The Heart of Coastal Maine

Generations ago, a trip to Belfast meant stopping at Perry’s Nut House on Route 1 to purchase nuts and touch the wooden elephants, driving across the old Veterans Bridge, up the steep hill onto High Street, and perhaps sampling ice cream before leaving town.

Someone in the family probably remarked how hard workers in that gritty city’s two leading industries—poultry processing and fishing—worked for a living, and before you knew it, you were in Camden or Rockland, with Belfast, Waldo County’s solitary city, in your rearview mirror.

Just like magic, today’s Belfast has transformed itself into a destination for locals and tourists desiring the ambiance of an authentic coastal community. People are lingering to shop, eat, drink and experience its vibrant arts scene. New Year’s by the Bay celebrations grow in popularity each year, along with summer’s Arts in the Park, Harbor Fest and Maine Celtic Celebration.

“Over the past 25 years, Belfast has experienced significant economic growth and an increase in vitality and vibrancy,” said Economic Development Director Thomas Kittredge. “It is also a great place to live, with its excellent schools, a vibrant, walkable downtown, a network of recreational trails, and a myriad of events that take place throughout the year.”

Vintage downtown signs evoke an earlier era, when Rollie’s Bar and Grill, Front Street Pub, The Purple Baboon, and Game Loft might have lured shoppers. There is also a Belfast Co-op store, Left Bank Books, and Bellabooks and Antiques, operated by Gary Guida and Kim Zahares. Colburn Shoes advertises itself as the nation’s oldest shoe store.

Belfast’s resurrection began in the early 1990s, when credit card titan MBNA located there, hiring workers who boosted the city’s population and economic base. The company helped establish the University of Maine Hutchinson Center. At the same time, shipbuilding returned to the city’s waterfront with the opening of French & Webb, Inc. and Front Street Shipyard.

Athenahealth and Bank of America took over when MBNA left, signaling a workforce reduction, but Belfast’s economic turnaround appears to be permanent. A working waterfront and intact downtown, with such 19th century architectural gems as the Masonic Block, National Bank Building, and Post Office, are well photographed. Strong civic leadership also helped saved the old Armistice Bridge, a link in the popular Harbor Walk, from destruction.

“City government is committed to supporting the economy, the arts, industry and businesses,” said City Councilor Michael Hurley, “along with the outdoors, taxpayers, and all citizens and visitors.”

History is everywhere you turn in Belfast. From the James P. White mansion, the Belfast Free Library, the Belfast and Moosehead Lake Railroad, and the Colonial Theatre (still screening movies since 1912), it’s impossible to overlook the city’s past. Perry’s Nut House, operated by the Darling family, is still in business. Museum in the Streets signs explain the midcoast community’s contribution to state history; a 19th century book by Joseph Williamson (and a 20th century sequel by Jay Davis, Tim Hughes, and Megan Pinette) dig deeper; and the pages of The Republican Journal, Village Soup, and The Waldo Independent provide fodder for researchers.

First settled in 1770, the town was largely abandoned during the Revolutionary War, when British troops occupied the village across the bay, now known as Castine. British forces burned Belfast in 1779, returning briefly during the War of 1812. The seaport rebuilt and prospered following the war, becoming a port of entry and county seat in 1827. Shipbuilding and fishing followed, and in the 20th century, it was the world’s chicken-processing capital.

“The Belfast Historical Society plays a key role in preserving and providing historical context for the items we collect and display,” said Historical Society president Megan Pinette. “The Belfast Museum is open June-October and provides a memorable and free experience for both residents and our visitors from away.”

Vintage picture postcards, once produced in Belfast by the millions, show a city visited daily by Boston steamboats. A festival broiler queen holds a chicken in 1949, and the white Colonial-era First Church stands tall, as it does today. Many Eastern Illustrating and Publishing Co. postcard images from throughout Maine are collected in the book, “Maine on Glass,” co-written by Kevin Johnson, archivist for the Penobscot Marine Museum, which maintains the Eastern collection.

“It is not a stretch to say that postcards were the first form of social media to take the world by storm; the tweets or texts of their time,” Johnson said. “Belfast was in the thick of it. Eastern Illustrating led the charge. While it was never their intention to create historical documents, their photographs most definitely are that and hold many wonderful stories of the people, businesses, and places in the images they depict.”

May is a wonderful time to sample Belfast’s attractions. The All Roads Music Festival runs from May 19-20, the First Fourth Friday Art Walk of the year is on May 26, and, on May 27, the United Farmers Market opens for the season. For more information, visit the Belfast Area Chamber of Commerce at belfastmaine.org.

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