Photos by Dori Arrington
Belfast, Maine as a Cruising Destination
The Scot-Irish people who helped settle and name Belfast, Maine, could have just as appropriately named it Resilience, as it has displayed that characteristic more than any other since its founding. Originally arriving to trade furs with the local Penobscot Indians, early settlers to Belfast shifted to shipbuilding by the time the city’s charter was drafted in 1850. Belfast would go on to remake itself many times over, with each transformation contributing to the character and appeal the city has today.
The shipbuilding era is one of Belfast’s proudest times. -Designated early on as a port of entry, the town’s location on the Passagassawakeag River (the “Passy” to locals) and easy access to -lumber made shipbuilding the logical industry of choice. Hundreds of wooden schooners were built in Belfast, many of them constructed and launched directly on the city’s shoreline. Belfast-built ships were recognizable around the world for their fine lines, size and speed. The profits from this lucrative business built many of Belfast’s grand homes and civic architecture. Unfortunately, the industry in Belfast didn’t survive the nationwide shift to steel and steam.
The resilient residents of Belfast shifted their resources into the business of shoemaking. In the early 1800s Maine had some of the largest leather tanneries in the world, one of which was in
Belfast. For nearly 100 years, factories turned out shoes and boots for a growing nation. A vestige of this business lives on today in the Colburn Shoe Store on Belfast’s Main Street. Opened in 1832, Colburn’s is the oldest shoe store in the country. Many of the boat shoes we love to wear, including the iconic Sebago Docksides, were originally produced in Maine.
From fur trading and shipbuilding to shoemaking, Belfast’s economy would continue to evolve, as the waterfront would go on to house some of the country’s largest poultry processing plants in the 1960s and 70s. It eventually became the chicken capital of the world, processing on average 250,000 chickens a day. But this couldn’t last either, and by the mid-1980s, the poultry industry in Belfast was all but dead due to a combination of factors, including a slowing national economy. While devastating to many, the timing was good for some of the ecologically-minded newcomers, who wanted to clean up the factories polluting the river and the town’s waterfront.
Arriving with these newcomers were young families interested in the rural Maine lifestyle, eschewing the ills of advancement elsewhere in the world. During this period, Belfast would become known as the “Moonbat” capital of the world for its flocks of young liberal residents. While originally intended as a disparaging term, Belfast now embraces the name, with local businesses like the popular downtown Moonbat City Baking Co. making the most of the reputation. Also arriving with the new residents seeking refuge from a more modern society were talented artists looking for a quiet place to create. Today Belfast has galleries covering most mediums, from sculptors and painters to woodworkers and weavers.
With resilience at the reins again, Belfast has come full circle, back to its roots in shipbuilding. A group of businessmen started snatching up property, including the old poultry factories along the waterfront, with the intent to build a shipyard. Today the Front Street Shipyard is a prominent feature by the water and a large employer. Last year the yard completed a $4.6 million expansion, making the facility one of the largest in the Northeast. Just down the waterfront from Front Street Shipyard is the world-renowned builder French & Webb, who specializes in custom boats and intricate restoration projects for the high-end yacht and architectural accessory market. Their expertise has attracted buyers from around the world for custom teak work. The shipbuilding business is once again a great source of pride in Belfast. The civic-minded shipyard owners have also allowed a rail-trail to continue through their properties, creating an uninterrupted walking path along the city’s waterfront.
With so many boaters making Belfast a summer destination, the economy is thriving. The United Green Market is bustling on Saturdays, and the local co-op grocery is busily supplying boaters and residents with a healthy selection of sundries. Within one mile of the waterfront marinas, visitors will find groceries, hardware, car rentals, restaurants, business services, cinemas, a public library, churches and a hospital. Add to these the quality shipyards that are becoming a destination unto themselves, and it’s easy to see why Belfast is carrying on with the same resilience its always had and an eye towards the future.