Discover the Hidden Gems of Lewiston, Maine

By Dinesh Bajaj

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Lewiston : Lewiston, pronounced as (/ˈluːɪstən/), is a city in the U.S. state of Maine. It’s the second most populous city in the state, with a population of 37,121 according to the 2020 United States Census. Lewiston is centrally located between Augusta, the state’s capital, and Portland, the most populous city in Maine. It’s part of the Lewiston-Auburn Metropolitan Statistical Area, often referred to as “L/A” or “L-A.” The city plays a significant role in the diversity, religious variety, commerce, education, and economic strength of Maine. Notably, Lewiston is known for its low cost of living, ample access to medical care, and a low rate of violent crime.

In recent years, Lewiston has experienced notable economic and social growth. While English is the primary language spoken in the city, it’s also home to a significant Somali population and boasts the largest French-speaking population in the United States by total numbers, although St. Martin Parish, Louisiana, has a higher percentage of French speakers.

Lewiston’s history can be traced back to 1669 when the Androscoggin tribe was present in the area. In 1795, it was officially incorporated as Lewistown. The presence of the Androscoggin River and Lewistown Falls made the town attractive for manufacturing and hydro-power businesses. It saw rapid economic growth, partially due to the influence of Benjamin Bates, a prominent Boston rail and textile tycoon. Irish immigrants played a crucial role in building the railroad links and canals for the textile mills, and they established successful businesses in the area.

In the 1850 Census, Lewiston had a significant Irish-born population, around 23%. The city’s economic growth also led to a surge in the number of Quebecers migrating to Lewiston, resulting in a substantial population increase from 1,801 in 1840 to 21,701 in 1890. In 1855, Oren Burbank Cheney, a local preacher, founded the Maine State Seminary, which later became known as Bates College. It was one of the first coeducational universities in New England and admitted black students even before the Emancipation Proclamation.

Lewiston has several notable features, including the only basilica in Maine, the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul, five colleges and universities, 44 sites listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Androscoggin Bank Colisée, the Stephens Observatory, the Olin Arts Center, the Bates College Museum of Art, and two significant general hospitals, Central Maine Medical Center and Saint Mary’s Regional Medical Center.



Before European colonization, the Lewiston region was home to the Androscoggin, who were part of the Abenaki people. In the 17th century, the Androscoggin were among the first Native American tribes to come into contact with European colonists in Maine. Initially, there was some interaction, but relations soured due to colonial expansion, conflicts with settlers, and devastating epidemics of infectious diseases. These hardships led to the Androscoggin people migrating to New France, starting in 1669.

By 1680, the Androscoggin had been completely forced out of Maine. The governor of New France, Louis de Buade, provided them with two seigneuries along the Saint Francis River. This relocation marked a significant chapter in the history of the Androscoggin people in the face of European colonization in the region.

Discover the Hidden Gems of Lewiston, Maine

Colonial beginnings

In 1768, a grant of land in the Lewiston area was awarded to Moses Little and Jonathan Bagley, both members of the Pejepscot Proprietors. This grant came with the condition that fifty families must settle in the region before June 1, 1774. Bagley and Little decided to name the new town “Lewistown.” The first settler in Lewiston was Paul Hildreth, who arrived in the fall of 1770. By 1795, the town of Lewiston was officially incorporated.

During this time, at least four houses have managed to survive from that period, and they are currently listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Additionally, King Avenue and Ralph Avenue were named after Ralph Luthor King, the landowner near the fairgrounds. Elliott Avenue received its name from Grace O. Elliott, his wife, and their family home was eventually built on 40 Wellman Street. These historical details provide a glimpse into the early development and naming of Lewistown, now known as Lewiston.

Industrial development and Benjamin Bates

Lewiston started as a small farming town but saw significant changes in the early-to-mid 19th century. Its strategic location on the Androscoggin River made it an ideal place for industrial development. In 1809, Michael Little built a large wooden sawmill near the falls. Although it was set ablaze by an arsonist in 1814, it was later rebuilt. In 1836, local entrepreneurs, primarily from the Little family and their friends, established the Androscoggin Falls Dam, Lock & Canal Company. This company aimed to construct dams, locks, canals, and mills, manufacturing cotton, wool, iron, steel, and paper in Lewiston, Minot, and Danville.

