hundred twelve did not return and are memorialized in the Bangor Book of Honor at the Bangor Public Library.
In 1945, the Penobscot Interracial Forum held events celebrating African American History opposing discrimination and insensitivity.
Following World War II, Bangor and Dow Field (later Dow Air Force Base) played an important roll in the defense of North America during the “Cold War,” as part of the “first line” of defense. Dow AFB closed in1969 and the facility became the Bangor International Airport.
During the Korean Conflict, the 132nd Fighter Squadron was activated and a number of Bangor people served once again in a far off land. In December of 1959, Bangor became the first city defended by missiles with the installation of the first BOMARC at what is now Bomarc Industrial Park. Bangor again sent her share of sons to fight in the name of democracy to South East Asia during the 60’s and 70’s.
In 1960, John F. Kennedy visited Bangor on his campaign tour and later was awarded an honorary degree at the University of Maine. In the years following, the changes in Bangor have been gradual. Racial conflict was a part of Bangor citizen's lives in the 60s. March 14, 1965, approximately 500 people marched to protest the denial of civil rights to African Americans in Alabama.
The Interstate arrived in the mid 1950’s and the Bangor Mall opened in 1978 changing the downtown area for good. In 1976 Bangor was once again flooded, this time the area surrounding the Kenduskeag was inundated and over 200 cars were stranded.
In 1991 Bangor was a center of the welcome home for troops returning from the Gulf War. Crowds greeted the returning service persons as they made their first stop on US soil at the Bangor International Airport. In 1992 the first balloon race to Europe started here in Bangor on September 17th, and in 1996, Bangor native and long time congressman and Senator, William Cohen was selected to be Secretary of Defense by President William Clinton. The final big event of the 20th Century happened in January of 1998 when the great ice storm hit. Bangor, and the whole North East, was shut down and power was out for many businesses and residences from three days to weeks.