Lewiston (//;French: [luistɔ̃]; officially the City of Lewiston, Maine) is the second largest city in Maine and the most central city in Androscoggin County. The city lies halfway between Augusta, the state’s capital, and Portland, the state’s most populous city. It is one-half of the Lewiston-Auburn Metropolitan Statistical Area, commonly referred to as “L/A.” or “L-A.” Lewiston exerts a significant impact upon the diversity, religious variety, commerce, education, and economic power of Maine. It is known for an overall low cost of living, substantial access to medical care, and a relatively low violent-crime rate. In recent years, the City of Lewiston has also seen a spike in economic and social growth. While the dominant language spoken in the city is English, it is home to the largest French-speaking population in the United States (by population) while it is second to St. Martin Parish, Louisiana, in percentage of speakers.
The Lewiston area traces its roots to 1669 with the early presence of the Androscoggin tribe (the namesake of the county in which the city resides). In the late 18th century, the area (then a part of Massachusetts) slowly became populated by Quebec families and was incorporated as “Lewistown” in 1795. The presence of the Androscoggin River and Lewistown Falls made the town an attractive area for manufacturing and hydro-power businesses. The rise of Boston rail and textile tycoon Benjamin Bates saw rapid economic growth rivaling that of Cambridge, Worcester, and Concord. The increase in economic stimulus prompted thousands of Quebecers to migrate, causing a population boom; the populace rose from 1,801 in 1840 to 21,701 in 1890. In 1855, local preacher Oren Burbank Cheney founded the Maine State Seminary, the first coeducational university in New England and one of the first universities to admit black students before the Emancipation Proclamation. Lewistown quickly became associated with the liberal arts and was incorporated as “Lewiston” in 1864, a year before the college was chartered as Bates College.
The city is home to the only basilica in Maine, Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul; 5 colleges and universities; 44 listings on the National Register of Historic Places; the Androscoggin Bank Colisée; the Stephens Observatory; the Olin Arts Center; the Bates College Museum of Art (BCMoA); and two significant general hospitals: Central Maine Medical Center and Saint Mary’s Regional Medical Center.
The Lewiston area was formerly inhabited by peoples of the Androscoggin (or Arosaguntacook) tribe. The Androscoggins were a tribe of the Abenaki nation. Facing annihilation from English attacks and epidemics of new infectious diseases, the Androscoggins started to emigrate to Quebeccirca 1669. They were driven out of the area in 1680, sometime after King Philip’s War (1675-1676). The governor of New France allocated two seigneuries on the Saint Francis River which is now known as the Odanak Indian Reservation; and the second was founded near Bécancour and is called the Wolinak Indian Reservation.
A grant comprising the area of Lewiston was given to Moses Little and Jonathan Bagley, members of the Pejepscot Proprietors, on January 28, 1768, on the condition that fifty families live in the area before June 1, 1774. Bagley and Little named the new town Lewistown. Paul Hildreth was the first man to settle in Lewiston in the fall of 1770. By 1795, Lewiston was officially incorporated as a town. At least four houses that have survived from this period are currently listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
King Avenue and Ralph Avenue were named after Ralph Luthor King, who owned the land near the fairgrounds. Elliott Avenue was named after his wife, Grace O. Elliott, whose son eventually built the family home at 40 Wellman Street.
Lewiston was a slow but steadily growing farm town throughout its early history. By the early-to-mid-19th century, however, as water power was being honed, Lewiston’s location on the Androscoggin River would prove to make it a perfect location for emerging industry. In 1809, Michael Little built a large wooden sawmill next to the falls. Burned in 1814 by an arsonist, it was later rebuilt. In 1836, local entrepreneurs—predominantly the Little family and friends—formed the Androscoggin Falls Dam, Lock & Canal Company:
…for the purpose of erecting and constructing dams, locks, canals, mills, works, machines, and buildings on their own lands and also manufacturing cotton, wool, iron, steel, and paper in the towns of Lewiston, Minot, and Danville.
