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Downtown, Up River

Caught at a tipping point between the city it was and the city it could be, in the 1970s Bangor, Maine was undergoing rapid change, both physical and social. As the urban renewal program and the opening of the Bangor Mall began to decimate the city's downtown, Bangor's people— hard-working, plainspoken and good-humored—tried to bridge that gap between progressive and traditional, modern and historic, urban and rural. Through more than 150 images captured by photographers from the Bangor Daily News and elsewhere in the community, Downtown, Up River: Bangor in the 1970s by Emily Stoddard Burnham paints a picture of a city caught in the middle.

Below is an excerpt taken from the prologue.


Don’t tell anybody, but I didn’t grow up in Bangor. I was born in 1982, and I came of age in the 1990s, in a little coastal town where there wasn’t much to do besides poke through seaweed along the beach and watch traffic scream by on Route 1.

A day trip to Bangor was a big deal. In Bangor, you could go to a movie theater and see something that hadn’t already been out for three months. You could go to Pizza Hut and play songs on the jukebox. And if you were lucky, you got to go to the Bangor Mall, maybe buy a trendy outfit, and marvel at all the people milling around spending money.

It took us an hour to drive up along the winding Penobscot River before getting on the highway to reach what, in hindsight, were utterly unremarkable tan buildings filled with stuff to buy. Still, when I saw that sprawling mall building, I felt I had arrived in civilization.

Mr. Paperback, 1970.

My twelve-year-old self never knew there was anything to Bangor other than the mall, a few motels and gas stations, and an ocean of parking spaces. I never visited downtown once as a child, aside from attending the Anah Shrine Circus at the Bangor Auditorium in front of which a Paul Bunyan statue stood a silent, cartoonish watch over the river. Why would we? There wasn’t much of anything there–at least not for us kids.

Hammond Street, 1977.

As an adult, I now know that Bangor once had a thriving urban core, where immigrants from Greece, Lebanon, and Russia ran businesses that thrummed with activity. I now know that Bangor International Airport was once an Air Force base, and that the Bangor House was a hotel so grand it rivaled anything found in Portland or Boston. I now know that a century ago Bangor included a red light district, where lumberjacks and sex workers and artists alike caroused and created. And that centuries earlier, Indigenous people named each bend in the river and rise in the landscape.

Bangor’s fascinating and proud history—buoyed by a nineteenth century lumber industry that sent lumber to towns and cities across the nation to help build homes—wasn’t front and center for me. Neither were its people–unpretentious and good-humored in the way most Mainers are, and yet oddly sophisticated, too.

To me, Bangor was a series of chain restaurants and chain stores, not “a star on the edge of night,” as Thoreau called it when he visited in the 1840s. In his day, Bangor was the last stop before the vast expanse of the north woods; a frontier town with the cultural trappings of a much larger city.

Freese's Department Store, 1970.

It’s not that Bangor’s reputation as a retail and entertainment mecca came out of nowhere. Before the Bangor Mall was built in a former cow pasture off Hogan Road, the beating economic heartbeat of the city was downtown. Throughout the first half of the twentieth century and into the 1970s, a dense crush of businesses operated along downtown streets, ranging from mom and pop shoe stores, clothiers, grocers, and candy shops to large retailers like Sears, Dakin’s Sporting Goods, W.T. Grant, and the famous Freese’s Department Store–which for decades featured the only escalator in Eastern Maine.

Prior to the 1970s, shopping in downtown Bangor was a major seasonal affair for people from all over Eastern, Northern, and Central Maine. Going back to school shopping in August, Christmas shopping in December, and getting fitted for weddings, proms, and social events the rest of the year were rites of passage for people of all ages–often followed up by lunch or dinner at one of the many restaurants downtown, a drink at a bar, or perhaps even a movie or show at the Bijou, Park, or Olympia theaters. For folks from far flung towns in the County or Down East, Bangor was the big city. The Hub. The Queen City.

Downtown, Up River is available now.


Emily Stoddard Burnham is a lifelong writer, Waldo County native, and proud resident of Bangor, who since 2008 has served as an arts and culture journalist for the Bangor Daily News. Throughout her career, she has told stories about Maine in both the past and the present, highlighting everything and everyone from rock bands, chefs and artists to cultural idiosyncrasies and little-known moments in Maine history. She lives in a very old house in Bangor with her husband, Zach, and dog and cat.

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