SWIFT FLAMES BURN AMERICAN ICE CO.’S PLANT IN HAMPDEN, reported a large headline in the Bangor Daily News on Feb. 28, 1916. “Buildings Destroyed, But Damage to the 15,000 Tons of Ice Is Not Known,” it continued. “Leaping Flames Made a Great Spectacular Display.”
The East Hampden ice house was located near a popular picnic spot on the river known as Paradise Park (across the main road from Pat’s Pizza today, according to historian Dick Shaw). It was the American Ice Co.’s last remaining storage building on the Penobscot River. More than 400 feet long and 100 feet wide, the mammoth warehouse was a landmark that had provided employment to thousands of men since 1883, when it was built after another ice house burned.
Its destruction the second time around, however, must have aroused mixed feelings among Bangor-area folks.
The export ice industry on the Penobscot had been all but dead for years. Once controlled by local interests, it had been consolidated until it was controlled by one big monopoly, the American Ice Co., one of the villains of the robber-baron era. The company manipulated cutting as a way to force up ice prices in New York City and other large cities along the East Coast. Maine’s export business suffered as a result.
Maine’s role in the ice trade had become dependent on the availability of ice from the Hudson River. The American Ice Co. only cut in Maine when it couldn’t cut ice more cheaply in the Hudson. The rise of ice manufacturing and increasing river pollution further led to a decline in the use of natural ice everywhere.
Several local businesses like Getchell Bros., The Citizen’s Ice Co. and the Bangor Ice Co. continued to supply home ice boxes as well as large institutions like the Bangor House, the S.A. Maxwell Co. slaughterhouse on Valley Avenue and the Eastern Steamship Co. But local ice exporters found themselves mostly shut out of the trade after the American Ice Co. established its monopoly in 1899.
When the company was put on trial in New York for violating anti-monopoly laws in 1909, Charles M. Stewart, once an exporter of Maine ice, testified how it had destroyed Maine’s ice industry. There were now only two ice houses left on the whole Penobscot River, he said.
If Stewart towed an iceberg into New York harbor, he would not get a chance to sell a pound, said a prosecutor at the trial.
Col. I.K. Stetson, another Bangor businessman with shipping interests, testified at the same trial that the company had obliterated the state’s ice industry by manufacturing so much artificial ice.
The company responded that it was cheaper to get its ice from the Hudson or to manufacture it than it was to come all the way to Maine.
A company official on the witness stand also mentioned that the public was growing increasingly skeptical of ice taken from rivers as the pollution problem grew. Like many rivers, the Penobscot was being fouled by paper company waste, sewage and the residue of sawmills.
Some winters no ice was cut along the river by the American Ice Co., but the year 1916 might be different, some people imagined. The ice in the Hudson River had gone out early.
AMERICAN ICE CO’S HOUSES IN MAINE ORDERED FILLED, a headline in the Bangor Daily News said on Feb. 4. There were still about 10 houses standing on the Kennebec, but only one on the Penobscot. Some ice was also being cut in Boothbay and Bristol for the company, said the newspaper.
The goal of the ice company was to fill the ice house in East Hampden, the newspaper stated. On Saturday, Feb. 26, operations were suspended with the house only about half full. The crew of 144 men and 30 teams of horses were sent home until Monday, said Stephen Griffin, local manager for the ice company.
Shortly after 3 a.m. Sunday the fire broke out in the engine house.
The flames, which started as “a lively fire in some soft coal,” quickly spread to the ice house. The blaze lit up the heavens for miles. It threatened the Brewer waterfront with blowing cinders, but most of them fell in the river or along the shore because of the lack of wind.
“The fire was peculiar in one way,” the reporter wrote. A person could stand within a few feet of the west side of the ice house and hardly feel any heat. A big pine tree a dozen feet from the east side “was not even scorched.”
A three-story boarding house 100 feet south of the building along with surrounding outbuildings remained undamaged. A large powerhouse on the wharf where ice was loaded was left unscathed along with a nearby blacksmith shop, boats, storehouses and the like.
When it was over only a smoking ruin remained. Some 15,000 tons of ice, however, was visible, stacked 34 feet in the air. Much of it was salvageable. Based on an interview with Griffin, however, the reporter could not say whether the company planned to abandon the ice or preserve it and rebuild the ice house.
As of April 4, however, the ice was still sitting there slowly melting, and the company had made no effort to rebuild. A late freeze on the Hudson had caused the company to lose interest in the Penobscot ice, surmised the Bangor Daily News.
Three years later, in 1919, this passage appeared in Louis C. Hatch’s new book, “Maine: A History”: “There are now no longer [ice] storage houses on the Penobscot River; and those on the Kennebec are no longer used,” G.W. Stephens wrote in an essay on the industrial development of the state. “At present there is remote prospect that resumption of the industry will occur.”
Wayne E. Reilly’s column on Bangor a century ago appears in the newspaper every other Monday. His latest book, “Hidden History of Bangor: From Lumbering Days to the Progressive Era,” is available where books are sold. Comments can be sent to him at firstname.lastname@example.org