Modeled on Boston, Bangor is a hub, not a grid like Manhattan. All roads lead to and from downtown Bangor. Unlike many other cities of similar size throughout the country, Bangor boasts a central business district that, despite recent setbacks like the closing of a friendly neighborhood hardware store and the relocation of the Greyhound bus terminal to an outlying interstate exit, remains a vital part of the city’s culture and economy. It’ s a happening place.
Bangor is a river town, and its past, present, and future are inextricably intertwined with the Penobscot River. The river takes its name from the Penobscot Indians, who were already well established in the area by the time the first Europeans arrived. They used the river to travel from their winter encampments on and around Indian Island to Penobscot Bay and the offshore islands, where they fished and gathered birds’ eggs in the spring and summer.
Bangor was the head of navigation on the river for seagoing vessels. The first European to visit what is now Bangor was Estevan Gomez, a Portuguese captain sailing in the service of Spain. According to historian Samuel Eliot Morison, Gomez was a skilled navigator hired by Ferdinand Magellan to captain one of the ships for the voyage that would become the first successful circumnavigation of the globe. Neither Gomez nor Magellan completed the trip. In the rough waters off the tip of South America, Gomez “decided he had had enough, mutinied, captured the ship, deserted his commodore, and sailed home,” Morison writes. “Upon arrival in Spain, he was clapped in jail for mutiny.” But after Magellan’s one remaining ship straggled home, King Charles V let Gomez out of jail and set him off with a new ship in search of the elusive Northwest Passage.
Gomez reached the Penobscot in 1525 and made it as far as Bangor before realizing it was a river rather than a strait. A small monument near the Sea Dog restaurant bears his name. But the Spanish lost interest in the Bangor area when they discovered it was not on the way to Asia. Over the ensuing centuries, the perception that Bangor isn’t on the way to anywhere would prove maddeningly persistent.
The first permanent settlers of European descent came to the area in the 1760s, from the area around Boston. In her exhaustive history of Bangor, City on the Penobscot, local historian Trudy Irene Scee relates that the early settlers spread out between several encampments at different spots along the river, but that the largest concentration, about 20 households, chose the same spot where Gomez had ended his quest for the Northwest Passage: the confluence of the Kenduskeag Stream and the Penobscot River.
The first sawmills were built in 1770 and 1771. Revolution was in the air, and it turned out that Bangor was on the way to somewhere after all: between the north woods and the shipyards that could turn wood into naval vessels for a nascent nation. The woods promised a virtually unlimited supply of lumber, and the river was the highway on which to transport it to a waiting world.
By 1834, Bangor boasted a population of 8,000; in 1833 alone, more than 500 homes and commercial buildings were built. The first railroad tracks were laid between Bangor and Old Town in 1836, and the iron steamship Bangor began carrying passengers between Boston and Bangor in 1844.
Bangor’s golden age coincided with Maine’s separation from Massachusetts under the Missouri Compromise of 1820. “For the four decades between 1820 and 1860, Bangor was the richest town in the new state and the capital of the lumbering world,” Scee writes. “No port on the globe exceeded the amount of lumber shipped from Bangor in the 1850s or, in all probability, the frenetic pace of its business.”
The boom was interrupted by the outbreak of the Civil War. Many men from Bangor served; some 300 died in combat. One of the city’s own, Hannibal Hamlin, was vice president of the United States under commander-in-chief Abraham Lincoln. Another famous Bangorian, Joshua Chamberlain, was a hero at the battle of Gettysburg; a bridge between Bangor and Brewer and an ale brewed by the Shipyard Brewing Company in Portland now bear his name.
The Great Fire of April 30, 1911 marked the end of an era in Bangor, destroying over 100 downtown businesses, nearly 300 homes, six churches, a synagogue, and landmark buildings such as the Customs House and Norumbega Hall. Union Station, the downtown train depot built in 1907 on the site of what is now Penobscot Plaza, survived the fire but could not survive the coming age of the automobile and the urban renewal of the 1960s.
But being on the edge of a continent proved advantageous for air travel. Godfrey Field, on the outskirts of town, received its first planes in the 1920s. It would later become Dow Air Force Base, which operated until 1968. When the base closed, the city purchased most of the land, and it became Bangor International Airport. It is the closest major American airport to Europe and has become known in recent years as a jumping-off and reentry point for American troops serving overseas.
