Main Street Tour Sheds Light on Historical Downtown Calais

By Lura Jackson

[Note: This article was originally published in The Calais Advertiser]

Almost two centuries ago, when the fortunes of lumber barons and shipwrights alike could be found floating on the river, Calais began to boom. The population quadrupled between 1820 and 1830 (to 1,686) and the first railroad in Maine was constructed here in 1832. Perfectly positioned on the banks of the St. Croix, Calais thrived over the next century as one of the most industrious cities in the state. By 1900, the population neared its peak at 7,655, and the infrastructure of the city continued to expand. Since then, the population of Calais has dwindled decade after decade, though many of the buildings built during its Victorian heyday still remain. In recognition of the city’s esteemed past, the St. Croix Historical Society conducted a tour of the business district on Sunday, providing details on the course of its development.

The first stop on the tour was in front of NAPA auto parts. SCHS President Al Churchill described this section of the town as having a long tradition of transportation-related buildings. “This is where a lot of the first stables and carriage makers were, along this strip. Later on it became the primary location for car lots in town.”

Directly across the street (in the Rent-A-Center lot), a massive roller skating rink was built in the 1880s to accommodate the newly emerging fad. Men, women and children alike delighted in the sensation of having wheels on their feet, and roller rinks were built in nearly every town in America. The roller rink burnt down a few years after its construction, and the block was soon purchased by local merchants (selling shoes and groceries), becoming known as the Syndicate Block thereafter.

At the next stop along the tour, Churchill discussed the St. Croix Opera House, which was built in 1903 and functioned until a fire in 1946 (it is now the J.D. Thomas building). “At one point the Opera House was the most important building in town,” Churchill says, adding that it was the primary place used for graduations and ceremonies.

At modern-day Triangle Park, Churchill described the Flat Iron Block, a cluster of buildings that occupied the park until the 1950s. Most of the buildings served commonplace purposes (such as selling coal and paint) that gradually fell out of demand. Triangle Park was also the location of the St. Croix Exchange, a large hotel built in 1837 until it was torn down in 1983. “If you were a traveler coming into Calais, this is where your stagecoach would have stopped,” Churchill says. A stagecoach ride from Bangor would have taken 36 hours at the time.

Across the street from Triangle Park is a series of brick buildings that were constructed after the fire of 1870. “The fire consumed nearly all of the downtown district and the wharves,” Churchill says, explaining that most of the buildings in town were made out of wood. At the time, Main Street ended at Church Street, which was the edge of commercial development. After the fire, the business district expanded towards the bridge to St. Stephen.

Just past the North Street intersection, Churchill described the streetcars that used to run throughout the city beginning in 1894. “Before the streetcars, the bridges to Canada were all privately owned,” he says, adding that each one charged a toll. The streetcar charged passengers a nickel for a ride to anywhere along its seven mile route, which ran throughout Calais and St. Stephen. “The day the streetcar opened was the biggest event in Calais up to that time– it was a big deal for people to be able to move freely between the communities.” The trolley service lasted until 1929 when it was discontinued.

Further down the road, Churchill commented on the first supermarket that came into the area around the 1940s where the Label Shopper is today. At the time, most neighborhoods had their own small stores that sold meat, cheese, and other sundries, and which offered delivery at no charge. As automobiles became popular, having a store nearby became less important, and as shoppers began looking for a wider variety of products, supermarkets arose to meet consumer demand.

Closer to the bridge, Churchill outlined the area once known as Rum Row. “Before Prohibition, this is where you came to get a drink. During Prohibition, this is also where you came to get a drink,” he adds with a laugh, explaining that alcohol was smuggled in on Union Street. In 1851 Maine was the first state to pass Prohibition, which lasted until 1933 when it was repealed during the Great Depression.

Throughout its development, Calais has seen many buildings rise and fall in response to the needs of its residents. Today, though the physical remnants may have gone or faded, the rich history of the city lives on in the stories and collected memories of the generations that have called this unique place home.

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