Between the days of the Civil War and the turn of the 20th century, Lewiston experienced explosive growth. Immigrants streamed in to find work in the myriad textile mills and shoe factories that were quickly changing the skyline. And along with this influx of people seeking a better life came the problem of how best to govern the bustling city.

In his new book, “Lewiston Politics in the Gilded Age: 1863-1900,” local historian Douglas Hodgkin takes a close look at Lewiston’s boom-town politics during the era. It is a sequel to his book, “Frontier to Industrial City,” which concerned the government of Lewiston from its founding until it became a city during the Civil War.

When asked recently what he found most interesting while researching his book, Hodgkin said, “I would say what was most interesting was material that might illustrate — or contradict — national trends. For example, there was considerable concern about machine politics, bossism, in this period, in the Gilded Age.”

Pointing out that most of the research done on politics of the day had been done in big cities, he noted that he “was interested in whether that same phenomenon occurred in Lewiston, a small city up here in Maine. Did we have machine politics, did we have bosses, or not?

“I found out we were not as boss-ridden, as you will, as other large cities,” he said. “This was due, in part, because Lewiston was quite competitive between the two parties, so there was an alternation so no one boss controlled the city.”

But this still didn’t prevent both parties from accusing each other of being “boss run, and so there was the phenomenon of progressive politics so that reforms were adopted to combat bossism in the fire department, in the water department.” One such beginning of progressive reform was the adoption of the secret ballot in the early 1890s.

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“There was considerable cheating going on as to how the ballots were handled,” he said. “There were instances of the turnout being 98 percent, and so there was ballot-box stuffing and the like in Lewiston in certain wards, and so that served as the impetus for establishing the Australian ballot, the secret ballot.”

Also around this time, the city and state took the printing of ballots away from the parties, which had previously issued color-coded ballots so people would know for which party they were voting.

Another interesting thing he found during his research “was the transformation of the parties so that the Republican Party became more conservative, and the Democratic Party became more liberal, because during the Civil War period and the post-Civil War period the Republican Party was the more liberal party, whereas the Democrats were quite conservative, they were more rural based,” he said.

Other interesting events Hodgkin looks at in his book include the attempt of the Democrats and the Greenbackers to steal the election that the Republicans had won to the state Legislature in 1879. “And this was important because no candidate for governor had won the absolute majority that was required at that time, so the Legislature would be choosing the governor,” he wrote.

Hodgkin notes that Lewiston’s Alonzo Garcelon was governor at the time, “and also had a role” in the matter. “And others who had a role to play,” he said, “were James G. Blaine and Joshua Chamberlain.”

The book also takes a look at how Lewiston came to get its water from Lake Auburn. In 1870, the city’s water was being drawn from the Androscoggin River. “This was considered a nice supply of water. After that, pollution became greater, both from the paper mills upstream, and runoff from sewage through the brooks, because the water was being drawn from just above the dam in downtown Lewiston,” he wrote. “Then there were considerable politics involved in deciding how the water supply would be provided.”

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Eventually, using Lake Auburn won out over a plan to filter the river water, “but the process pitted the existing water board versus the Democratic Party,” with the Democrats and a local contractor supporting the construction of a pipeline across the falls to the lake.

Hodgkin’s book also shows us that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Around 1900, “there was this long, drawn-out question of building a new high school, Jordan High School, between Nichols and Wood streets. Though it would eventually be built there, the selection process of the school’s site would be a contentious one.

“The major problem,” Hodgkin said, “was, ‘Where will we have the school?’ There were these contests, and so they just made do with the existing high school, which was on Main Street, across from the hospital, and they built little additions to that school, which was never adequate, but they just couldn’t come up with just where they would locate this school.”

“Lewiston Politics in the Gilded Age, 1863-1900” is available at the Bates College Book Store, Victor News, the Androscoggin Historical Society, and from the author, who can be reached at [email protected]

Douglas Hodgkin will be giving a talk about his book at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 27, at the Androscoggin Historical Society at the county building, 2 Turner St.


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