WHY GO: Rabid Stephen King fans make pilgrimages to this city in the middle of Maine, but of course, there are other reasons to visit beyond catching a glimpse of The King of Horror or his Victorian manse. Come to Bangor ME and you’ll be introduced to war heroes and troop greeters, snowplows the size of ships and friars who don’t mind sharing a joke as they dish out freshly baked bread and soup. Yes, Stephen King lives here, but there are other great reasons to visit Bangor. Just keep reading.
Things to Do in Bangor ME
TOUR: Cole Land Transportation Museum. This is no boring assemblage of old trains, old cars and antique fire trucks. Oh contraire. Yes, you’ll find all of those things in this nondescript putty-colored warehouse flanked by WWII Memorials (4,914 Bangor citizens served, 110 lost their lives), but several programs and exhibits here stand out in quirkiness and poignancy.
Galen Cole, owner of Cole’s Express Trucking Co. (which was bought out by Roadway in the late 1990’s), served his country in WWII. Along with the 200 vehicles on exhibit, the Museum is chock full of artifacts and reminiscences of Galen’s time in Europe as a soldier – most memorably, an exhibit honoring a German woman for tending to his wounds after his truck came under fire. Medics set up a field hospital on this woman’s farm, and when she saw the wounded soldiers, she provided fresh sheets and food. Forty years later, Cole arranged to have this hero and her family come to Bangor to thank her for her kindness. Photos from this celebration can be seen amidst the old trucks and cars.
Perhaps the most well known WWII artifact here is the American Flag made from the scraps of a red, white and blue Luxembourg flag. The flag was hanging out of a main street window when U.S. troops, under General George Patton, liberated this tiny Germanic country from the Nazi’s.
Yes, the WWII artifacts are impressive, but those who visit for the “Transportation” aspect of the museum will not be disappointed. There’s the requisite collection of fire engines, train cars (Bangor and Aroostook American Railfan 557 takes up a good portion of this vast space), old bikes, motorcycles and tractors.
But, this being Maine, you’ll also find a whole series of SNOWPLOWS – some so massive, the blades sweep like the prow of a ship to clear ten feet of snow from both sides of the street at once. There are Snowcats, a 1926 Model-T Snowmobile, an 1895 hearse with wheels and sleigh runners, a 1941 GMC Potato truck, and a progressive history of Cole’s Express Trucks from horse drawn wagon to 18-wheeler.
The back corner of the museum holds the complete Enfield Train Station where Galen’s father, Albert “Allie” J. Cole, started his trucking company in 1917.
Cole’s Land Transportation Museum is notable for its unique and important “Talk to A Vet” program, where veterans from all wars build connections with school groups through Q&A sessions. Come first thing in the morning Mon-Friday during the school year and you might be privileged enough to engage with veterans like the 89 years-young Austin Carter, who also provides impromptu tours of the museum. Cole’s Museum is a must-see for any Bangor visitor, and is well worth at least two hours of your time. Open daily May-Nov. 11th, 9-5. $7, under 18 free.
VISIT: “Troop Greeter” Exhibit at Bangor Airport. Bangor is the prime refueling stop for military planes coming back from overseas, and the first place that soldiers returning from war land, often in the wee hours. For years now, about 75-100 civilians, many retired military, greet these tired and despairing men and women as they disembark from planes and come through the airport halls. Troop Greeters form lines, hold signs of encouragement, dispense openhearted hugs, and have done so for nearly a million troops since 2003. Even if you don’t time your visit to coincide with one of these greetings, you can still see the collection of coins, patches, posters and other paraphernalia donated by grateful soldiers. The Greeters, according to locals, are “The Pride of Bangor.” Airport open 24/7, free.
SEE: Stephen King Sites. As most King enthusiasts know, “Derry, Maine” is the author’s stand-in for his hometown of Bangor. Many scenes in King’s books are drawn from actual attractions and places here. The 37-foot tall fiberglass Paul Bunyan statue (purportedly the largest in the world), that has stood in the same location since 1959 (now in front of the new Cross Insurance Conference Center) came to life in the book “It” – chasing the kids into Bass Park (“Bassy Park” in the book) Harness Race Track.
The historic and pretty white brick Thomas Hill Standpipe, built in 1875 – which regulates 1,750,000 gallons of water for downtown Bangor – was woven into “It” as well, when King depicted a true story of a local boy who climbed into it and drowned.
The two mile long Kenduskeag Stream Trail – a heavily wooded area within Bangor – featured prominently in “It” as The Barrens, the spooky area where the boys hid from bullies, is now a pretty place to stroll, especially during foliage. Just don’t stay there after dark!
Mt. Hope Cemetery, the country’s second oldest garden cemetery (after Mt. Auburn in Cambridge MA) was setting for Pet Cemetery, and where the movie was shot as well. Far from ominous, the cemetery is actually a beautiful park for the living, where residents walk their dogs and sightsee.
Though not in any of his books, you’ll want to stop at the Shawn T. Mansfield Stadium, a “youth only” baseball field the envy of even professional teams, and evidence of Stephen and Tabitha King’s philanthropy in the community. A 2,000 seat stadium, with Kentucky Bluegrass and night lights, Mansfield Stadium was the King’s gift to the city, named in memory of Shawn Trevor Mansfield, a friend of their son’s who died at a young age. According to Bangor residents, the Kings give a great deal back to the community, though you will not find one recipient emblazoned with the King name. They are just humble that way.
