Then & Now: the Queen City
Bangor has been nicknamed “The Queen City of the East” since the 1830s, and for good reason. British royalty couldn’t have charted a steadier course for the community of just under 33,000, built at the scenic confluence of the Penobscot River and Kenduskeag Stream. Visiting author Henry David Thoreau’s 1846 “star on the edge of night” is burning bright, despite being challenged by floods, fires and a military base closure.
“[This city] is unique,” said Sean Faircloth, former mayor and state senator and the founder of the Maine Discovery Museum. “We serve the largest geography in the northeast, yet civic leadership is manageable.”
“If you have a new idea, and are willing to organize and work hard,” he continued, “you can have a big positive impact, more so than in cities that are a less manageable size. Ideas sparked here can gain media attention and spread around the country. Bangor’s level of civic engagement can have an outsize impact and be a model for others.”
The onetime Penobscot County lumber capital once made news seemingly only for dark events, such as environmental headaches and a 1911 inferno that claimed two lives and 55 acres. Even comedian Jack Benny, broadcasting from the city’s Opera House in 1943, cracked that the city’s foul-smelling river water couldn’t compare to Chanel No. 5.
Stephen King’s home town is no longer a TV punch line. Tourists from around the world have taken Stu Tinker’s SK Tours of King’s novel and movie locales. Acts such as Rod Stewart and Bob Seger have added Darling’s Waterfront Concerts and Cross Insurance Center stages to their lineups, Hollywood Casino attracts gaming enthusiasts, the American Folk Festival is a summer staple, and a rejuvenated downtown is studded with restaurants, bars, shops, the Penobscot Theatre Company, and the 1915 all-granite City Hall, where City Manager Catherine Conlow oversees all things Bangor.
The city also boasts the Maine Troop Greeters, a first-rate public library, hospitals, public and private schools, university and community college campuses, an international airport, a community band and symphony orchestra, religious institutions, ballet companies, a community theater and chorus, the Cole Land Transportation Museum, TV and radio stations, and the Bangor Daily News, founded in 1889. Bangor Mall shopping is among the state’s best.
“[Bangor’s] longtime focus on waterfront and downtown revitalization has ultimately resulted in an incredibly livable city,” said Tanya Emery, the director of Community and Economic Development, “with amazing arts and culture, recreational opportunities, and the quality of place that people are looking for. Bangor is well-positioned, as one of the best small cities in New England, to continue to attract both residents and businesses.”
Punctuated by visits from explorers Estevan Gomez (1525) and Samuel de Champlain (1604), as well as first settler Jacob Buswell’s arrival in 1769, the river port’s past is on display at the Historical Society museum, housed in a former mayor’s mansion at 159 Union Street. Executive Director Melissa Gerety, Curator Matt Bishop and a host of docents sponsor activities that include tours of their Civil War collection and hikes around downtown, Mount Hope Cemetery and Devil’s Half Acre, a red-light district favored by thirsty loggers and lumbermen.
“The Bangor Historical Society’s mission is to preserve, protect and share Bangor’s history,” Gerety said, “and to a degree that means recognizing that what our members are doing now is creating what will be Bangor’s history in the future.”
“Once from Bangor, always from Bangor,” might be many natives’ motto, including the following who sing its praises. Former mayor Gerry Palmer helped build a sister-city relationship with Harbin, China, memorialized in a waterfront monument. Sue Willey McKay, a Bangor Band trumpeter, recalls Christmas visits to Freese’s Department Store and 1960s Broadway development. Steve Bateman collects vintage local postcard images of sites such as his alma mater, St. John’s Catholic School.
“A great thing about Maine is the changing of the seasons,” said Economic Development Officer Tyler Collins. “And, no matter the season, there is always something going on in Bangor for young and old alike.”