Louis Gagne and the Tented 
City of Bath

By Juliana L’Heureux

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Textile mills were not the only source of employment for young French-Canadian men during the World War I era. In 1917, Louis Gagne, a French-Canadian who moved from Quebec to Lewiston, eventually wound up in Bath, Maine to take a job as a ditch digger at 35 cents an hour. During his short employment, he figured out a way to build the "Tented City" in Bath. He may be the first Mainer to understand the attraction of affordable housing. His story is the subject of "The Times of Bath, Maine", a publication of the Bath Historical Society. 

Perlston Pert, 68, a Topsham resident and charter member of the Bath Historical Society, researched Gagne’s life by reading old newspaper articles and checking city records. "Gagne was a man who thought well of himself," says Pert. "We know a lot about Gagne because he left a small biography/ autobiography." Pert believes Gagne clipped together many of the newspaper clippings of the period to create his peculiar "biography/autobiography". 

Gagne was an enterprising man and a persistent negotiator when he wanted something. His quest to construct a tent housing project in Bath began when he was trying to find a place to live. Gagne arrived in Bath on December 1, 1917 because he wanted to earn "a big wage", offered by the ship building companies. Although he got a job, he was stuck living with six other men who paid $8 a week to share an attic room. 

Spurred to action by his inconvenience, Gagne recalled how a similar housing problem in Quebec was resolved with the use of tents. At this point, Gagne thought he had a wonderful idea but none of his "certain influential friends" agreed with him. Typically, the Bath City officials wanted no part of Gagne’s idea to build a tent city. 

Eventually, Gagne sold his automobile and personal property to buy the tents himself. At first, he lived in tent alone and encouraged visitors. It was a great word of mouth marketing strategy. Soon, Gagne had more orders for tents than he could fill. When orders were backlogged, his customers bought tents themselves while paying Gagne a rent for the property the tent occupied. Gagne’s tented city was well organized and the tents were heated.

After the tents became popular, Gagne expanded into the construction of small cottages. This time he had better luck. A Lewiston contractor and builder came to his rescue and the project took off with great success. "The houses would not cost that much and were a safe environment," wrote Gagne.

Interestingly, Gagne’s inspirations were rooted in his French-Canadian background with support from friends in Lewiston. City officials in Bath kept a critical eye on Gagne’s investments. Although the city desperately needed housing, the tented city and the cottages were never popular. 

An unusual twist to this story is the ultimate fate of the hero. Despite extensive research, Perleston cannot find a record of Gagne’s death, which apparently occurred when he returned to work in Canada. "The date and place of his death are unknown," says Perleston. Of course, this begs the question for more information about the life and death of Louis V. Gagne. 

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Published on July 1, 1999
Copyright 1999-2000, Portland Press Herald, Portland, Maine and Juliana L'Heureux