On October 11 2002, Michael Jalbert was arrested when he went to gas up his car. Well, it was a little more than just getting gas. Jalbert had crossed from Canada into the United States without presenting himself to us customs and while in possession of a firearm. Still, Jalbert’s trip across the border was routine in many ways. He was visiting the tiny hamlet of Estcourt Station, a smattering if houses and a gas station best known for cheap fuel and lower sales taxes. Canadians like Jalbert from the neighboring town of Pohénégamook had long been hopping over the frontier to fill up. Jalbert’s arrest was ultimately the result of some over zealous border officials in the jittery months after the September 11 attacks, but it was symptomatic of changes on the border, and the beginning of the end for Estcourt Station.
The Canadian town of Pohénégamook sits at the the corner of two provinces – New Brunswick and Quebec – and along the international border between the US and Canada. The municipality is made up of several villages which were consolidated in 1972. One of these, Saint-Pierre d’Escourt, sits nestled between lake Pohénégamook and the US border. Except that the Canadian town spills over onto the US side. Not only are there a few buildings completely on US soil, but several houses on the Rue de la Frontière (“Border Street”) straddle both sides of the boundary. Some residents have kitchens in Canada and living rooms in the United States. This unusual situation has given Estcourt a history that includes disputes, smuggling, and grey areas of international law.
The first thing to know about Estcourt is how isolated it is. From the Canadian perspective, Pohénégamook is rather remote. On the eastern edge of Quebec, it’s 145 miles from Quebec City. But the situation on the other side of the border is even bleaker. Estcourt Station is completely cut off from the rest of Maine. With the exception of some logging roads, it’s impossible to reach it without driving for a couple of hours through Canada.
When the first houses were built on the US side of the border, the boundary line was less of a problem. It’s quite possible that no one even realized they were building in the United States for many years.
According to local history, the first family to settle in the area was that of Pierre Blier, who was reportedly drawn to the remote region in 1868 because he was in some legal difficulties. The settlement he founded was originally named for him, and known as Blier (its later name, St-Pierre-d’Estcourt pays homage to him through his first name. Escourt is taken from Sir James Escourt, one of the boundary commissioners who first laid out the border in 1842).
Gradually, more families joined Blier, including, in 1902, a collection of Franco-American families from Providence, Rhode Island. They were invited to settle the village of Saint-Euthème by the Crédit Foncier Canadien or land bank,, as part of a long running and mostly unsuccessful series of efforts by the Canadian authorities to “repatriate” Franco Americans to Canada. The Crédit Foncier disolved in 1912 and most or all the Franco American families left.
The spillover of the town into US territory presumably occurred before the treaty of 1925, which requited the International Boundary Commission to enforce a three-mile exclusion zone on either side of the border. It may even be that before regular demarcations of the border were conducted, residents did not even know they were living astride the international boundary. Before then, the entire US-Canada boundary was poorly laid out, and there were multiple instances of buildings straddling the border. In some of these cases, people took advantage of the ambiguity in legal jurisdiction by engaging in smuggling, or getting around US laws like prohibition.
Like other settlements in the region, the economy of Estcourt depended on lumbering, including the harvesting of timber on the Maine side by Canadian loggers. Even once customs stations were established along the border, it was generally a straightforward process to cross between the two friendly nations.
Still, the situation was inconvenient for those living on the American side. They potentially faced tariffs on anything they bought in Canada to bring home, and they were not guaranteed services their Canadian neighbors enjoyed, like the local public schools.
In 1938, residents on the Canadian side had had enough. Members of the Union Catholique des Cultuvateurs (Union of Catholic Farmers) sent a petition to their local member of parliament, calling for the annexation of the sliver of land on the American side into Canada. Amongst their concerns, they noted that it was “ridiculous” for residents on the American side of the border to have to procure US goods to avoid import duties, and that farmers struggled to get their goods to market due to the same duties. Noting that the residents were “practically Canadians, whether or not they happened to have been born on one side or the other of the American border,” the petition also claimed that “American officials who come to visit often subject [residents] to unjustified annoyances, which they seem to delight in.” Not only did the “natural geography” of the territory suggest it should be part of Canada, but “the territory has been, all-in-all, stolen from the Canadians.”
In the end, the petition was unsuccessful. In fact, the Canadian parliament refused to even debate it, deciding that it was “too inflammatory.”
Nonetheless, accommodations were made to resolve some of the problems faced by the residents of the divided town. The Maine legislature passed a law in 1961, to pay for residents on the American side to attend school in Canada. Homes in Estcourt Station are supplied with electricity by Hydro Quebec and have Canadian telephone numbers.
Meanwhile, residents on both sides of the border made the most of their peculiar situation. In addition to the aforementioned gas station, the community once housed a small general store, and a drive in movie theater ( perhaps to get around Canadian censorship laws, which were especially strict in Quebec before the Quiet Revolution).
Estcourt Station was never home to a large number of people, but the changes to border security probably made life there even less appealing. The gas station closed in 2003, not long after the Jalbert incident, and the last full-time resident reportedly left in 2015 (though some of the houses are owned as holiday homes).
The situation of Estcourt is unusual but also a microcosm of the dynamic all along the world’s longest undefended border. From a largely invisible and sometimes overlooked frontier, the border has become much less fluid in the last couple of decades. increased security has not come without cost.