Bangor (“Ban-gore”) has had a long and storied history as Maine’s third-largest city. Incorporated as a town in 1791 and then as a city in 1834, Bangor became the lumber capital of the world toward the latter part of the 19th century, shipping more than 250 million board feet of lumber per year. Sawmills lined the Penobscot River and Kenduskeag Stream to process trees cut from the northern Maine woods that were sent downstream and river with the spring thaw. Down the Penobscot, Winterport, Searsport and Belfast built some of the finest ships in the world.
Bangor became known as the Queen City of the East – no one knows why or who coined the term – and had visions of competing with Boston as the unofficial capital of New England. The Bangor House palace hotel, now an apartment building, was modeled after Boston’s Tremont House. And city planners crafted Chapin Park and Broadway Park to be similar to Boston Common.
The trees of the northern Maine forest were like gold to settlers in the East. Lumber barons built lavish mansions throughout the city, most along what is now the Broadway Historical District, State Street and West Broadway. At its height, the industry employed up to 3,000 men and 2,000 horses.
An economic downturn in the mid-1800s, however, and exploration and settlement west of the Mississippi decreased demand for Maine lumber and Bangor lost its claim to fame as the busiest lumber port in the world. Ice harvesting became a second industry for the city in the winter in the late-1800s. About 135,000 tons of ice were harvested from the Penobscot River and Kenduskeag Stream in 1880.
Today, the city has no mills of its own, only granite remnants of foundations along the Kenduskeag Stream Trail. The city of 33,000 is now the retail and commercial hub for northern, eastern and central Maine. Bangor International Airport, Interstate 95 and U.S. Route 1A all connect the city to the rest of the world.
Since its lumber days, Bangor has had to reinvent itself several times. In 1911 a fire destroyed almost all of the downtown business district, but the city rebuilt itself quickly, with most of the district’s buildings today a testament to the fabled Yankee ingenuity New Englanders are known for. From the 1940s through the 1960s, the city was home to Dow Air Force Base, one of the closest U.S. bases on American soil to Europe. In fact, the base housed German prisoners of war during World War II. At more than 11,000 feet, the runway is one of the longest in the world and an emergency landing site for the U.S. space shuttle program.
When the Air Force closed Dow in 1968, the city bought the base for $1 and turned it into a city-owned and operated commercial airport that continues to offer daily flights to major hubs in the East. The 101st Air Refueling Wing of the Maine Air National Guard occupies one end of the former base, helping to refuel military planes of all types as they make the final hop, over the Atlantic, to Europe.
In the last 38 years, the city’s commercial development has burgeoned since the opening of the Bangor Mall in a former cow pasture off Stillwater Avenue in 1978. The city is fortunate enough also to have seven television stations, representing ABC, CBS, NBC, CW, PBS, and FOX.
Bangor is home to best-selling author Stephen King, who donated more than $1 million to the city to build Mansfield Stadium in 1992. The city is also where former U.S. Defense Secretary William Cohen grew up and was the home of Abraham Lincoln’s first vice president, Hannibal Hamlin. Boston Red Sox great Ted Williams passed through the city several times on his fishing trips.