The sale of stock attracted investors from Boston, including notable figures like Thomas J. Hill, Lyman Nichols, George L. Ward, and Alexander De Witt. De Witt persuaded Benjamin Bates, a textile and rail tycoon, to come to Lewiston and support the emerging Lewiston Water Power Company. Bates played a pivotal role in creating the city’s first canal. In 1850, around 400 Irish men recruited in Boston by construction contractor Patrick O’Donnell arrived in Lewiston to work on the canal system. Impressed by the workforce’s dedication, Bates founded the Bates Manufacturing Company, leading to the construction of several mills, starting with Bates Mill No. 1. By 1852, the mill was completed and became a vital textile producer during the Civil War, supplying textiles for the Union Army. Bates’ mills provided employment for a diverse workforce, including Irish, Canadians, and European immigrants, making it Maine’s largest employer for decades.

This transformation from a small farming town into a thriving textile manufacturing center, akin to Lowell, Massachusetts, marked a period of rapid economic growth. Lewiston became the wealthiest city in Maine, fostering prosperous neighborhoods such as the Main Street–Frye Street Historic District.

The development of the railroad, particularly the Androscoggin & Kennebec railroad in 1849, played a crucial role in connecting Lewiston and Auburn to Waterville and the St. Lawrence & Atlantic Railway line. This expansion was carried out by Irish laborers, many of whom had worked on the canal construction in 1850. The concentration of Irish laborers in Lewiston led to the growth of “patch” neighborhoods, where they lived. By 1854, one-quarter of Lewiston’s population was Irish, the highest in any settlement in Maine.

During the Civil War, the high demand for textiles led to the strengthening of Lewiston’s industrial base through the Bates Enterprise. However, wealth concentration sparked the 1861 Lewiston cotton riots, leading Benjamin Bates to give back to the city and expand job opportunities at his mills. In 1861, a significant influx of French-Canadian immigrants began, attracted by industrial work opportunities. This brought an influx of Québécois millworkers who joined the Irish and Yankee mill workforce. Lewiston’s population surged from 1,801 in 1840 to 21,701 in 1890. These immigrants settled in an area downtown, known as Little Canada, and contributed to the city’s Franco-American character.

In 1855, a preacher established the Maine State Seminary in Lewiston, which later became Bates College. This institution was among the first coeducational colleges in New England and supported abolitionism.

In 1863, Lewiston was incorporated as a city, and in 1872, St. Peter’s church became the first French-Canadian national church in Maine. The Maine State Seminary was renamed Bates College in 1864.

By 1880, Le Messager, a French-language newspaper, began printing in Lewiston to serve the city’s predominantly French-Canadian population. In 1891, the Kora Shrine was organized and built its temple, the Kora Temple, in 1908-1910, becoming the largest fraternal organization home in the state.

The construction of the Church of Saints Peter and Paul began in 1905 and was completed in 1938. It became the largest Roman Catholic Church in Maine and the most prominent landmark in Lewiston. While the Diocese of Portland did not relocate to Lewiston, the church was designated as a basilica in 2004, making it one of the few American basilicas outside of major metropolitan areas. This marked an important chapter in the city’s history and its transformation into an industrial and cultural hub.

Lewiston-Auburn shoe strike

In 1937, one of the most significant labor disputes in the history of Maine took place in Lewiston and Auburn. This event, known as the Lewiston-Auburn Shoe Strike, extended from March to June and reached its height with the participation of 4,000 to 5,000 striking workers. When these workers attempted to march across the Androscoggin River from Lewiston to Auburn, Governor Lewis Barrows deployed the Maine Army National Guard to maintain order. During the strike, some labor leaders, including CIO Secretary Powers Hapgood, were imprisoned for several months following an injunction issued by a judge from the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, aimed at ending the strike. This strike was a significant chapter in the history of labor and workers’ rights in the region.

