Auburn extends 12 miles along the west side of the Androscoggin River, encompassing over 50 square miles, one-sixth of which is water. When Androscoggin county was organized on March 18, 1854, it acquired Auburn, Danville, Durham, Minot, and Poland from Cumberland County; East Livermore, Greene, Leeds, and Wales from Kennebec; Lewiston, Lisbon, and Webster from Lincoln; and Livermore and Turner from Oxford. It includes the last half of the original town of Minot, granted from Massachusetts through the Glover and Bridgham purchase, and the town of Danville, originally Pejepscot, from the Pejepscot Company.
From March until October 1854, a vigorous debate erupted over which town would serve as the county seat, Lewiston, Danville or Auburn, and the special October 2 election resulted in the construction of the Androscoggin County Courthouse and Jail in Auburn. Until the special election, Lewiston’s Garcelon Block on Main Street served as the temporary county seat and Stephen H. Read served as the commission’s first chairman.
Auburn’s original white settlers laid down roots in the hills high above the fickle Androscoggin and the low-lying areas closer to the river were left mostly undeveloped. The town of Auburn was incorporated on February 24, 1842 from “all that part of Minot lying easterly of the curve line (so called).” The first town meeting met at the Congregational meetinghouse at West Auburn on March 7, 1842 and was attended by first settlers Elisha Stetson, John Smith, William B. Merrill, Benjamin Given, Charles Little and Thomas B. little. When the new railroad reached Auburn in 1848, the entire region began to experience rapid growth.
Two public bridges and two railroad bridges connect the twin cities, Auburn and Lewiston. A mid-19th century publication extolling the many attractive features of the area described Auburn as having “the best shipping facilities.” At the time, perhaps hoping to attract more families and small businesses, the two cities were also praised for excellent farming, gardening, fruit-raising and stock-breeding conditions. The rural population was described as “intelligent and enterprising” and the 1840s and 50s saw a booming home sales and construction markets.
On Monday, October 2, 1854, a special election was held to determine which of the three towns, Lewiston, Auburn or Danville, would be the “Shire town” of Androscoggin County. It is unclear why Danville was included, though there are theories that it was a ploy by Lewiston to split the votes coming from the “west side of the river.” Ploy or not, Danville was uninterested in the distinction and threw all of its support to Auburn: The contest was only ever between rival cities Lewiston and Auburn. Before the election, on Saturday, Sept. 23, 1854, the Lewiston Falls Journal printed an article outlining the battle leading up to the big vote.
To people living in the newly formed Androscoggin County, it was a decision of utmost significance. The Journal did not mince words: “Upon the right decision of this question the future prosperity of the county and the convenience and interests of its inhabitants for all coming time to a great degree depend. By the convenience, the interest, and to some degree the prosperity of future generations are to be affected.” The editorial went on to stress that it was not simply a local debate, but one that had the whole state of Maine tuning in.
Lewiston and Auburn, though still new towns, already had a history of fierce rivalry. Several years earlier, during the construction of the James B. Longley Bridge that connected the two towns on Main and Court streets, a battle was waged over the location of the toll. In that instance, Lewiston won. The Journal stressed that this decision for the location of the county seat, however, was much more important than the “petty inconvenience and expense of a toll bridge” and should not be determined by “feelings of local pride.”
Instead, the Journal proposed the consideration of things like: “Where are the largest proportion of future expenses? What are the postal conditions? Which is to be the most populous? The most central?” and urged citizens to vote in the best interests of the whole community. Being the Lewiston Falls Journal, however, the newspaper had a very clear bias and the editorial lays out a persuasive argument for its namesake town.
One of those arguments was financial: the Journal explains that, per the 1850 census, the amount of taxable property within Lewiston was $1,741,312, a third of the entire taxable property of the entire county at $3,572,082. “Further increase must render this proportion still greater, thus ultimately throwing a great proportion of the burden for supporting the county upon the town of Lewiston.”
The Journal also argued that Lewiston, aside from being the natural center of the new county and the center of business and trade, was “by far the most rapidly growing town and destined at no very future day to be among the largest towns” in Maine. In 1854, both Lewiston and Auburn were seeing exceptional growth, but Lewiston saw more business development with the introduction of machine shops, mills, and wood and iron manufacturers.
The competing towns used many incentives to persuade the vote. They both, for example, offered to furnish suitable land and bear the costs for the construction of County buildings. There were also several shady maneuverings done behind-the-scenes and many accusations of corruption leading up to the election.
