LEWISTON — A railway depot that brought in so many French-Canadian immigrants it became known as a local Ellis Island began to undergo renovations today after nearly four decades of deterioration.
The brick and granite Grand Trunk Depot will receive a $400,000 restoration funded by both government grants and private money, said Gerry Berube, president of the Lewiston and Auburn Railroad Co., which owns the structure. Plans call for a restaurant to open in the depot once it is restored, said Berube.
First built in 1874, the Victorian-style depot became a busy stop for passengers, especially Canadian immigrants who eventually settled in the Lewiston-Auburn area. Between 1920 and 1939, more than 80 percent of the French-Canadians who became citizens in the two cities arrived through the depot, according to local records.
“A lot of our ancestors came through there,” said Berube, noting that his mother was among those arrivals in what became known as the Ellis Island of Lewiston-Auburn, an area known for its large Franco-American culture.
The station remained busy in later years, carrying many of the new Americans back to Canada for ski trips, snowshoe club gatherings and other events, said Berube.
But as passenger railroads faded from use, traffic diminished at the depot. It was abandoned 36 years ago. Four years later in 1979, the depot, near the sprawling textile mills that once employed thousands of Franco-Americans, was entered into the National Register of Historic Places.
While trains do not run on the Lewiston and Auburn Railroad tracks in front of the building, they do connect with an active railway about three miles from the depot. Berube does not rule out passenger trains making a connection to those tracks near the depot someday, but “this is not the purpose of restoring the building.”
The Lewiston and Auburn mayors and federal and regional officials were on hand for a ceremony to kick off the renovation.