Photo Courtesy of Bangor Museum and History Center
For photographers, fire has always represented one of the most obvious sources of drama, and the scores of blazes that leveled Maine cities around the turn of the century resulted in some impressive glass-plate negatives of burned-out hulks and smoldering ruins. But without a doubt one of the most dramatic scenes was captured on April 30, 1911, when photographer Leyland Whipple set up his tripod on Hammond Street just as the great Bangor fire was sweeping across Kenduskeag Stream. The fire began in a hay shed a few blocks south at around 4 p.m., and judging by the length of the telephone-pole shadow on the side of the Kenduskeag Block, at right, Whipple made this image no more than a couple of hours later. The flames had already claimed the seventy thousand volumes housed within the Bangor Public Library, the largest library in the Pine Tree State at the time, and the papers of the Bangor Savings Bank on the first floor would soon be ablaze (the bank's safe would eventually be recovered from the rubble, its contents intact). Fed by a strong southerly breeze, the inferno had already ignited the wooden clapboards of the Farrar Furniture building across the street. Trolley cables, powerlines, and telephone wires had fallen onto the trolley tracks, at center, where the flames are reflected in a puddle.
Whipple managed to infuse even more action into his photograph by including the gent, at far right, who watches the fire from beside the columns of the Merrill Trust building. (The lumber in the street indicates that the bank, which escaped the blaze, was being renovated.) He has also captured the mad dash of the person at far left, who has narrowly escaped across the bridge and is ducking into the courtyard of the custom house and post office building, out of sight behind the iron barricade at far left.
Perhaps the greatest power of this image, though, is in what it conceals. The wall of flames at center hides the six-story Morse-Oliver building just a few doors down the street; the building later collapsed and killed Brewer firefighter John Scribner, one of only two fatalities during the fire. Smoke obscures the other buildings farther down State Street, but the awkwardly converging rooflines at upper left indicate that some buildings have already begun to implode. Even the custom house to which the runner at left flees will eventually succumb to the flames, one of some 267 buildings that would be gutted during the nine hours it took for crews from as far away as Portland to bring the fire under control. Were it not for remarkable photographs like this one, Queen City residents might never know what their city looked like on that fiery spring evening nearly a hundred years ago.