FOREST FIRES RAGING ALL AROUND BANGOR, announced the lead headline in the Bangor Daily News on the morning of July 13, 1908. CINDERS FALL OVER CITY.
Was the Queen City of the East doomed to a fiery death? Some thought so during that drought-ridden summer a century ago. More than 142,000 acres from York to Aroostook counties were incinerated between May and October. The state experienced its third worst forest fire season in the 20th century (when record keeping started), second only to 1903 and 1947.
To liven up his writing on that July 13 a century ago, the reporter chose a powerful image from “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, which every school child read back then:
“The awful sun which Coleridge conceived for his Ancient Mariner was no more blood red, nor terrifying than the sun which burned in the west Sunday night for an hour before sinking in a smothering bank of smoke behind the Hermon hills. … For the thing which had been dreaded had come to pass: a series of forest fires which made a general forest conflagration.
“At dusk Sunday Bangor was practically encircled by fires, which raged north, south, east and west, and it is estimated that within a radius of 30 miles, one thousand men were fighting the flames.”
The worst fires were between Winterport and Frankfort. The Bangor & Aroostook Railroad sent out a special train from Milo Junction with a crew of 40 firefighters. Firemen were also busy in Milford, West Seboeis and LaGrange. A man who climbed a mountain in Dedham said he could see 13 fires “in the basin which contains Rocky pond, Green lake, Phillips lake and Holbrook.”
Dead cinders “the size of a black fly” fell on Bangor. They were small, but “that was enough for hundreds of people who immediately saw Bangor consumed.” The Fire Department revoked all leaves as a precaution. “For,” said a fireman Sunday, “if anything starts now, with a wind blowing, God knows where it will stop.”
These nearby fires were only the beginning. Reports were coming in from all over the state. A fire near Indian Pond had halted the trains of the Somerset Railroad. A rumor that the Kineo House had burned proved unfounded. Other fires were burning at Seal Cove, Milo, and near Nahmakanta Lake. Kennebunk, where four fires were raging, was particularly hard hit.
Some fires reported were unrelated to the forest fires. The Hersey Retreat, which belonged to Bangor’s Universalist Church, burned at Sandy Point on the same Sunday cinders fell on Bangor miles away. Rumors surrounding that disaster involving a religious institution “gave Bangor people the general impression that the world was coming to an end by fire.”
Two months later, as the forest continued to burn intermittently, children playing with matches started a terrible fire in the vicinity of Maple and Garland streets and Parkview Avenue in Bangor that destroyed a dozen buildings, including several homes and a wood yard.
Fires destroyed forested tracts, lumber yards and sawmills all over the state. Hundreds of Italian immigrants were imported by train to fight fires threatening Jackman, the Bangor Daily News reported on Sept. 12. A week later, the newspaper reported fires were still under way in 14 towns in eight counties.
Occasional rainstorms provided only temporary relief. It was the driest year in “modern times,” said Forest Commissioner Edgar Ring in his annual report. There were only three weeks between May and Oct. 27 when there were no forest fires.
“From Fort Kent to the ocean, Maine is parched, dusty and dried up,” reported the newspaper. “Not only is the woods growth dry, the grass withered and all vegetables withered and shriveled, but the very earth is dry as dust to an unprecedented depth. Old woodsmen who were in Bangor Friday said that never before had they seen the ground so dry or the streams so low as now.”
One of the main causes of the fires was locomotives spewing sparks into the dry brush. The B&A announced it was taking special precautions, according to the Bangor Daily Commercial on Sept. 22. Freight trains would run at night when there was dew. Finer screens were placed in the smoke stacks to block large burning cinders. Passengers in the smoking cars were told to stop throwing cigar and cigarette butts out the windows.
Another major cause of the fires was careless campers and sportsmen. Some decided to stay home. “To go into the woods now on a gunning trip is like carrying a lighted candle into a powder magazine,” one member of the Bangor Gun Club told the Commercial’s reporter on Sept. 26, a few days before deer season.
Newspaper reports frequently lamented the amount of valuable timber that was being destroyed. The Bangor Daily Commercial called on the Legislature to do more to protect the state’s forests, its main source of wealth. Commissioner Ring, however, said that the amount of valuable timber destroyed in the fires had been greatly exaggerated, pointing out that much of the destruction took place in incorporated towns with second-growth forests.
In an era before modern fire fighting equipment, the state’s expanding number of mountain watch towers, connected to the outside world by telephone lines, were cited frequently as one reason more fires did not get out of control. The first of the eight lookout towers had been built just three years before.
When it was all over, Somerset County was the area of the state that had lost the most, with more than 50,000 acres burned at an estimated value of more than $205,000, or nearly a third of the state’s total financial losses in timber. Of incorporated towns, Kennebunk received the most damage with 9,000 acres consumed.
In Penobscot County forest fires had burned in Orono, Holden, Greenfield, Hermon, and seven townships. Bangoreans had had a bad scare from the forest fires in July and suffered a bad blaze of their own in September, but their day of reckoning with a truly nightmarish conflagration was still three years away.
Kent E. Nelson, fire prevention specialist with the Maine Forest Service, provided updated forest fire figures for this report.