Textile investment

Following World War I, the profits of the textile industry in New England mill towns like Lewiston, Biddeford, Manchester (New Hampshire), Waterbury (Connecticut), and Fall River, Haverhill, Lawrence, and Lowell (Massachusetts) started to dwindle. Many businesses began relocating to the South due to the advantages of lower power costs stemming from more advanced technologies (Lewiston’s water wheel technology was replaced by hydroelectricity), cheaper transportation, as most cotton and materials were sourced from the South, and more affordable labor.

In the late 1950s, a significant number of Lewiston’s textile mills began to close down. This gradual decline in the textile industry resulted in a neglected and abandoned downtown area. Chain stores that had been a fixture downtown, such as Woolworth’s, W. T. Grant, S. S. Kresge, JC Penney, and Sears Roebuck, either closed their doors or relocated to malls on the outskirts of Lewiston or Auburn. Even the city’s prominent department store, B. Peck & Co., which had been in business for over a century, closed its doors in 1982.

As businesses and job opportunities left the city, people followed suit. The population growth stalled and then began to slowly decline after 1970, with a more significant decline in the 1990s. This shift marked a substantial transformation in the economic landscape of Lewiston and the broader region, impacting the city’s population and the vitality of its downtown area.

Economic diversification and renaissance

After a challenging economic period in the 1980s marked by high unemployment and downtown stagnation, several significant events have spurred economic and cultural growth in Lewiston. One of these turning points was the transformation of the historic Bates Mill Complex. The city took ownership of the complex in 1992 after back taxes had gone unpaid. Years of frustration among taxpayers who were burdened with the responsibility of maintaining the massive 1.1-million-square-foot complex led to two referendums – one non-binding and the other binding. Voters overwhelmingly supported the need to pursue redevelopment by preserving the property and selling it to private developers.

In 2001, the city sold three mill buildings to local developers, and in 2003, Platz Associates sold the Bates Mill Complex, with the exception of Mill 5 and a small support building. Over the following four years, numerous businesses expanded after Platz redeveloped the mill building. In recognition of its historical significance, the Bates Mill complex was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in December 2010.

In May 2004, city officials unveiled a plan for urban renewal near the downtown area. The plan involved the demolition of several blocks of 19th-century millworker housing, the construction of new streets with updated infrastructure, the development of owner-occupied, lower-density housing, and the creation of a boulevard through one neighborhood using federal Community Development Block Grant funds spread over ten years. Some residents in the affected neighborhoods initially felt that the plan lacked their input. They formed a neighborhood group known as “The Visible Community,” which actively participated in the planning process. This resulted in cooperation between neighbors and city officials, leading to the redesign of Kennedy Park and the inclusion of input on various aspects of the project, such as the location of new basketball courts and the development of the largest all-concrete skate park in Maine.

The downtown area has seen significant revitalization, with a new headquarters for Oxford Networks, a $20-million upgrade in local fiber-optics, a new auto parts store, a campus of the for-profit Kaplan University, the headquarters for Northeast Bank, a parking garage, and the renovation of the Maine Supply Co. building, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. This facility is now known as the Business Service Center at Key Bank Plaza and houses the local Chamber of Commerce, the Lewiston-Auburn Economic Growth Council, and multiple business service providers.

The area’s renaissance has garnered recognition at the local, regional, and national levels. In 2002 and 2006, the Lewiston-Auburn area led the state in economic development activity, according to the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development’s list of business investments and expansions. A 2006 KPMG International study measuring the cost of locating and maintaining a business ranked Lewiston first among the New England communities analyzed and 24th out of 49 U.S. communities analyzed.

Lewiston earned a 2007 All-America City Award designation by the National Civic League, recognizing communities where residents collaborate to address community-wide challenges and achieve exceptional results. Each year, 10 cities receive this honor.

In 2017, Forbes Magazine named Lewiston one of its top 25 places to retire, citing its relatively low cost of living, good access to medical care, and an extremely low violent crime rate. This marks the city’s continued progress and improving quality of life.

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Dinesh Bajaj

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