Destination - Belfast, Maine

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A thriving melting pot of old families, former hippies,

fishermen and artisans, along with a spacious natural harbor

A thriving melting pot of old families, former hippies,

fishermen and artisans, along with a spacious natural harbor

Belfast was founded in 1770 on upper Penobscot Bay, about 20 miles north of Camden, and has cycled through 18th-, 19th- and 20th-century booms and busts. Now it’s definitely booming.

Most cruisers tie up at or dinghy to the friendly city marina, Belfast City Landing. You’re at the foot of Main Street amid an intriguing mix of classy and quirky shops, restaurants and theaters, run by an equally intriguing mix of prosperous old families, former hippies, fishermen, artists, craftspeople and upscale new residents.

The local charter-boat captains exemplify that diversity. Belfast native Melissa Terry, a licensed tugboat captain and descendant of a New Bedford, Mass., whaling captain, takes sightseers aboard her 50-foot former fishing vessel, Good Return. Transplant Don DePoy, captain of the 1939 classic racing cutter Viva, is a college professor with a Ph.D. in American Culture. Transplant Stephen O’Connell, captain of the 1901 Friendship sloop Amity, is a former international travel writer and photographer, holds a bachelor’s degree in Asian studies, attended college in New Zealand (where he met his wife, Diane), sailed the entire U.S. East Coast, and had seafaring adventures in Bangladesh, Indonesia and the South Pacific’s Chatham Islands.

The shipping and shipbuilding industries that supported Belfast’s economy for almost 200 years are long gone, as are the more recent waterfront fish- and chicken-processing plants. Now Belfast’s strollable harborfront encompasses spacious green parks, though tugboats, coal sheds, Belfast Boatyard, lobster boats and vessels tending Great Eastern Mussel Co.’s patch of Penobscot Bay give the waterfront a reality check. It’s clear that this county seat still earns some of its living from the sea.

From City Landing you’ll look up Main Street — four blocks of elaborate 19th-century brick Greek Revival, Italianate, Federal and Victorian buildings, many of them on the National Register of Historic Places. An economic slump and rerouting of U.S. 1 around downtown in 1962 saved the heart and soul of the city, says Belfast Historical Society president Megan Pinette. Downtown now sparkles with old-fashioned lamps, brick-trimmed sidewalks, benches and flower-filled window boxes. The 30-some bear sculptures around town were auctioned as a fund-raiser for the arts.

“There’s so much to do here,” says Pinette. “For starters, you can follow the new Museum in the Streets signs or our three walking tours. Belfast is known for its architecturally beautiful 19th-century downtown and historic residential areas. You can also take an excursion train ride, rent kayaks, enjoy our wonderful library, go shopping, or just poke around. Downtown’s skateboard park and City Park’s swimming pool and tennis courts [on the harbor about a mile south of City Landing] are free. Downtown Belfast also has theater performances, weekly outdoor concerts, and plenty of bars with live music.”

Check with the harbormaster to join the Sunday afternoon dinghy races or to row Belle Fast, the six-oared captain’s gig. “Belfast’s an interesting place,” Pinette says. “How many other cities of 7,000 people have three daily newspapers?”

Among Main Street’s boutiques, art galleries and antique stores are several shops specializing in natural foods, environmentally friendly items, and holistic health products — evidence of the back-to-the-landers who settled in this area in the 1970s. Within downtown are the oldest shoe store in the country (founded in 1830), a bookstore, post office, banks, groceries, liquor store and hardware. If you need a supermarket, chain store or fast-food fix, you can take a cab three miles to two shopping plazas on the edge of town.

Colonial Theater, in a renovated art deco building with an elephant on the roof, offers first-run movies on three screens. Belfast Maskers perform in a renovated waterfront railroad freight shed.

More than 20 downtown restaurants and sweet shops offer choices from high-end meals — Chase’s Daily (vegetarian), Darby’s (eclectic) and Twilight Café (gourmet) — to Krazy Kones ice cream and Dudley’s Diner, with its vintage 1950s atmosphere and superb raspberry pie. Many locals claim the Belfast Co-op natural foods store serves the best sandwiches in town. Pinette, like the local chamber of commerce, is diplomatic. “All the restaurants are good,” she says.

