The first settlers in the area where Bangor is now located were Abenaki Indians, residing in a peaceful village they called Kadesquit in a beautiful valley called Penobscot, "place of rocks." Their first famous visitor was the French explorer Samuel de Champlain who, in 1604, sailed up the Penobscot River. The legend was that he was searching for Norumbega, the city of gold of the poet Milton's Paradise Lost. Instead Champlain found a locale near the Kenduskeag River, "most pleasant and agreeable," covered with oaks, pine, and spruce that formed the fabled forests of Maine that would later make the city's fortune in the timber trade.
Jacob Buswell was the first settler, coming from Massachusetts in 1769 to the area which would be known as Kenduskeag Plantation until 1787, when its name was changed to Sunbury. The area grew slowly, a frontier town strategically located between the forests and the opening to the sea, its revenues derived mainly from the export of fish, furs, and lumber. The American Revolution brought the British to Kenduskeag Plantation in 1779, causing most settlers there to flee. By 1791 the community, which had grown to number 576 inhabitants, had recovered enough to petition Massachusetts for incorporation as a town. Legend has it that the cleric who was sent to Boston to obtain incorporation papers was humming a religious tune known as "Bangor" while the town clerk filled out the papers; in some resulting confusion, the name "Bangor" was entered in the incorporation papers as the name of the town.
Over the next twenty years Bangor enjoyed a brisk international trade in lumber. Prosperity was interrupted by the War of 1812; in 1814 the British stormed the town, demanding its unconditional surrender. A peace treaty was signed shortly thereafter.
By 1834, Bangor's lumber and related industries made it a boom town; its population had grown from 2,808 in 1830 to 8,000 people. Millions of logs traveled down the Penobscot River to be converted in Bangor's mills, and by 1850 Bangor was the world's leading lumber port in spite of the disastrous overflow of the Penobscot River that occurred in 1846.
The mid-nineteenth century was a time of excess—sometimes riotous—for Bangor. The part of town known as the "Devil's Half-Acre" rivaled San Francisco's Barbary Coast in its heyday for drinking, debauchery, and the telling of tall tales (such as the legend of Paul Bunyan) when lumbermen and rivermen descended on Bangor during the winter months. At the same time lumber barons built stately manors, traveled widely, and encouraged the arts in Bangor, earning the city a reputation as the cultural center of the state. Bangor-built ships carried pine boards to the West Indies, where they were traded for molasses, sugar, and rum. A brisk trade grew up with the United Kingdom and Europe, while Penobscot River ice was harvested and shipped to ports on the Atlantic coast. Records of the time show that as many as 700 seafaring vessels were anchored in Bangor's harbor at one time.
By 1880 the readily accessible timber had disappeared, loggers headed west, and Bangor's glory days were over. In 1911 a large part of the city was destroyed by fire. In rebuilding, Bangor focused on an economy based on wholesale and retail trade; new industry moved into the area with the establishment of an interstate highway system and an international airport. Today Bangor is a thriving city, the commercial and cultural center of eastern Maine. The late twentieth century was marked by the passage of strict historical ordinances, downtown restoration, and an emphasis on the architectural value of the city's older neighborhoods. With a growing economy focused on the service industry, Bangor is a popular place to live as well as visit.
Historical Information: Bangor Museum and Center for History, 6 State St., Bangor, ME 04401; telephone (207)942-1900