Road Trip

Building Roads Through French-Speaking New England

A tourist route linking French-speaking cities in Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island will be inaugurated at the end of the summer in 2019.
© Denis Tangney Jr./Getty Images

What do Lewiston and Biddeford in Maine, Manchester in New Hampshire, and Woonsocket in Rhode Island all have in common? More than half of the populations of these American cities spoke French just a century ago! Between 1840 and 1930, it is estimated that one million Francophones left Quebec to find jobs in the working-class cities in New England — the birthplace of the industrial revolution in North America.

In an effort to make up for insufficient numbers of workers, the rubber factories and cotton and wool mills springing up between Maine and Connecticut turned to Quebec. Recruiters began scouring the villages, and by 1850 the town of Saint-Ours north of Montreal was providing 27% of the migrants working in the Woonsocket mills in Rhode Island. This exodus gained even more ground with the American Civil War, as the industrial sector had to replace the men who had left to fight on the fronts. Three-quarters of the city of Woonsocket spoke French by 1920 as a result.

“French is not spoken as much in New England nowadays,” says Anne Conway, director of the Museum of Work and Culture, which depicts the history of Francophone migrants in Woonsocket. Franco-Quebecer culture is however still very present in the region, maintained by several museums, universities, genealogy societies, and Francophone associations. The dishes served at Christmas time are also particularly Quebecer, including tourtière, ragoût, tarte au sucre, and pouding chômeur.

A Route Spanning More Than 460 Miles

The cities of Woonsocket, Manchester, Biddeford, and Lewiston may soon be sharing more than their past and certain culinary specialties. The mayor of Quebec City, one of the founders of the Francophone and Francophile Cities Network, recently encouraged the 140 towns and cities in the group to “work together” and “build roads” between them. And it seems they have taken his advice quite literally.

The Franco-Route of New England set to be inaugurated in late summer of 2019 will link the cities of Lewiston and Biddeford in Maine, Manchester in New Hampshire, and Woonsocket in Rhode Island, all of which are members of the Network. The route will span more than 460 miles, and each city’s restaurants will be encouraged to translate their menus into French and offer Quebecer specialties. The project has already received the support of the Québec Government Office in Boston and has also piqued the curiosity of the cities of Lowell and Salem in Massachusetts and Skowhegan in Maine.

“The route already exists,” says Anne Conway, who is also a delegate for the Network in Woonsocket. “It is called the Interstate 95; lots of Quebecers take it to come and do genealogical research in the United States or visit the birthplace of their grandparents. But officializing this link will foster exchanges between the Francophone cities of New England.”