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Essex Woods in Bangor is today mostly used for walking, biking, birdwatching and playing with our canine friends at its dog park.
But the 70-acre Bangor Parks and Recreation area has had a number of extremely different uses over the decades, from its origins as a city dump to its brief period as the site of Bangor’s only downhill ski slope.
From sometime in the 1800s until 1955, Essex Woods was far from the haven for red-winged blackbirds and mountain bikers that it is today. It was instead the site of one of the two city dumps, where for decades everything from household trash to industrial waste was disposed of. After years of negotiations, the dump finally closed in 1955 and was moved to Kittredge Road, though it would be nearly another 10 years before the city began to redevelop the land.
In January 1964, after crews bulldozed the former landfill and compacted the mountain of trash into a long, steep slope, the city unveiled its new “sliding slope”’ — the big hill that’s presently there that is not a natural feature of the area, but is rather compacted waste covered in a layer of soil and sod.
Almost as soon as that slope opened, however, the city began planning to further steepen that slope and install a ski lift on the hill. It would take the city nine years to actually find the time and money to do it, however, with a lift finally opening 50 years ago on Jan. 6, 1973.
Longtime Bangor Daily News sports reporter Larry Mahoney was one of two 19-year-olds hired by Bangor Parks and Recreation to run the lift, in fact. He recalled opening weekend was so cold he nearly got frostbite.
For the next six winters, Bangor was home to its own tiny, municipally owned ski slope — a fraction of the size of other city-owned ski areas like the Camden Snow Bowl or Powderhouse Hill in South Berwick, but a ski slope nonetheless. The city even constructed a small lodge for downhill and cross-country skiers, and for the snowmobilers they hoped to attract.
After six seasons, however, the Essex Street ski area had waned in popularity, as area skiers still preferred to hit up the slopes at Hermon Mountain, a much larger ski area just a few miles to the west. The winter of 1977-78 would be the last for the ski lift.
Clockwise, from left: Dale Quimby (left) and Diana More of Orrington race down the Essex Street Hill in their yellow submarine during the Bangor Cardboard Carnival in February 2001. Credit: Miller Pearsall / BDN; Anthony Stark, Jr. (seated) prepares to descend Essex Street hill while his sister Charlene cheers him on and mom laughs at Anthony Stark Sr. who already headed down the hill in January 2013. Credit: Debra Bell / BDN; Bangor residents Andrew Pianette (left), 17, and Andrew Sawyer, 17, watch and document a giant tire as it rolls down Essex Street hill in December 2007. Credit: Bridget Brown / BDN
Essex Street has remained popular as a spot for sliding, though. With its steep grade it became notoriously known locally as “suicide hill.” A sled picks up quite a head of steam while heading down the hill, and if it’s icy at all you can potentially rocket off the bottom of the hill and out onto the boggy area between the hill and Interstate 95, landing either on ice or in freezing cold, muddy water. Hopefully, you don’t sustain any major injuries, though plenty of sledders have over the years. Officially, the city discourages sliding at the hill, though that hasn’t necessarily stopped people from doing it anyway.
Between 2000 and 2007, local radio station WKIT-FM capitalized on the hill’s notoriety and held the Cardboard Carnival, a competition in which people built sleds entirely out of cardboard and attempted to take them down the hill without them falling apart. Elaborate cardboard sleds built to resemble castles, cartoons and other wild things were sent shooting down the hill, mostly to end in destruction and piles of laughter. After several years in which the weather was uncooperative, the station canceled the competition in 2008.
The original ski lodge fell into disrepair throughout the 1980s, until 1990, when the newly formed Police Athletic League, part of the Bangor Police Department, took it over and began to host youth sports programming, including a boxing club, ice fishing expeditions and mountain biking groups. The league closed last year and donated the building to Bangor Parks and Recreation. Over the years, the city has also expanded the trail network in the area, which today is the most popular part of the facility aside from the dog park, which opened in 2013.
Though you might see a rogue sledder risking personal injury to take a wild ride down the hill, Essex Woods, as it’s known today, is now more of a year-round park. Maybe not the winter recreation wonderland the city may have envisioned in the 1960s and 1970s, but it is still an integral part of Bangor’s parks system — and certainly a whole lot better than a city dump.