You can buy live lobsters from The Weathervane Restaurant, Lobster LB and Young’s Lobster Pound Restaurant, a dinghy ride across the harbor. Many folks take pizza from Alexia’s Pizza and lawn chairs to the Thursday evening “Music In the Streets” concerts.

Church Street Historic District adjoins downtown. You can simply stroll or follow the walking tour along the shady streets past classic mansions of 1800s shipbuilders, merchants and ship captains. Some of the immaculately restored homes are now bed-and-breakfast inns. The landmark steeple of the 1819 First Church of Belfast houses a Paul Revere bell.

These fine homes, churches and commercial buildings owe their existence to Belfast’s prosperous early industries, as you’ll learn at the Belfast Historical Society and Museum. More than 360 schooners, ships of the line and steamers were launched in Belfast, from the schooner Jenny Miller in 1793 to the four-masted coasting schooner Blanche C. Pendleton in 1920.

In the 1860s a third of Belfast’s men worked in the shipbuilding or shipping industries, and some 1,200 vessels arrived in 1887 alone. Firewood, granite, produce and fish left from wharves located where City Landing and Heritage Park are now. Today, master shipwrights French and Webb continue Belfast’s shipbuilding tradition, building museum-class wooden yachts.

Victorian-era shoreside factories produced axes, pantaloons (200 tons a year), and shoes (2,000 pairs a day). In 1869 the Belfast and Moosehead Lake Railroad opened. These days sightseeing trains operate from B&ML’s harborfront station and rail yard.

Belfast rose from a post-World War II depression by processing sardines and up to 200,000 chickens a year. These industries have closed, and the polluted waterfront has been cleaned up. Downtown renovations began in the 1980s and have been snowballing since credit card giant MBNA brought new jobs in 1995. A harborfront walk will connect City Landing with the former U.S. 1 bridge, now a footbridge and memorial to World War I servicepeople from Waldo County. Rumors swirl that the unused Stimson Sardine Cannery will be converted into condos and a marina.

Few ports can match Belfast’s easy-to-enter harbor, eclectic heritage, vibrant downtown and serene historic neighborhoods.

The tugboats of Belfast, a working waterfront round-the-clock

The fire-engine-red tugboats of Maineport Towboats Inc. docked at Marshall Wharf are a symbol of Belfast’s maritime heritage.

These tugs remain a working part of the city waterfront, primarily assisting oil barges docking in Bucksport, and dry cargo ships and oil tankers at the Sprague Energy Facility at Mack Point in Searsport. Both ports are north of Belfast on the Penobscot River.

“If the ship is going to Searsport, we meet it off Sears Island bell buoy No. 2,” says Belfast native Melissa Terry, a 30-year-old part-time captain for the company. “We meet Bucksport-bound ships at Fort Point, then assist them up seven miles of the river [to the dock].”

Maineport Towboats’ tugs can handle ships to 700 feet overall, says Duke Tomlin, a longtime tugboat buff who purchased the company in 1989 with a partner and now is sole owner. “Each ship requires one to three tugs to dock,” says Tomlin, who is 55. “We assist about 200 ships and barges a year.”

And it’s a round-the-clock business. “Ships come when they come, at any time of day, week or year,” says Tomlin. “Our business is mostly energy-driven — home heating oil, road salt — but it is developing into a steady year-round business.”

The seasonal nature of tugboat work pleases Terry. A Maine Maritime Academy graduate, she runs her own excursion boat — Good Return, a 50-footer built in 1966 as an offshore party-fishing vessel — during the summer. “I love working on tugs, which I have done from New York to Maine on and off for seven years, sometimes full-time three to four months at once,” she says. “But I also love taking passengers out on my own boat. I have so much fun when I haul [lobster pots] with passengers from the Midwest who’ve never seen the ocean or lobsters before.”

Maineport Towboats has been part of the Belfast

waterfront since the World War II era, says Tomlin, a graduate of New York Maritime College in Fort Schuyler. “We started with two tugs, the 1913 1,700-hp steam-turned-diesel-electric tug Verona and the 1953 Mack Point, a former Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad 1,800-hp diesel tug,” he says.

Tomlin since has purchased the 1956 Cape Rosier, an 1,800-hp diesel-electric former railroad tug, and the 1971 Fort Point, a 2,000-hp former Navy diesel YTB (yard tug big). All are between 110 and 120 feet.