The sales of stock attracted Boston investors—including Thomas J. Hill, Lyman Nichols, George L. Ward and Alexander De Witt. De Witt convinced textile and rail tycoonBenjamin Bates, then-President of the Union Pacific Railroad, to come to Lewiston and fund the emerging Lewiston Water Power Company. Soon after Bates arrived, the company created the first canal in the city. In the spring of 1850, some 400 men recruited in and around Boston by construction contractor Patrick O’Donnell arrived in Lewiston and began work on the canal system. Impressed with the labor force and “working spirit” of the Lewistonions, Bates founded the Bates Manufacturing Company, leading to the construction of 5 mills starting with Bates Mill No. 1. In August 1850, Maine Governor John Hubbard signed the incorporation act and the mill was completed 1852. Bates positioned the mill in Lewiston due to the location of the Lewiston Falls which provided the mill with power. Under Bates’ supervision, during the Civil War, the mill produced textiles for the Union Army. His mills generated employment for thousands of Canadians and immigrants from Europe. The mill was Maine’s largest employer for three decades.
This company began Lewiston’s transformation from a small farming town into a textile manufacturing center on the model of Lowell, Massachusetts. The creation of the Bates manufacturing trusts saw rapid economic growth, positioning the city as the wealthiest city in Maine, and created budding affluent districts such as the Main Street–Frye Street Historic District. Although the odd-majority of the population was working class, a distinctive upper class emerged at this time. The Bates Mill remained the largest employer in Lewiston from the 1850s to the mid-late 20th century.
Railroad construction was key to the development of both Lewiston and its neighbor, Auburn. In 1849, the Androscoggin & Kennebec railroad, running through Lewiston and Auburn, connected these towns to Waterville and the St. Lawrence & Atlantic Railway line between Portland, Maine, and Montreal, Quebec. The Androscoggin & Kennebec Railroad was constructed by Irish laborers, many of whom joined the Lewiston canal construction crews in 1850. The Irish laborers and their families lived in shanty-town neighborhoods called “patches”. By 1854, one quarter of Lewiston’s population was Irish, the highest concentration in any settlement in Maine. Subsequently, trains connected Quebec with Lewiston on a daily schedule. During the Civil War, the high demand for textiles helped Lewiston develop a strong industrial base through the Bates Enterprise. However, the concentration of wealth in Benjamin Bates sparked the 1861 Lewiston cotton riots which prompted him to give thousands of dollars back to the city and expand the employment opportunities at his mills. In 1861, a flood of French-Canadian immigration into Maine began, spawned by industrial work opportunities in Maine cities with water power from waterfalls. This brought a significant influx of Québécois millworkers who worked alongside Irish immigrants and Yankee mill girls. Lewiston’s population boomed between 1840 and 1890 from 1,801 to 21,701. Canadiens settled in an area downtown that became known as Little Canada, and Lewiston’s character has remained largely Franco-American ever since. In 1855, a Maine preacher traveled from Parsonsfield to Lewiston to establish an institution of higher learning in the city. In 1855, the Maine State Legislature was petitioned by Lewiston locals to found the Maine State Seminary. The school opened in 1855, and educated the working class of Maine while also providing education for blacks and women at a time when other universities barred their entrance. At its founding, it became the first coeducational college in New England and one of the earliest proponents of abolitionism.
During this time, in 1863, Lewiston was incorporated as a city. In 1872, St. Peter’s church was built in Lewiston. This was the first French-Canadian national church in Maine. In 1864, the Maine State Seminary was renamed Bates College in honor of Benjamin Bates.
In 1880, Le Messager, a French-language newspaper, began printing in Lewiston to serve its predominant ethnic population. The local Kora Shrine was organized in 1891 and held its first meetings in a Masonic temple on Lisbon Street. This group would from 1908 to 1910 build the Kora Temple on Sabattus Street, the largest home of a fraternal organization in the state. Architect George M. Coombs designed this Moorish-style structure.
City leaders decided to build a cathedral to which the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland could relocate. Construction of the Church of Saints Peter and Paul began in 1905 and ended in 1938, funded mostly through thousands of small donations from Lewiston residents. It is the largest Roman Catholic Church in Maine, and Lewiston’s most prominent landmark. While the Diocese of Portland did not relocate to Lewiston, the church nevertheless became a basilica in 2004. It is one of the few American basilicas outside of a major metropolitan area.