Bangor firefighter and paramedic Chandler Corriveau unlocked and opened the door to the Hose 5 Fire Museum on State Street in Bangor, and I took a step inside.
Hulking fire engines filled the space, and firefighters battling flames filled the photos hanging on the walls. To the right a ticker tape machine sat enclosed in a glass case, and beside it two Gamewell Fire Alarm Telegraph Boxes hung on the wall.
An original Bangor ladder was suspended from the ceiling toward the back of the space. The ladder was created right here in Bangor, and in the late 1800s it was being used by cities such as Boston, Chicago and New York City. Incredibly, that design from so long ago is still in use today.
Upstairs, objects from years gone by filled every nook and cranny. Old breathing apparatuses sat in cases, leather buckets were enclosed behind glass and an entire room dedicated to the Great Fire of 1911 — which did millions of dollars in damage to downtown Bangor — featured enlarged copies of old editions of the Bangor Daily News plastered to the walls, their headlines screaming of a major blaze, their price at the time only 3 cents.
Corriveau walked around the rooms with a coffee cup in his hand, comfortable in the space he has come to know so well in the eight years since he has been on the Bangor Fire Department.
I never would have stepped foot in the museum, if it weren’t for a presentation hosted by the Bangor Historical Society at the Isaac Farrar Mansion on Union Street in Bangor. The presentation featured public education officer Jason “Jake” Johnson of the Bangor Fire Department and Corriveau. As part of the Bangor Historical Society’s Brown Bag Lunch Series, Johnson spoke about 201 years of Bangor Fire Department history. His presentation was the first in the summer series.
The next Brown Bag Lunch is scheduled to start at noon, July 12, at the Isaac Farrar Mansion. Liam Riordan will present “Understanding the Declaration of Independence.” Others planned for the summer include talks on Maine at Gettysburg and the Bangor Police Department.
Johnson’s presentation provided attendees with fun facts about the history of the city’s fire department and important people, places and things, in a Jeopardy-like format, which I was told was unique to this presentation.
He told us, for instance, that in 1884 Bangor bought and installed 24 Gamewell Fire Alarm Telegraph Boxes that would send a signal to the firehouse when pulled, indicating where a fire was. Today you can see where some of the old boxes used to hang on telephone poles. About 100 of them still exist and are in working order. Even today, the devices are quite useful. When pulled, a number is punched out on ticker tape at the fire stations, alerting firefighters as to where the blaze is. Even with today’s technology, these are the fastest way to alert the fire stations about a fire, Johnson and Corriveau said. Unfortunately they’re being phased out by the city because of the cost to maintain them.
I was able to see a few of these boxes in the museum, which Corriveau showed me after the presentation concluded.
I learned many things from Johnson, including the fact that in 1854 Bangor began to pay their firefighters a stipend of $25 for the first time.
Johnson told the crowd of about a dozen people that Bangor had its worst fire, in terms of firefighter fatalities, at the Opera House fire on Jan. 14, 1914. Frigid temperatures, low water pressure and power lines made fighting the fire a challenge. Sadly, at some point a brick wall collapsed, killing two Bangor firefighters: Lt. Walter Morrill and Firefighter John Leonard. One of the rooms at the museum contains some of their old equipment, serving as a memorial of sorts for them, ensuring their sacrifice is never forgotten.
In 1946 the fire department took over the ambulance service, which previously was handled by the police. And in 1983, a Morse Covered Bridge burned near Harlow Street when an intoxicated man set it on fire.
But there were other milestones Johnson told us all about, as well, including the fact that in 1987 Cheryl Brown became Bangor’s first female firefighter.
Johnson also shared traditions shared by the brave men and women of the fire department, including the fact that “strombi,” a combination of onions, peppers, Velveeta cheese, hot sauce and ground beef, is a favorite meal at the Bangor firehouse. The tradition started in the 1950s, and new “probies” — a probationary firefighter, or rookie — are often served multiple meals of strombi.
Attendees had the opportunity to answer questions about each of these facts, making their best guesses in order to earn points. City Councilor Gibran Graham came in first place for the competition, and two others were awarded second and third place. I was content sitting back and observing before heading to the museum.
The museum itself is a testament to the fire department’s history, containing items that have been collected and preserved for many years. It was built as a fire station in 1897 and closed in 1993, when the station relocated. The building opened as a museum in 1994, thanks to a group of firefighters who wanted to preserve the history of the department.
The museum is open from 9 a.m. to noon Saturdays during the summer months, mainly because it is run by volunteers, but it’s certainly a Bangor gem and a testament to the history and bravery of Bangor’s firefighters. Other visits and group tours are also available by appointment
Corriveau told me he knew he wanted to be a firefighter when he was a child. He never deviated from the plan, getting involved with his hometown fire department as a teenager and pursuing an education in fire science at Eastern Maine Community College before joining the Bangor Fire Department.
As he wandered the museum, it was easy to tell that the history of the department was a part of him. He even celebrated his 21st birthday in the museum’s basement, where the firefighters sometimes hold gatherings. As a dedicated member of the department, along with all his co-workers, he said something I think probably speaks for many of them.
“This is in my blood,” he said.