Eight years ago, a barren tongue of land of half a dozen acres or so…today peopled with from 1,200 to 2,000 people, according to how you estimate, with almost 200 tenement houses… And yet they talk of Western booms.
The growth of Lewiston’s “Little Canada” district was as rapid and astounding to those who witnessed it, as it seems to us today. In 1891, the Lewiston Saturday Journal took its readers through a tour of the newest section of Maine’s leading manufacturing city. In the matter of just a few years, the part of the city known as “the island” had been transformed. In the words of the Journal, the neighborhood now being referred to as “Little Canada” represented
The most remarkable settlement of a people that is to be found in the same space of time in any city in New England…Very little English is spoken among the families; customs differ; the residents live by themselves and are growing rich by prudence and foresight.
“The Island” took its name from the way that it was enclosed by the Androscoggin River and the canals that powered the city’s textile mills. From 1874, it was also the terminus of the Grand Trunk Railway spur to Lewiston. The proximity of the neighborhood to the mills, where most French-Canadian immigrants worked, and the railroad, by which most arrived in the city, made the Island a convenient place for French Canadians to settle. It was also, however, one of the city’s less desirable neighborhoods. It was just a little upriver from the “Gas Patch,” an area around the Lewiston Gas Works, which had been settled by Irish immigrants partly because the foul-smelling gas made the area less attractive to others.
The Journal noted that the French Canadians shared more than just proximity with the Irish of a generation before. Just as the Irish had established “a fair sample of peasant life in Ireland” (complete with turf-walled houses, pigs, and hens), so would the Franco-Americans. “Few” of the Irish “spoke a word of English” when they arrived, yet many of them went on to become “distinguished in professions throughout New England” or “went to the [Civil] War and laid down their lives for the land of their adoption.” All in all, the Journal’s depiction of Little Canada and its inhabitants is generally sympathetic, if a little overwhelmed by the “exotic” nature of it all.
A visit to a Franco family is described vividly, including supper and music to follow. The family of six is described as “the average family on the Island,” and the Journal takes time to refute the “shocking” stories of “families of fourteen to sixteen living in one small tenement.” Such conditions certainly existed in neighboring Brunswick, in housing owned by the Cabot Manufacturing Company.
One of the things that distinguished Lewiston’s “Little Canada” from other immigrant neighborhoods in New England was that the houses were built by the immigrants themselves, not by the mill owners. While Little Canada does contain some “mill blocks,” the vast majority of French-Canadians lived in tenements built and owned by their compatriots.
French Canadian women are “excellent cooks,” and all the newcomers are described as “quite fine musicians.” The article’s author describes supper with a Franco family, followed by a kitchen party – a scene that would be familiar to many Franco-Americans of today. The windows of the apartment “shake to the tune of something like the Virginia Reel” – a nod to the common Celtic roots and influences of traditional French-Canadian and Appalachian country music.
The older Franco Americans have a “head for business;” the young women are pretty and the young men, if “not all handsome,” have “a kind of manly look to them,” being “tall,” “strong,” and “square-jawed.” Aside from these romantic pictures of the new arrivals, the Journal offers some interesting insights into daily life in Little Canada, such as the practice of boating on the Androscoggin by night, or the nugget that “very many of the younger generation speak English fluently, and read and write as well as the American boy or girl.”
The article confirms that nearly all the early arrivals to Lewiston were farmers – though some are described as “skilled mechanics and carpenters.” Nearly all the French-Canadians in Lewiston lived in the neighborhood (along with “only six Irish families”), including the relatively well-paid store clerks who worked on Lisbon Street. By 1891, the newcomers had elected their first councilman, François “Frank” Pelletier, who recounted having known Louis Riel, the leader of the Northwest Rebellion, when they were both students at Terrebonne College.
All together, the Journal‘s depiction of Lewiston’s new population is a far cry from the anti-immigrant sentiment that Franco-Americans would face in the 20th century, and the suspicion that many of today’s immigrants labor under. It may have glossed over some prejudices and struggles of the time, but it demonstrates the same “free-hearted hospitality” towards the Franco-Americans that the Journal attributed as a characteristic of the French-Canadian arrivals.