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Mont Megantic Observatory between Sherbrooke and Lac-Mégantic, Que.

Before downtown Lac-Mégantic was consumed by a raging inferno sparked by a runaway freight train, its core was adorned with flags bearing the motto: "From the railway to the Milky Way."

The picturesque lakeside town of about 6,000 people, located in a remote forested corner of Quebec about 35 kilometres from the Maine border, used to be perhaps best known for its star-streaked skies and an observatory that attracted astronomers from around the world.

But the town's history is intimately interwoven with the railroad that has become the scene of its worst tragedy.

The town was founded as Mégantic in 1884, when construction began on the last leg of the transcontinental railway linking Montreal to the Maritimes. When that line, the International Railway of Maine, opened in 1889, it made the town the intersection of the Canadian Pacific Railway. It was renamed Lac-Mégantic in 1958.

Remi Tremblay, editor of the local newspaper, Journal L'Echo de Frontenac, recalled the motto after the derailment.

"This motto was on the flags that decorate the main road … but they must have melted," Mr. Tremblay told Agence France Presse.

Located in the heart of Quebec's historic cottage country, the bucolic Eastern Townships, Lac-Mégantic draws as many as 120,000 visitors a year, according to the region's tourism board.

They come for the stargazing, of course, but also the hunting and fishing. The town's name derives from a native Abenaki word translated as "place where the fish are held."

If Montreal is the province's cultural mecca, Lac-Mégantic is quintessential Quebec. Most of its residents were born in the province, speak French, and are Roman Catholic, according to Statistics Canada.

The Eastern Township region is frequented by Americans, whose history with Lac-Mégantic dates to the Revolutionary War.

It was at Lake Mégantic that Continental Army soldiers under the command of the man who would become the United States' most famous traitor, Benedict Arnold, succumbed to exhaustion and starvation while slogging through swampland en route to attack the British stronghold of Quebec City.

That hard land would later become the backdrop of a legendary 10-month manhunt in 1888 for Scottish immigrant Donald Morrison, who fled for the woods after becoming a suspect in a barn fire following a loan-deal gone wrong with the municipality's first mayor, Malcolm Macaulay.

An American bailiff was hired, at $2.50 a day, to track Morrison, who wound up killing him in a duel on the town's main strip that was ground zero for Saturday's rail explosion. Until a few years ago, there was a bar in town named The Morrison.

Today, Lac-Mégantic and its people are more hospitable to its southerly neighbours.

For years in the late 1980s and 1990s, the town engaged in a weeks-long Christmas celebration with its U.S. sister town, Rangeley, Me., about 112 kilometres to the south.

In a series of back-and-forth visits, residents of the two towns swapped giant trees, held lighting ceremonies, threw "Franco-American" potluck dinners, and exchanged gifts for the needy.

The Bangor Daily News in 1989 reported that the purpose of the festivities was "to celebrate the holiday season, inspire the spirit of giving and foster international ties."