On a winter night a century ago the members of the Bangor Chamber of Commerce gathered at City Hall to hear Edward M. Graham, general manager of the Bangor Railway and Electric Co., talk about the wonders of the city’s electric trolley system.
Edward Graham was the son of the late John R. Graham, the immigrant founder of the company, which also provided electricity to the area. John R. was a “wizard,” as the Bangor Daily News once called him, using a word commonly reserved for Thomas Edison. He had welded together a collection of failing trolley and power companies into a single successful corporate entity that had played an important role in Bangor’s economic growth during this period.
John Graham had been brought in by a major investor, the General Electric Co., because of his ability to rehabilitate failing streetcar companies. He was the man who made the trains run on time in Bangor.
He was also the man who spread electricity for other purposes throughout the area. After building trolley tracks and transmission lines, his company convinced people they needed to have their houses wired so they could have electric lights, toasters, heaters and some other technological wonders of the early 20th century.
In a few years, Edward Graham would become the president of Bangor HydroElectric Co., the successor to Bangor Railway and Electric.
Graham’s message was as simple as the story’s subhead in the Bangor Daily News on Jan. 31, 1917: “Bangor has cheap power and good transportation facilities — strong arguments for new industries.”
Ironically, today the trolleys have disappeared along with the “cheap electricity.” Hydropower makes up just a small part of the energy that powers our nation.
What happened to all the imaginary new industries remains a mystery. From the “lumber capital of the world,” Bangor had been reduced to primarily a shopping center by 1917. Major industries always seemed just around the corner for Bangor’s boosters in those days, and a few still dreamed the Queen City of the East might one day overtake Boston or even New York City in the quest for industrial riches and population.
As a means for moving people around, the street railway had been a huge success. Four million fares had been collected the year before, Graham said.
In 1917, one could ride the trolleys from Dorothea Dix Park in Hampden through downtown Bangor all the way north through Orono and into Old Town. One could ride from Bangor to Charleston passing through Kenduskeag and East Corinth on the way.
Just three years earlier the trolley had started crossing the Bangor-Brewer Bridge, making it easier for workers from Bangor to ride the rails to the Eastern Manufacturing Co., in South Brewer, and for folks from Brewer to cross over to the Queen City to shop or catch a steamboat or train.
The Bangor Railway and Electric trolley system had been a special boon for area farmers, especially on the Charleston run. “It gives the farm family the benefits of city life,” Graham said. “The electric railway has brought the markets to the farmer’s door thus making it possible for him to load his products on the cars with the least possible expense for handling and eliminating the long hauls. Farm products can be delivered to the markets each morning within a very short time by express service, thus enabling the farmer to successfully compete with the city gardener.”
In addition, 1,500 cords of pulpwood had been shipped recently to mills along the Maine Central Railroad with ship-building timber to Rockland and Bath, where companies had commenced building wooden vessels again. If the Charleston trolley line had not been there, no market would have existed for this lumber.
The future industrial capacity of the state would depend to a great extent on the construction of transmission lines by electric companies. “The most desirable power developments are located far from manufacturing centers where good shipping facilities are needed,” Graham said.
Graham noted that the power station at the Bar Harbor & Union River Power Co. in Ellsworth, another of his father’s visionary creations, was producing energy for lighting Bar Harbor and Northeast Harbor as well as operating Bangor’s trolley cars.
Because of the increasing cost of coal, communities would be looking around for factory locations where sources of cheap electrical power could be had. “These are days of keen competition between municipalities,” Graham said.
Thanks to recent improvements in electrical machinery, electricity was available all along Bangor Railway and Electric transmission lines. All along the street railway system from Kenduskeag to Charleston, “village streets that were once dark and gloomy after sunset are now brightly illuminated…,” Graham said, adding that the introduction of labor-saving electrical devices on the farms should help to bring people back to agriculture.
After outlining all these benefits, wonders real and imagined, Graham made what appeared to be some small requests and apologies to the businessmen seated before him. Because of the growing demand for trolley transportation, the company was going to have to reduce the number of “white poles,” which marked stops along the various routes. People would no longer be able to get off at every side street.
In addition the trolley company was asking that the city enforce its new traffic ordinances. Automobilists were backing their cars up to the curbs instead of parking parallel. This and other sloppy parking methods were forcing motorists and horse-drawn wagons to drive on the trolley tracks causing the trolleys to slow down or even stop, throwing their schedules off. If only passengers would have their fare ready and get on and off the cars in a brisk manner, things would improve as well.
In these last few comments, Graham had gotten to the root of the problem faced by the Bangor Railway and Electric. It was called the automobile. In fact, some of the attendees at this chamber of commerce meeting that night had probably arrived in autos, perhaps chauffeur-driven, a common luxury in 1917. Some were no doubt dreaming of a spin out Hammond Street in the spring, traveling at a speed one would never want a trolley car to achieve.
In fact, the days of the trolley car were already coming to an end. Perhaps Graham could see the end, and he was promoting a new age of “cheap power.”
People wanted transportation that was more personal and flexible than that provided by the trolleys. Gasoline-powered autos and trucks, independent of tracks and power cords, were already available for those with the money.
The automobile had already made a dent in street railway business. Riverside Park, the trolley company’s summer entertainment Mecca in Hampden, would fail to open in 1917 because increasingly people were driving elsewhere to be entertained.
World War I and the influenza epidemic put major dents in ridership, at least temporarily.
The rise of the gasoline-powered truck would begin competing on the trolley company’s freight routes, and some farmers already were buying trucks.
Improved roads advocated by influential automobile groups and paved with government tax money made it possible to drive almost anywhere at high speeds.
The Bangor Railway and Electric Co. was renamed the Bangor Hydro-Electric Co. in 1924. Graham became president. The last track was added to the trolley system in 1930, a short 700-foot extension in Hampden.
Then trolley service began to shrink. The next year the entire Charleston Division, which depended more on freight than passengers, was abandoned. A private bus service took over passenger and mail service.
The Hampden line was closed in 1940 and the next year so were the lines to Old Town and Brewer. Buses took over the routes to one degree or another.
The last trolley service in Bangor ended on Dec. 31, 1945, as soon as gasoline was more plentiful again. These details of decline come courtesy of Charles D. Heseltine’s remarkable history book “Bangor Street Railway.”
Back in the winter of 1917, when Graham spoke to the Bangor Chamber of Commerce, electric power had a tremendous future. Electric street railways, however, weren’t part of that future in most places. Anyone who understood the tremendous allure of gasoline-powered automobiles, trucks and buses already knew that.
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