BANGOR, Maine — The city kicked off a yearlong celebration of its 175th anniversary Thursday with a birthday bash that drew an estimated 200 people to Bass Park.

Despite a steady drizzle, the festivities were launched with a bonfire and fireworks display.

“It’s appropriate that we’re starting with a bonfire,” given Bangor’s heritage as a rough-and-tumble lumber town, Bill Cook, local history-special collections librarian at Bangor Public Library, said as flames illuminated the Bass Park parking lot.

Cook said history shows that Bangor’s incorporation was driven largely by a population explosion — it grew from 800 residents in 1800 to 8,000 in 1834 — and the need for public services, especially a police department, because “it was a rather rough town.”

Tom and April Goehringer and their granddaughter Norra Lynn Dano, all of Bangor, braved the cold rain to witness the celebration.

Tom Goehringer, who works for the city’s Fire Department, said he decided to bring his family to Bass Park as a way to show support for the city “and just be part of it, especially in times like these.”

“This is the kickoff of a yearlong [celebration] to commemorate our 175th birthday as a city,” City Council Chairman Gerry Palmer announced through a bullhorn as the huge bonfire burned away behind him.

“We were incorporated on Wednesday, Feb. 12, 1834, when the papers were inked in Augusta,” Palmer said. “It’s that day we’re remembering 175 years later. In another 25 years, it’ll be the bicentennial of Bangor.”

Standing at his side was City Councilor David Nealley, who looked Paul Bunyan-esque in a red-and-black wool buffalo check jacket and wool cap. In another nod to Bangor’s lumbering past, Nealley held a Snow & Nealley-made peavey in one hand and ax in the other.

In his remarks, Palmer noted that the city spent at least $100,000 to mark its 150th birthday back in 1984, and that its 125th featured the unveiling of the Paul Bunyan statue and an 800-pound birthday cake.

Unlike past birthday celebrations, this one is shaping up to be a low-cost observance.

“These are difficult times. We are in a battle with our economy, not only here in Bangor but everywhere in this country,” Palmer said after the action moved from the parking lot to a podium set up just outside the Bangor Auditorium.

“We’ve done everything we can do to minimize the cost of this celebration, but we need to celebrate. We are a proud city with a strong heritage, and we will all get through this. It’s all been done before,” he said. “Our forebears had to [endure] the Depression. We’re not there yet, but they needed to smile and laugh and they did in their own ways. We are excited to be here, rain and all.”

Among those who joined in Thursday’s bash were some members of the Brewer City Council, state legislators from Bangor, and representatives from the offices of U.S. Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins and U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud.

Gov. John Baldacci, who was born and raised in Bangor, also stopped by with a proclamation citing some highlights in city history.

“You know, I’m partial to Bangor, being born and raised here,” Baldacci said. “It’s a great place to come from, a great place to be,” he said.

He agreed that Maine is in the midst of some tough times, praising the congressional delegation’s work to address the nation’s tanking economy, as well as the efforts of those working to improve things here in Maine.

“These are difficult times, but with all your help and support, our country and our state are going to be able to move forward,” he said.

Given the current economic crisis, Thursday’s event was homemade with everyone from city employees and elected officials to local schools and institutions pitching in.

Several local businesses donated soft drinks, coffee and hot chocolate. Future chefs from the United Technologies Center baked cakes and the Bangor Museum and History Center provided historic photographs which served as the decorations. The Anah Temple Shrine clowns offered entertainment, including balloon sculptures.

Even the fireworks were free. Palmer said the fireworks display, shot from behind the grandstand at Bangor Raceway, was a birthday gift to the city from Central Maine Pyrotechnics.

Performances by the Carter Boys and the Bangor Band capped the night’s festivities.

The birthday party will continue through the end of the year with many observances to be folded into existing events. For more on upcoming events, visit the city’s Web site,

Richard Shaw, a Bangor historian, also invites residents to submit photos and other items for a time capsule to be stored at City Hall in June. Items may be submitted to the city manager’s office.