Perhaps the most famous Stephen King sight in Bangor is his home. On a street arrayed with the stately houses of lumber barons, the late 1800’s Victorian is recognizable by its color (deep coral) and the black wrought iron fence embellished with spider webs, bats and dragons.
VISIT: Bangor Historical Society. According to Melissa Gerety, Director of the Bangor Historical Society, “Bangor is a city of many cool small things.” One of those is the Historical Society, established in 1864, which suffered a loss of historical artifacts in the Great Bangor Fire of 1911. Afterwards, Bangor citizens united to donate items and the collection was slowly rebuilt.
The Society is housed in the 1836 home of lumber baron, Thomas Hill, designed by Trinity Church (NY) architect, Robert Upjohn, and displays touchstones like the sword that Joshua Chamberlain carried into battle at Gettysburg, John Hancock’s bathrobe (!?) and the 1895 Bangor Band Ceremonial Drum lost in Boston in 1928 and found just this year (2015) on Ebay! $5, Tues-Sat 10-4.
WALK/SHOP: Central and Main Streets. Offbeat trivia: On October 12, 1937, Public Enemy #1, Al Brady, was shot and killed right on Central Street – where a plaque now marks the spot. A local sporting goods store owner, “Shep” Hurd, tipped off the FBI after Brady came in to purchase a Tommy Gun “to go hunting.” (Hurd was paid the exorbitant sum of $2500 for this information, which he spent on a grand home in Searsport, ME – now the Captain A.V. Nickels Inn). Something to think about as you meander through some terrific shops like the funky gift and semi-precious stone emporium – the Rock and Art Shop, and two, count ‘em, two indie book stores – Briar Patch Bookstore (mostly children’s books) and BookMarcs.
STOP IN: University of Maine Museum of Art. A cool place to check out for a few minutes before or after lunch, this modest basement gallery exhibits a rotating roster of contemporary artists like Motherwell, Rauschenberg and DeKooning.
PHOTO OP: River Drivers. Passing the Penobscot River, you’ll see what looks like a beaver dam, but is in fact a man-made platform that “river drivers” would stand on to break up log jams in the middle of the river – an incredibly dangerous job. The Pierce Monument – depicting three River Drivers at work – stands outside the Bangor Public Library.
VISIT: Hudson Museum at U of Maine, Orono. You’ll find this small but worthwhile museum inside the Collins Performing Arts Center (upstairs) on the U of M campus about 20 minutes north of Bangor. With a focus on pre-Columbian to contemporary, indigenous artifacts delicate to freaky sit in glass cases that wrap around two rooms. See clothing and adornments, woven basket and clay jars, a Tsimshian Sun Mask, amazing Quillwork baskets, Root Clubs carved into ferocious walking sticks, crooked knives (for skinning animals and whittling wood), and a Beetlejuice-like take on a Northeastern Kachina. A conventional museum this isn’t, and definitely worth a half hour of your time. Open Mon-Fri 9-4, Sat 11-4, free.
Where to Eat in Bangor ME
EAT/LUNCH: Friar’s Bakehouse. This is a singular Bangor experience and one you shouldn’t miss. Actual frock-wearing Franciscan Friars from a cloister nearby run this modest restaurant/bakery. Delight in freshly made soups ($4.75) and sandwiches ($5.25) – each large enough for two to share – on plastic covered communal tables while Ava Maria or other Church tunes waft through the room. The friars are funny and personable, but do not allow cell phones – so turn them off before you walk through the door.
EAT/DINNER: 11 Central. The cocktail list at 11 Central is titled “Be Merry,” and that’s exactly how diners feel in this brick-walled, art filled contemporary restaurant. Flatbreads ($13-$17) and main dishes like the ridiculously good Katie’s Chicken Caprese ($23) –Parm Almond Encrusted Chicken topped with balsamic cream reduction – bring locals and visitors back time after time. The humungous ameba-shaped bar in the center of the room is always ringed with patrons navigating the latest specialty cocktail list. The mood at 11 Central is merry indeed.
EAT: Locals also love Bagel Central for coffee and college vibe, Fiddlehead for locavore fine dining and Paddy Murphy’s for a beer.
DRINK: Bangor Growler Bus. Just as it sounds, this bus takes you from brewery to brewery (there are a growing number in the Bangor area), allowing you to imbibe without worrying about getting DWI’d. You’ll visit 3 breweries, sampling up to 4 beers at each. $40.
Where to Stay in Bangor ME
STAY: Residence Inn by Marriott. Bangor is not known for its B&B’s but it has a nice selection of chain hotels. The best currently is the newly opened Residence Inn, right next door to the Cross Insurance Convention Center, where rooms are sleek and pristine in chocolate hues that pop with colorful accessories and art.
Bedding is dreamy, but the shower in the handsome bathroom is the star amenity: with a curved glass door and large enough for two, it’s the ultimate indulgence for a road-weary visitor. One perk for guests who want a nice meal without leaving the hotel: Timber Kitchen and Bar, a wood-stove, local family-farm sourced upscale restaurant, is right off the lobby. Rooms $127-$229 include hot breakfast.