May 24, 2019

Fire ladder was a tall tale for April Fools’

Elaborate April Fools’ Day jokes were once a national pastime. A century ago the boys at the Bangor Daily News, in cahoots with Fire Chief William Mason, cooked up one that still provides a chuckle.

The announcement in the newspaper that morning seems a bit prosaic today. Joseph Drummond, ex-chief of the Passaic (N.J.) Fire Department, now representing the Sims Arlington Co. of Seneca Falls, N.Y., was in town to demonstrate one of his company’s aerial firetrucks. The city was considering buying one, the story said. Just the other day Chief Mason had stated that it would be difficult to fight a fire in one of the growing number of tall buildings downtown with the present apparatus.

The machine was “a splendid example of the latest thing in aerial trucks and has been much admired by those who have seen it,” commented the newspaper. “The mechanism is really a sort of telescope of ladders, operated by hydraulic power, which reaches instantly almost a height of 106 feet carrying a line of hose and firemen with them.”

The exhibition would be given at 11 a.m. at the City Hall, which had a tall bell tower. “Mr. Drummond declares he can land a man with a line of hose on the bell deck of the tower in 40 seconds, which will be going some,” reported the newspaper. Then one of Mr. Drummond’s assistants, a former firefighter, was going to slide from the top of the extended ladders to the ground “by means of the hand rails only.”

This was back in the days when City Hall sat on the slope at the corner of Hammond and Columbia streets. Mr. Drummond wanted to set his truck on this hill to demonstrate that it worked smoothly under any

conditions. The Sims-Arlington machine had a base of only 10 by 6 feet. “It is remarkable how ladders can be worked so perfectly from so small a platform,” the newspaper reported dryly.

This announcement would have aroused a good deal more interest in 1908 than it would today. This was the age of startling innovations. The telephone, the automobile, the electric light bulb, the airplane, the phonograph, the wireless and many other amazing innovations had been invented or made widely available to the public only recently. Why not a ladder that shot into space like Jack’s beanstalk?

The fear of catastrophic fire frightened people then in the same way the possibility of a major terrorist attack does today. Fire equipment was still towed about the city by horses. Bangor wouldn’t have any motorized firefighting equipment for several more years – until well after the Great Fire of 1911. Thus, people read the newspaper story about a magical-sounding ladder on that April 1 morning with considerable interest.

By 11 a.m. between 300 and 500 people, by the newspaper’s estimate, had gathered at City Hall to see Chief Drummond and his wonderful contraption. They blocked the sidewalk and craned their necks in an attitude suggestive of “a large astronomy class.”

“They waited and waited and waited some more. Pretty soon Chief Mason hove in sight, smiling, and the crowd could almost begin to hear the creaking of the ladders,” reported the newspaper the next day. But nothing happened. Soon, anyone with a ladder began to attract attention. A window washer working across the street for the Window and Sign Cleaning Co. folded up his ladder and began to leave. The crowd began to follow him until he became upset and began to “curse in earnest Yiddish. This drove the crowd back.”

At quarter after 11, “at last a great light began to dawn – and the way that crowd evaporated when the light really did come – the old simile of dew under a hot sun is faint in expressing it. It was magical the way they got away. At last not one single man could be found who would admit that he attended the festivities. Not one,” wrote the reporter with the exuberance of one who has pulled a fast one.

Especially interested in this ladder were the politicians who arrived on the scene. “One indignant alderman thought that somebody was trying to sell the city a gold brick … he went away chastened and subdued. The professional politicians were all worried and excited, for, at first jump, they thought somebody was getting a few ‘pickings’ on the quiet, and that Chief Drummond with his beanstalk was the wheel. But there weren’t any money bags in sight anywhere. … Telephone lines between the residences of the fire chief and the mayor and the members of the board of engineers and the hotels and the police station and the News office are now being repaired. They were melted out in the excitement.”

So ended one of Bangor’s many April Fools’ jokes run in newspapers over the years. This one performed a public service, reminding Bangoreans they would need the most modern fire equipment if they ever had a big fire downtown. The old City Hall building emerged from the Great Fire of 1911 unscathed, only to be torn down decades later for a parking lot as part of urban renewal.

Background information was found in Deborah Thompson’s history of Bangor architecture and the Bangor Fire Fighters Yearbook, 2003.

Wayne E. Reilly may be reached at

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