The Bangor Museum in Bangor, Maine partnered with the local high school to create an exhibit that deeper explored the Great Bangor Fire of 1911. The students used GIS to create maps that showed details of how the fire traveled through the city.
Their discoveries revealed differences in socioeconomic classes, geographical residence, and the way the fire re-shaped the city. The museum was awarded a 2012 AASLH Leadership in History Award.
To read the full article, you can purchase this issue of History News. The following is an excerpt:
April 30, 1911, began as a typical Sunday morning in Bangor, Maine. Families attended church, people strolled through the streets, and others enjoyed the breezy spring weather. By 4 o’clock that afternoon, everything changed as the fire bells sounded throughout the city. What became the city’s worst disaster began with a fire in a downtown hay shed. Fueled by hay, wood structures, and unseasonably dry weather, the fire quickly built up momentum. Gusty winds spread glowing embers across Kenduskeag Stream, dashing hopes for buildings on the opposite side. Fire crews from four surrounding cities arrived by train to help the Bangor Fire Department extinguish the flames. Hundreds of town citizens were sworn in as temporary police officers and they, along with the National Guard and local Boy Scouts, maintained order and protected personal property. By Monday morning they had extinguished the fire, but it had greatly transformed Bangor’s landscape.
The fire consumed homes, businesses, government buildings, and places of worship. While citizens mourned the loss of two firefighters killed that night, they remained steadfast in their determination to rebuild. Though offers of assistance poured in, most were politely declined. Mayor Charles W. Mullen was confident that Bangor would rebuild on its own. In the days following, stories of those who helped others, salvaged treasures, and saved lives were in newspapers across the country. Students from Bangor High School managed to save all of the school’s athletic trophies and numerous typewriters before the building burned. By Friday of that week, students were back in class sharing space at an elementary school away from the burned area.
A century later, students from Bangor High School were once again part of the story of the Great Bangor Fire. The Bangor Museum and History Center planned a five-month exhibit to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the event. Since a major component of their mission is to engage school children in community involvement, the museum and Bangor High School teacher Martha Chernosky created a partnership to involve high school students in local history. Chernosky and museum curator Dana Lippitt had a clear goal in mind: an exhibit that offered a new interpretation of the fire based on primary source documents and the use of modern mapping processes. Chernosky guided students through the geographic inquiry method to investigate the causes and consequences of the Great Fire. Students combined a Sanborn insurance map from 1908, maps drawn in 1911 just after the fire, and modern Geographic Information Systems (GIS) software to create a series of maps that offered a new interpretation of Bangor’s history.