Bangor’s population peaked at around 40,000 in the 1960s, but the closing of Dow precipitated a 14.8% decline in numbers between 1960 and 1970, when the U.S. Census reported a population of 33,168. The Bangor Mall was built in 1978. For the remainder of the century, business development largely abandoned the downtown, and Bangor suffered some of the same problems of outward sprawl around a decaying core, which plagued larger cities across the country. This began to turn around with the three-year run of the National Folk Festival, beginning in 2002. The festival proved so successful that in 2005 the city inaugurated the annual American Folk Festival, which draws thousands of visitors to the reinvigorated waterfront every August.
HEALTH CARE, HORROR, AND HIGHER EDUCATION
Today, timber no longer drives Bangor’s economy. The city has become known as a regional healthcare and retail center, serving a far-flung region that extends into Canada. Eastern Maine Health Care Systems is the city’s largest employer, providing a range of specialized medical services, including state-of-the-art cancer treatment. Eastern Maine Medical Center serves as the region’s trauma care center and continues to attract skilled physicians from all over the world.
St. Joseph Hospital’s smaller size translates into a personal level of care that wins praise from patients and their families. Last year, St. Joe’s won a prestigious Everest Award as one of the top 100 hospitals in the country, for achieving both the highest overall performance rating and the fastest long-term improvement over the past ten years.
Bangor is perhaps best known outside the state as the home of bestselling author Stephen King. Mention Bangor in casual conversation in California, and it’s a good bet that King’s name will come up within the first sentence or two. Several of his novels contain thinly disguised depictions of areas in the city, recognizable enough that “Stephen King tours” are periodically available to curious locals and visitors. Participants in the “Tommyknockers and More” tours enjoy a one-and-a-half hour narrated motorcoach tour through the city, which is represented in King’s novels as Derry, Maine.
“The tour is the best way to experience Stephen King’s ‘Derry’ Maine,” says Kerrie Tripp, director of the Greater Bangor Convention and Visitors Bureau, the organization that offers the tour. “Ours is the only Stephen King tour that has been endorsed by Stephen King himself.”
King’s influence on the area extends to his ownership of a classic-rock radio station, WKIT-FM, as well as numerous philanthropic projects funded through the Stephen and Tabitha King Foundation, including Mansfield Stadium and renovations to the Bangor Public Library.
Bangor boasts an educated work force, thanks to the institutions of higher learning throughout the area. “We’ve got some hints that precision manufacturing is starting to come back,” says John Porter, president and chief executive officer of the Bangor Region Chamber of Commerce. “The proximity of the University of Maine in terms of research and development continues to be of great strategic importance, in areas such as robotics, wind energy, and sustainable development of our woods products resources.”
That sounds suspiciously like a resurgence of the timber industry that put this city on the map in the first place. Porter points out that the Maine woods are healthier than at any time in the past 20 years, and that there has been a spike in the amount of wood you can responsibly take out of the woods. While the paper industry has seen a reduction in its workforce over the years, due to modernization and mechanization, Maine is producing as much paper as it ever has. The University of Maine is also a leader in research aimed at extracting the components of new fuels from what were formerly waste products of paper and pulp production.
In Bangor itself, the former Husson College is now Husson University. New England School of Communications offers state-of-the-art broadcast and music and video production facilities. United Technologies Center trains tomorrow’s car mechanics, electricians, and computer technicians. Eastern Maine Community College and Beal College have both seen a recent surge in enrollment numbers, as more people are looking for a quality education that doesn’t break the bank.
THE REDISCOVERED WATERFRONT
Twenty years ago, Bangor’s waterfront was a neglected, post-industrial eyesore. Today it’s the most dazzling jewel in the Queen City’s crown. The folk festivals had a lot to do with this revival, but it would not have happened without the commitment of a series of city councils, which put a long-term plan for the waterfront in place, beginning in the 1990s.
You can now walk or ride a bicycle along the river on a paved, lighted trail from the Sea Dog to Hollywood Casino. Benches and picnic tables abound. Sailboats and small cruise ships come up the river in the summer and dock at the town landing; during musical events, it’s common to see a dozen or more boats filled with people enjoying an evening on the river.
In addition to the folk festival, there’s Kahbang, a showcase of modern music, film, and art. The waterfront is ground zero for a plethora of annual events, from the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure, to the bicycling event Pedal the Penobscot, to an annual celebration and informational program hosted by the Penobscot River Restoration Project.
Overarching all of these events is the annual series of shows brought to Bangor by Waterfront Concerts, spearheaded by Old Town native Alex Gray. Over the past four years, he’s brought internationally famous acts like Bob Dylan, Toby Keith, and Celtic Woman to the shore of the Penobscot. This winter, the site is being landscaped in anticipation of moving the main stage southward and turning it perpendicular to the river. The changes, says Gray, will expand the capacity of the site and provide better views of the stage. “It’s a true amphitheater,” Gray says. “We’re constructing a new backstage area as well. It’s going to be a better experience for both artists and fans.”
