Before the Bangor region’s bus system was founded, Bangor and the surrounding towns had a public transit system that at one time was the envy of the entire state — remnants of which can still be seen today.
The Bangor Street Railway, later known as the Bangor Railway and Electric Co., was the first electric railway system in Maine. It opened in 1889, just one year after the world’s first widely successful electric trolley system debuted in Richmond, Virginia.
“It really showed the clout of the city, that we had this system in town before anyone else did,” said Dick Shaw, a Bangor historian.
Initially, the trolley had a route around downtown Bangor. By the 1890s, the line had continued down Main Street and up State Street, and by the early 1900s went out past the Bangor town line and into Hampden, eventually extending along Route 1A, just past Kennebec Road. Other routes were built into Orono and Old Town, and one route extended more than 20 miles out what is now Route 15, through Glenburn, Kenduskeag and Corinth and ending in Charleston.
Though Bangor’s trolley was, in some ways, ahead of its time, it was not without its share of troubles. By 1910, downtown Bangor was, by all accounts, a total mess of cars, horses, pedestrians and trolleys, all moving in different directions. Bangor did not adopt an ordinance mandating which side of the street to drive on until 1913.
“There were several fatalities over the years, especially around State Street, because people just didn’t know how to navigate between horses and trolleys,” Shaw said.
As development continued in what is now the Fairmount and Little City neighborhoods, trolley routes were built in those areas, and in 1914, a long-awaited bridge was built across the Penobscot River to connect Brewer’s trolley route to Bangor’s. By 1920, Bangor’s trolley system connected most parts of the Bangor region, and today, some parts don’t look all that different from the present-day Community Connector routes.
You can look at a map of the trolley lines in Bangor and see where the major residential and commercial centers in the region lay in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. As Little City and Fairmount grew, so did their public transportation options. The farms and homesteads heading out Route 15 were thriving, so the trolley came to meet them and bring them and their goods into the city. And as the University of Maine grew, so did the need to connect it with Bangor.
Bangor’s trolley not only provided a means of transportation for many of its residents — it also provided electricity to the city. Trolley company owner Edward Graham renamed the Bangor Railway and Electric Co. to Bangor Hydro-Electric in 1924, as his company had become perhaps more invested in getting the region’s houses wired for electricity than it was in operating a trolley system. Bangor Hydro-Electric was eastern Maine’s locally owned power company for more than 75 years, until it was sold to Canadian company Emera in 2001.
An electrically powered light rail system seems ahead of its time today, but in the grand scheme of things, Bangor’s trolley wasn’t around for that long. By the 1920s, it began to fall victim to an unsurprising culprit: the rise of the automobile. Suddenly, people had an option beyond public transport, a horse and buggy, or walking. With the advent of the Ford Model T, cars were affordable for the average consumer.
In 1931, the Charleston line stopped. In 1940, the Hampden line closed, and in 1941, the Old Town and Brewer lines ended. In December 1945, the remaining trolley service in Bangor made its last ride before it would clang no more across the Queen City. In 1946, as gasoline prices rebounded after the end of the World War II, a bus system started to replace the trolley lines.
“The bus today follows many of the same routes that the trolley did, but it obviously can go places a fixed system like the trolley couldn’t,” Shaw said. “In a lot of ways it’s similar though, because you could hop on and hop off.”
All told, the Bangor region’s trolley existed for just over 50 years — and all that remains of it now are some items at the Cole Land Transportation Museum in Bangor, and the occasional length of track unearthed during construction projects around the city. Also, according to Phil Morse from the Seashore Trolley Museum in Kennebunkport, Bangor sold a trolley car to the city of Johnstown, Pennsylvania, in 1941, and that trolley is now on display at the Rock Hill Trolley Museum in Rockhill Furnace, Pennsylvania. And the Corinth Historical Society Museum has two passenger seats from the trolley in its collection, among other Bangor Railway and Electric Company ephemera.
That’s not to say that the demand for public transportation disappeared with the trolley, however. Today, though cars remain the dominant mode of transportation throughout all of rural Maine, Bangor is undertaking an effort to update its bus system, including looking at potential new routes and extended operating hours. Though 100 years ago cars began to kill the trolley, in 2019, modern concerns such as climate change, fuel prices and accessibility for all members of society may change the way we get around once again.
Note: The Google Map we have created to accompany this story shows what we believe to be the general direction of the various trolley routes. We do not have exact locations for where every line of track lay, or where every stop was. We only have a map that is around 100 years old as our guide. If you or someone you know knows exactly where a part of the track ran, or where a stop was, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org, and we will be happy to update the Google Map with more accurate locations for stops and lines.