What do you say about a river that has been a part of your life for 51 years?
As long as I can remember, the mighty Penobscot has been like a member of the family, calm and ingratiating at times, turbulent and foreboding at others.
I’ve seen its placid waters mirror full moons and July Fourth fireworks displays; at other times fierce summer storms have painted the river black, kicking up waves high enough to capsize sailing vessels.
In my lifetime, the Penobscot, an ancient Indian tribal name, has been transformed into a sparkling landmark that residents and visitors alike can appreciate once again. It
wasn’t always like that. I remember as a child riding across the old iron Bangor-Brewer Bridge, quizzing my mother about the “soap suds” in the water below.
“Oh, those aren’t soap suds,” she would reply with a nervous giggle, “that’s pollution.”
Stiff environmental laws and civic-minded citizens put a stop to drain pipes that flushed waste directly into the Penobscot River as late as the 1970s. Gradually, Atlantic salmon, which once were sent to the White House, returned to the river and the “suds” and unforgettable stench vanished.
Driving along Hancock Street to work each morning, I study the riverfront in all four seasons and imagine what it must have looked like during Bangor’s mid-19th century boom years as the lumbering capital of the world.
In 1846, Henry David Thoreau steamed up the river to Bangor, the head of navigation 50 miles from the sea, bound for the great North Woods. He thought the outpost of 12,000 souls resembled “a star on the edge of the night, still hewing at the forest of which it is built.”
Sawmills, which awaited the spring log drives of virgin spruce and pine, lined the Bangor side of the river, while shipyards and icehouses dotted Brewer and Orrington’s shorelines.
On July 14, 1860, 60 vessels cleared Bangor’s harbor within a period of two hours. Legend holds that you could cross the river, hopping from boat to boat, without getting your feet wet.
The boats were so tightly grouped that city workers called harbor masters were hired to settle squabbles over boat berthing. Underpaid but highly respected men such as Walter Ross, harbor master in the 1870s, kept order in the river. His reward was having a tugboat named in his honor.
Devil’s Half Acre, a sort of combat zone tucked behind the Bangor House hotel, near the confluence of the Penobscot and the Kenduskeag Stream, was a ripsnorting place in the spring. Sailors coming up the river often clashed with “Bangor tigers,” the sure-footed log drivers who rode the timber down from the river’s West Branch deep in the North Woods.
Waiting to sate the appetite of the last men standing were the scarlet women, whose riverfront brothels advertised that they took in laundry, a sort of code for prostitution.
Although only age 2, I swear I remember the week in 1954 when a pair of white beluga whales caused a sensation when they swam into the salmon pool off State Street. I’m a generation removed from other colorful events, however.
I’m too young to remember when large steamboats ferried passengers up from Boston. I also missed the tiny Bon Ton ferries, which originally made five-minute crossings from Brewer to Bangor for a penny. An era ended when the last boat burned in 1939. The fare by then had shot to a nickel, an exorbitant fee by Depression-era standards.
So, I’ll rely on the memories of my mother and father, who rode the Boston boats as youths, years before they met.
Mom often spoke of riding one of the steamers – there were three; the Camden, Rockland and Belfast – down the river each summer with her family to a rented Victorian cottage in Bayside, the next stop below Belfast.
One day, her father nearly broke a rib laughing after spying a dockworker at Winterport, a stop along the way, wrestling with a barrel full of eels. I’m afraid he didn’t have much luck shoveling the eels back into the barrel.
I never skated on the river in winter or swam in it in summer, but a former newspaper colleague, Jack LaFountain, recalled trooping down lower Main Street to a favorite swimming hole in the ’30s, accompanied by neighborhood chums and his ever-vigilant father, Frank.
“We called the riverside swimming area the Yacht Club,” LaFountain remembered. “It was just below the Tin [railroad] Bridge, near the East Hampden line.”
He and his pals loved to swim in the huge wake of the Boston boats as they made their twilight runs up the river.
Joy turned to sorrow one day when a neighborhood boy named John MacNeil perished in the river. He swam over to the Brewer side, but was sucked under by a stiff current before he could return.
As I sit by the riverfront savoring the music of this year’s National Folk Festival,
I’m sure my eye will wander from the stages to the Penobscot and remember how such events, from my lifetime and others’, have shaped my life. It’s all almost beyond words.
Dick Shaw is the editorial page assistant and staff historian for the Bangor Daily News. He has compiled several books of vintage photographs in the “Images of America” series, including “The Lower Penobscot River Region,” “Brewer” and “Bangor, Volumes I and II.” His e-mail address at the newspaper is Rshaw@bangordailynews.net.