Rosie Vanadestine, Bangor’s economic development director, says that the city is making efforts to incorporate nearby neighborhoods into the waterfront scene. The area bordered by Union and Buck Streets and Main and 3rd Streets has been designated as a revitalization area. “We want people living in that area to feel that the waterfront is part of their neighborhood,” she says. “We’re looking at things like safe pedestrian crossings, improved sidewalks and lighting, and safety issues.”
Behind Bangor’s Paul Bunyan statue is the new arena and convention center that was overwhelmingly approved by Bangor voters in 2011. Officially named the Cross Insurance Center, it is scheduled to open just after Labor Day. Thanks to the mild winter of 2011-2012, construction is several months ahead of schedule. Bangor’s business community can’t wait.
“The real value of the Cross Center is the convention center,” Porter says. “If you’re a visitor here for three days, you’re going to have time to hit the casino, to eat at the downtown restaurants, to shop at the stores. You might get in a car and go to Acadia. It’s going to be a shot in the arm for the whole area.”
“It’s a big-city building,” says Mike Dyer, general manager of the Cross Insurance Center. “You can sort of tell from the outside, but you can really tell from the inside that it’s a bright, open, welcoming space.”
With the telescoping seats pulled back, the floor of the arena space will be twice the size of the floor in the old building, which was built in 1955 and, at the time, was the largest U.S. arena northeast of Boston. The building will boast 18 meeting rooms and an enlarged, modern conference center.
Formerly a business writer and newspaper editor in Portland, Porter says the two cities are more similar than one might think. “Portland and Bangor have good quality of life indicators: low crime rates, excellent K-12 education systems, strong retail sectors, and that good Maine work ethic. Where Bangor has an advantage is that we are way ahead in terms of collaboration among our stakeholders. We’re much better at playing in the sandbox. That really played itself out with the arena. Different interests came together to make it happen.”
Gene Beck has lived in the Bangor area all his life. Two years ago, he opened the Nocturnem Draft Haus on Main Street. He’s seen downtown Bangor go from a thriving retail center to a hollow shell to what it is today—an example of what can happen when a committed core of people invest in the community.
“The city started to invest in the downtown, which gave a lot of entrepreneurs the confidence to go forth,” he says. “It took some progressive thinking, and one thing led to another. Back in the 1990s, everybody was scared to invest and fighting with one another. Now everybody works together. We do cross-promotional stuff and keep each other in the loop. And all that builds together. More business is only going to bring more business.”
Matt McLaughlin, program director at the Chamber of Commerce, agrees. He works with Fusion:Bangor on Downtown Proud, an initiative to promote the downtown through events like open houses, when businesses stay open late and offer discounts and prizes to attract professionals who can’t shop downtown during the workday. “It’s a chance for them to see what downtown can offer them,” McLaughlin says. “The more options there are, the more people are going to want to spend time and money there.”
And it’s not just bars and restaurants, though that sector of the downtown economy is booming. Retail outlets like Epic Sports and Mexicali Blues bring shoppers into the heart of the city, and the Penobscot Theatre offers quality year-round live entertainment. Central Street Yoga keeps locals limber and in shape; the Maine Discovery Museum offers educational entertainment for families; and BookMarc’s Bookstore, the Briar Patch, and the public library keep the literary flame burning. Maine Street Music Studios provides a full range of music lessons and recording facilities that serve both local and out-of-town musicians, of which there are many.
“There’s so much music downtown, it’s insane,” Beck says. Almost any night of the week, you can find live musical entertainment at a number of downtown venues. Several venues host open mike nights, which can run past midnight.”
And it’s easy to get around on foot, by bicycle, or on the Bangor Area Transit (BAT) bus system that has served the region since 1972. Centered on downtown, the Community Connector system serves most of the city, as well as the communities of Brewer, Hampden, Veazie, Orono, and Old Town, six days a week between the hours of 6 am and 6 pm. Most riders would like to see the hours expanded later into the evening, a move the City Council has thus far resisted. “I know a lot more University of Maine students, in particular, would come downtown more often if the buses ran later,” McLaughlin says.
Even with its limited schedule, ridership on the BAT system continues to grow every year. As a result, Bangor is pleasantly free of the traffic problems that plague many small cities in other parts of the country. In the parlance of city planning, it’s called a “quality of life indicator.” In plain English, it’s just another thing that makes Bangor a great place to live.