The summer of 1916 was a real horror story for Americans. Terrorists, man-eating sharks, a major polio epidemic, threats of war — even weird weather — were among the items giving folks the jitters all the way to Bangor.
The shark attacks occurred between July 1 and July 12. Five people were attacked off the New Jersey shore and four of them died. Terror spread up and down the coast.
After “a number of large sharks” were seen near Pemaquid Point, fishermen in the area warned a newspaper reporter that people should be careful.
Willard Blaisdell, a fisherman from New Harbor, described how “one of the monsters bit his trawl in two a few hundred yards off the harbor only a week ago.” After he repaired and reset his gear a few days later, Blaisdell encountered the shark again. It swam so close to his motor boat that he was able to strike it with an oar, according to a story in the Bangor Daily News on July 18.
Meanwhile, a rumor spread on the Bangor waterfront that sharks were following the Boston Boats up the Penobscot River. Many boys had stopped swimming in the river off popular sand bars and docks because of this rumor, the Bangor Daily Commercial said July 18.
Capt. A. E. Rawley of the steamer Belfast helped dispel these tales and get the boys back in the water during the heat wave that was baking the area.
“Oh yes, I’ve seen a lot of them between Rockland and Boston. But they were just ordinary sharks, mind you — none of the man-eating variety that have been killing bathers off the Jersey coast,” Rawley said. “I have never known of a man eater coming north of Cape Cod, and as a matter of fact, I don’t think I’ve ever heard of them coming as far north as the Jersey coast.”
Around this same time, a major polio epidemic ravaged the nation, especially New York City. When it was over, thousands had died. Mainers watched to see how they would be affected by the dread disease.
NO INFANTILE PARALYSIS IN BANGOR AS YET, a headline cautioned in the Bangor Daily News on July 10. “No Unusual Precautions Are to Be Taken Here. Every Train and Boat Arriving in Portland, However, Will Be Visited — Warning by the Secretary of State Board of Health.”
Maine was not immune, however. The first case in the Pine Tree State occurred in Kennebunkport, the Bangor Daily Commercial said Aug. 7. A 7-year-old girl from Montreal staying in a summer hotel died.
As the month went on other cases appeared in Portland and Rockland, where two children died, according to the newspapers. A man from New York City died in an unnamed community in “northern Maine.”
But Bangor dodged the epidemic. The city’s board of health report for the period between March 1916 and March 1917 reported only one case in the Queen City. “This case was brought here from Isleboro and was well looked after and did not cause any trouble,” the board reported.
Nearly 50 Bangoreans died that year from other infectious dread diseases of the era, including typhoid, diphtheria and especially tuberculosis.
The threat of violence also hung in the air that summer. In San Francisco in late July, anarchists killed six people near a “preparedness parade” with a bomb. Such parades and similar events were intended to instill patriotism and encourage the nation to prepare for entry into The Great War, which was raging on in Europe.
Meanwhile, Bangor and many other communities had recently sent large National Guard contingents to Texas to guard the Mexican border from raiders. War was considered a definite possibility.
Over all these apocalyptic events — disease, war, man-eating sharks — hung a collection of weather conditions that helped spread anxiety over the land that summer.
In March, the Bangor newspapers began reminding people it was the centenary of the infamous summer of 1816 — also known as “1800 and Starve to Death,” “the Year Without a Summer” and various other nicknames for the time that snow and ice were seen in June and July and “the corn froze in August.”
Despite dire hints in the papers that something bad might happen, including the predictions of a local “seeress” and a report by a reliable Bangor man that he had seen it snowing in the city briefly on a day in June, the only unusual events noted in the papers were a short, mid-summer heat stroke — and later — an attack of yellow fog.
It was a long, hot summer for many areas of the country and Bangor got its share culminating in mid-July. BANGOR SWELTERED IN AWFUL HEAT, the Bangor Daily News moaned July 15. Thermometers rose to 100 degrees or more.
Back then, reporters assigned to write a heat story went out and got the news off actual thermometers hanging on store fronts at different busy intersections. Thus, at 1 p.m. Wednesday, July 14, the thermometer at East Side corner (State and Exchange streets) registered 100 degrees as did the one on the front of the Windsor Hotel on Harlow Street. Just to be sure, this enterprising reporter then checked out the gauge at Pol’s Corner (at Main and Hammond streets) and found a more moderate reading of only 94 degrees.
Yes, those were hot temperatures in the era before air conditioning. The reporter had been taught to write colorfully about it: “Pitch oozed in steams from the wood paving in Central and Exchange streets, until pedestrians and horses floundered through a sticky sea. Flags and buntings and awnings hung limp. Not a breath of wind stirred. The air seemed burning with invisible fires. Nowhere in the scorched and suffering city could one snatch a moment of relief.”
Of course, even at that early date electric fans were available in stores for people with a little money. Courageous men took off their coats and carried them on their arms. In the evening crowds took the open trolleys down to Riverside Park in Hampden to cool off. But most people just stayed home and “took their medicine.” We can guess what that meant.
The 100 degree temperatures seem to have lasted only two or three days, but it remained hot. Then a truly strange event occurred. Bangor was “smothered in a saffron haze,” as the Bangor Daily News described it.
The Bangor Daily Commercial described this “freak of nature” on July 28: “Bangor was mystified by an atmospheric phenomenon Friday, which gave rise to all sorts of rumors as to its cause. … Lights had to be turned on early in the forenoon and the atmosphere assumed a weird saffron hue.”
Reporters from the city’s two newspapers scrambled to find an explanation. It seemed like the results of a forest fire, but there were none in Maine to report. Then Fred Gilbert, manager of the spruce wood and timberland department at Great Northern Paper Co., provided the answers.
He said smoke from forest fires just over the border in Quebec “west of Bald Mountain” and northwest of Jackman was combining with the moist air caused by recent heavy rains in Maine creating the yellow fog that was hanging over much of central Maine. The temperature had dropped quickly into the 50s “and many a summer cottager shivered under the bed clothes.”
A day or two later the papers carried the news that forest fires in northern Ontario had destroyed some small towns, killing many people and leaving hundreds more homeless.
Many theories had been circulating around the city indicating just how panicked people were. These imaginary causes of the saffron haze included “German gas bombs, an earthquake or tornado, dog days, anchor ice and the smoke from a naval battle off the coast of Maine,” the Bangor Daily Commercial reported.
Some people were even blaming the firing of large guns and the explosion of bombs in the European war zone for the erratic national weather patterns that summer, a theory that the U.S. Weather Bureau denied in a news story published in the Bangor Daily Commercial on Aug. 11.
In Bangor, the “weird and ghastly spectacle” continued for a third day. “It was a startling study in coppery yellow, vivid green, dull red and flashing white — the sky, the grass, the earth and the street lights taking on, respectively, those colorings,” according to the Bangor Daily News on July 31. A thunderstorm that afternoon “intensified the weird effect … timid persons, the nervous and the superstitious fancied perhaps that the universe had slipped a cog.”
“[I]t was a dark, drear and very yellow day. Houses were lighted up all the forenoon as at night. Grown folks looked and felt gloomy and small children looked scared. But the motor tourists went spinning abroad just as usual … Let somebody be cheerful in this year of gloom,” the reporter concluded.
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