In the mid-‘80s I sailed into Belfast, ME, aboard the Tortoise, a 26’ Albin motorboat. Four of us cruised the coast of Maine for a couple of weeks, our accommodations, less than half of the Jolly Swag. The most remarkable thing about the trip was that we were all still the best of friends at the end.
Belfast was a hardscrabble town. We tied up at a wooden working dock that wore the scars of big tides and bad times, of inclement weather and icy winters.
I recall a man came down the dock lugging a wooden box filled with mud and clams. He asked if we wanted to buy any. Two bucks a dozen sticks in my mind, but I don’t have any memory that we were tempted.
Today, it is hard to spot any evidence of the fishing village that lived in my memory for over a quarter century. I was able to find a few locals to help me jigsaw together the evolution from ailing to thriving.
Thirty years ago poultry was the big industry. Several buildings were devoted to processing chickens. The seven-foot tides disposed of tons of chicken guts. But when poultry processing moved south, the Belfast plants could not be sustained. The town fell on hard times.
The Maryland National Bank came to town and provided some jobs and is remembered for being a good corporate citizen. They bought many of the chicken processing buildings, tore them down, and created a patchwork of parks.
One recent emigre to Belfast, citing her expertise as someone who used to hustle real estate in a major East Coast city, tells me that artists are the shock troops who initiate the revitalization of sinking towns, and indeed, it seems so here. Always in need of cheap real estate, artists seek housing at the intersection of Scenic and Cheap. They have trickled into Belfast steadily, and today the galleries, the shops selling local arts and crafts, appear to be the leading industry. They seem to be prospering, although my observations of a couple of sunny weekends in summer don’t qualify as a scientific study.
I speculate that the art community influences the personality of the town. There is not a single national franchise in the old town. The grocery store is the oldest coop grocery in Maine and employs 80 people. This part of town has only indie businesses.
The Front Street Shipyard is the newest, most modern facility serving yachts that I’ve ever seen. My yachting buddies will confirm that a self-propelled Travelift designed to lift and move yachts up to 165 tons is an impressive machine. More so when the operator can perform all the lifting and driving maneuvers wirelessly, using a hand-held console the size of a loaf of bread. The rig is capable of lifting vessels up to 120’ and driving them into a building. Awesome.
In the years since I visited Belfast, it became a cruise-ship port. OK, the Independence is not one of the queens of the sea, but it is a showstopper on the Passagassawakeag River and for the ship’s 150 passengers, it is posh as it need be.
I’ve run into my daily word count limit. One or two more Belfast Blogs to come: The Bridges of Belfast and the Belfast Bearfest.