Major Harold Dorgan, left, group task force commander, and Col. George W. R. Zethren, air refueling wing commander at Dow AIr Force Base, inspect the group that will compete in Florida in the air refueling competitions of the world-wide Air Defense Command Interceptor Weapons Meet. The competitions are currently being held at Tyndall AFB at Panama City, Florida. Credit: Carroll Hall

Fifty years ago next week, the last planes flew out of Dow Air Force Base in Bangor, which for nearly two decades was home base for tens of thousands of servicemen and women and their families.

The base — now the home of Bangor International Airport — changed the shape of the City of Bangor in countless ways, many of which were discussed at a Friday morning conference, “Bangor and the Base: 50 Years Later.”

The University of Maine at Augusta in Bangor, housed in buildings that were once part of the base, hosted the conference. It featured speakers including David H. Bergquist, author of the book “Bangor in World War II,” UMA Bangor history professor Tom McCord, Colleen Coffey and Haley Brown of UMA Bangor’s library, Bangor International Airport director Tony Caruso, and Chief Master Sgt. Daniel G. Moore of the 101st Air Refueling Wing.

A crowd comprised largely of former servicemen and servicewomen, history and aviation buffs, and curious Bangorians listened as Dow and the airport’s history was charted, from a 1920s airstrip owned by Bangor attorney Edward Rawson Godfrey, to a working U.S. Army airfield during World War II, to the nearly 20 years it existed as Dow Air Force Base, before its closure on April 5, 1968.

Many of the structures built for Dow are still standing today, as are some of the infrastructure changes from the 1950s and 1960s that were made to accommodate the growing base.

“The relationship between Dow and the city was always always a give and take,” said McCord, who specializes in Bangor history. “The base would dictate a lot about what would happen in the city, but the city would fight back when it could.”

At its peak, the base was home to more than 5,000 people, nearly 20 percent of Bangor’s total population. There were eight dorms on site, four of which stand today. By the late 1950s, there was already a housing development built — now known as Capehart — and another development on the way, later to be known as New Capehart. The Bangor Gardens neighborhood was built primarily with the intention of providing rental homes for service members.

When the Air Force wanted to expand the runway to its present 13,460 feet, it essentially cut through part of Hammond Street — which is why, today, Hammond Street ends at the base of the runway, and then resumes on the other side of the airport as Hammond Street Extension.

There was a chapel, bank, barber, bowling alley, movie theater and rod and gun club on base. Children of Dow service members made up around 1,500 of the Bangor school system’s more than 7,500 students. Dow itself paid Bangor Hydro Electric Company more than $1 million per year for electricity.

“It was a major boost to the economy, but people never knew if it was going to stick around,” said McCord. “It was always in flux.”

Bangor had a few years to prepare for the closure of Dow, which was first announced in November 1964 by then-Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. The major plan in the wake of the closure was for the city to take possession of much of the base and turn it into a commercial airport. Eventually, that’s what happened: Bangor International Airport opened in late 1968, alongside the Air National Guard base that’s still there, 50 years on.

Though the base has been closed for nearly 50 years, one thing hasn’t changed — planes still fly in and out of Bangor every day. They might be more likely to be headed to New York or Florida, rather than to military installations across the world, but jet noise is still part of Bangor’s soundtrack.

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Emily Burnham

Emily Burnham is a Maine native and proud Bangorian, covering business, the arts, restaurants and the culture and history of the Bangor region.