After the election, on Thursday, October 5, 1854, an article was published in the Democratic Advocate saying the “battle” for the county seat brought out more citizens of Androscoggin County than the election for Governor a month previous by 281 votes. According to the Maine Register published in 1856, the population of Auburn in 1850 was 2,840 citizens, Lewiston was markedly higher at 3,584 and the total number of citizens in all 14 towns amounted to 25,748. Looking at votes tallied for each city, it is a reasonable assumption that almost every legal voter (i.e. adult males with $1 to spare) marked a ballot.
Auburn, as we now know, won the election by a solid majority, and owed much of its success to the overwhelming support it received from towns on the west side of the Androscoggin. Once selected, county commissioners sought to immediately solidify the decision by securing a loan from the state to erect a county building. A committee was chosen to purchase a lot and build a town house with $4,000 appropriated for the expense, to be called Auburn Hall. Commissioners also hired Boston architect Gridley James Fox Bryant so that when it was completed it stood as a permanent symbol of the final settlement of the dispute.
The courthouse was ready for use in 1857. The formation of Androscoggin County, the location of the county seat at Auburn, and the erection of the county buildings resulted in an influx of businesses and professional interests. This directly resulted in the rapid development of Auburn, but adjacent Lewiston certainly benefited from its close proximity to county buildings, and both cities grew into booming business and manufacturing centers in Maine.
The Androscoggin County Courthouse and Jail, an impressive landmark at 2 Turner Street in the center of downtown Auburn, is a Renaissance Revival structure designed by Gridley J. F. Bryant. Byrant was a distinguished Boston architect and industrial engineer responsible for the historic Hathorn Hall and Parker Hall on the Bates College campus in Lewiston and his designs dominate Boston and New England architecture.
He hailed from an esteemed legacy of industrial designers as his father, Gridley Bryant, built the first commercial railroad in the U. S. Gridley J.F. became known as one of the first modern American architects. Other major buildings he designed in Maine include the United States Custom House in Eastport (N.R.), the Kennebec County Jail in Augusta, and the Knox County Courthouse in Rockland.
The Androscoggin County Courthouse and Jail is a two-story structure built in a modified H-shaped representative of the Renaissance Revival style. The “H” section is the courthouse itself, a rectangle with the main entrance on the narrow east end. A steep, hipped roof and octagonal clock tower serve to separate the courthouse from the rest of the complex.
Singular architectural features distinguish the building and mark it for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places. The entire complex is made of brick and rests on a stone basement of ashlar blocks. The windows are round arched six-over-six or nine-over-nine double-hung and recessed between brick pilasters linked by a corbelled cornice. In the center section linking the courthouse with the jail, the first story pilasters form a blind arcade. Other remarkable features include the round arched portico over the main entrance and the decorative wood balcony on the south facade.
An addition made to the west end of the courthouse repeats the Renaissance styling of Bryant’s original design. This section includes a staircase crowned with highly distinctive Palladian ornamentation. If you make your way up that gorgeous staircase to the third floor, you will find the treasure trove that is the Androscoggin Historical Society. ($20 earns you a year’s membership and access to all of the rich social, political and cultural history of our county.) The one-story, modern brick additions to the jail, made in 1970 and 1990, do not mimic the style and design of the original structure. The entire complex was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1983.
*To read more about this and other political happenings in early Lewiston history, I highly recommend the engrossing and exceptionally researched book, “Frontier to industrial city: Lewiston town politics 1768-1863” by Douglas Hodgkin, professor emeritus of Bates College and president of the Androscoggin Historical Society.
- Adams, G. (n.d.). The Maine register and business directory for the year 1856 embracing the state and county officers and the titles of laws and resolves of 1855: Together with the mercantile, professional, manufacturing and mechanical departments: Accurately compiled and alphabetically arranged under their respective headings, with a variety of useful information. South Berwick: E.C. Parks.
- Hodgkin, D. I. (n.d.). Frontier to industrial city: Lewiston town politics 1768-1863.
- “NRHP nomination for Androscoggin County Courthouse and Jail” (PDF). National Park Service. Retrieved 2016-09-13.
- Philoon, James E., AndroscogginCounty Article in “Le Messager”. July 18, 1970.
- “County Buildings.” Lewiston Falls Journal [Lewiston] 30 Sept. 1854: n. pag. Print.
- “Special Election.” Democratic Advocate [Lewiston Falls] 5 Oct. 1854, VII ed.: n. pag. Print.