Sunday, April 14, 2013

Railroad Man, Pierre Gagnon

In a 2009 interview with Roland Albert, former owner of the Men's Shop, I asked him to tell me about the oldest relative he could recall. He remembered his grandfather, Pierre Gagnon (aka "Pepere Gagnon"), to be a track supervisor on the railroad, and that he was always well dressed at family functions. Roland's sister, Jeanne, also recalled Pierre as the oldest relative when she was interviewed in the same year, but she remembered him as an older man living out his retirement years at Kinney Shores in Saco. Her image of Pepere Gagnon was of him doing something he loved: walking along the beach picking up driftwood logs to later use in the fireplace.

Diana and Pierre Gagnon in their later years.
Pierre Gagnon was born in the municipality of L'Islet, Quebec, Canada in 1863.  He married Diana St. Pierre also from Quebec. Like many families in 19th century rural Canada, the Gagnons wanted to immigrate to another land for a better life. He set his sights for such a move at the very early age of 16 when he first entered the United States.  The career he chose for himself would propel him to be part of one of the great migration movements of the industrial age.  He worked on the railroads for over forty years in Canada, Maine and New Hampshire. The story told here comes with the help of a genealogist's gem of a find: a naturalization record containing an affidavit written in Pierre's own words and signed by him in 1935.

Maine Central Railroad General Office Building in Portland Maine, c.1920

     The naturalization record states that Pierre married in Westbrook in 1886 and resided there while he was employed in the "section gang" for the Portland and Rochester Railroad. Hearing of higher wages being offered at the Maine Central Railroad in North Stratford, New Hampshire, he transferred to that site to work as a foreman. Soon after, Maine Central acquired a railroad in St. Malo, Quebec, and he relocated back to Canada. Pierre's wife and two daughters (Marie and Exilia, both born in Westbrook) were living in Westbrook during these transitions, but she joined her husband when he moved to St. Malo for his new work assignment.

Image taken from the online ebook: 

The Official Railway Guide: North American Freight Service Edition

     The census records of Canada show the increasing size of the Gagnon family; by 1901, eight children are enumerated. The family needed larger living quarters than what could be provided by rented apartments so Pierre bought a piece of land and built a residence. As the children approached school age, Pierre and Diana desired for them to be educated in American schools. In 1905, Diana moved back to Westbrook, Maine to enroll her children in the fall term. Even though a request had been put in to change job locations, Pierre would have to wait another three years before the transfer came through. During this time, he continued to work for the Maine Central Railroad in St. Malo, and visited his family in Maine every two weeks.

Signature section from the 1935 document
     When Pierre returned to Westbrook in 1908, he would remain a Maine resident the rest of his life. All of his offspring including the children born in Canada would later marry and vote as American citizens by virtue of Pierre's naturalization. Two sons joined the Maine National Guard; one of them enlisted in the Army and served overseas. From the statements provided by Pierre in the naturalization document, a clear picture of his means and motivation for moving to Westbrook became clear; he lived and grew his family in St. Malo because he needed to be there for work, but he and his wife's vision were to have their children be raised and schooled in Westbrook.

Willey Brook Bridge in New Hampshire, circa 1906
Working on the railroads was certainly not a glamorous career, but an important one nonetheless; maybe even an exciting one in the sense of being part of a revolution that paved the way for fast and reliable transportation from and between the remote areas of New England and Canada.  Pierre Gagnon lived a long and fruitful life, and realized his dream of providing a better life for his family.

Postscript: Thanks to David Gagnon of Denmark, Maine for providing a copy of Pierre's naturalization papers. The Maine Central Railroad images (and the NH bridge image) are all sourced from Another post on Pierre Gagnon appeared earlier on this blog.

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