The company remains small: primary captain and owner Tomlin; Terry and another part-time captain; a secretary; three full-time jacks-of-all-trades doing maintenance, engineering, deck work and sometimes skippering tugs; and occasional other help.

“Tugs have been an important part of Belfast for over 100 years,” says Terry. “The last coal-fired steam tug in North America, the Sequin, left Belfast in 1969.” The Sequin went to the Maine Maritime Museum, where she was neglected and finally broken up in 1981.

North America’s last oil-fired steam tug, the Clyde B. Holmes of Belfast, retired from service in 1975, then became a floating restaurant in Camden, Maine, for several years.

If you decide to go

Belfast is situated at the mouth of the Passagassawakeag River in northwest Penobscot Bay, about 20 miles north of Camden. Belfast, which means “good anchorage,” has more than 350 moorings in its spacious natural harbor, with still more room to anchor outside the mooring field.

“The approach [from Penobscot Bay] is straightforward to the town dock,” says harbormaster Kathy Messier. “The channel is 100 feet wide, well-marked and very deep.”

Melissa Terry, who skippers her own excursion boat and also captains Maineport Towboat’s tugs, warns cruisers to stay well west of the Steele’s Ledge red bell buoy and “the monument,” a concrete structure topped by a non-operating light. “There’s a rock between the monument and buoy, and lots of rocks between the monument and the [east] shore,” she says.

Terry also says the prevailing southerlies can kick up a pretty steep chop against an ebb tide. Tides range about 10.5 feet. She recommends that boaters arriving at night anchor, rather than enter the harbor after dark. “The lights can be confusing,“ she says.

Tie up at or dinghy to Belfast City Landing, (207) 338-1142, at the foot of Main Street, and you’re right downtown. Messier recommends reservations in-season, especially on weekends.

Currents often run about 3 knots past the landing, where the city maintains floating docks for transient boats to 140 feet LOA in depths from 4 to 15 feet at mean low water. The city also rents moorings in 6- to 20-foot depths. Messier and her staff cheerfully assist visiting boaters and manage Belfast Boatyard’s moorings and dockage. Overnight dockage at either facility is $1.25 a foot per night, $25 minimum, plus electricity. Moorings are $20 a night. Gas, diesel, pumpout ($5), trash pickup, book swap, mail hold, Internet access, and showers and restrooms are at City Landing. A laundromat and dozens of shops, restaurants, theaters and art galleries are a block or two up the hill on Main Street. Taxis are available.

Daytime dockage at City Landing is free for the first hour, 20 cents per foot for the second through eighth hour, and $1.25 a foot after eight hours. Non-resident boat ramp fees of $3 include launch and haul, and parking for the tow vehicle and trailer.

Belfast Boatyard, (207) 338-5098, just beyond Maineport Towboats’ red tugs, does general repair work on wood, fiberglass and ferro-cement boats.

Belfast is a port of entry, and there is a Customs office in the post office, though agents work from out of Bangor. Call (207) 947-7861.

NOAA chart 13309, Penobscot River (inset of Belfast Harbor), covers Belfast and approaches, while chart 13302, Penobscot Bay and Approaches, covers a larger area.

Information

• Belfast Chamber of Commerce, visitors center adjacent to City Landing, (207) 338-5900, www.belfastmaine.org.

• Maine Port Authority, www.maineports.com.

• City of Belfast, (207) 338-3370, www.cityofbelfast.org.

Events

• Through September — Thursdays in the Streets; evening street parties with music and dancing; 5:30 to 7:30 p.m.; various venues; bring your lawn chair and picnic supper; (207) 338-5900.

• Through mid-November — Farmer’s Market; fresh produce, cheeses, meats, flowers and baked goods from local farms; near foot of Main Street; 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Tuesday, Friday, and Saturday; also 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday mid-June to mid-October; (207) 338-5900.

• Early October — Church Street Festival, Parade and YMCA Road Race; (207) 338-5900.

• Mid-July 2006 — Arts in the Park; juried arts and crafts by 70 artisans, with music and food; in Heritage Park; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday; (207) 338-5900; www.fobp.org.

• Late July 2006 — Annual Belfast Bay Festival; carnival rides, live entertainment, food, crafts, music, fireworks; all day at City Park; (207) 338-5900.