In the spring of 1770 Belfast was settled by Scots–Irish families from Londonderry, New Hampshire. Legend has it that the name Belfast, after the Northern Ireland city, was chosen by a coin-toss. Fear of British attack led these original proprietors to abandon the settlement during the American Revolution, but they returned in the 1780s to build a vibrant, prosperous outpost that would become the market center for the outlying area.
Abundant timber, a gently sloping waterfront and proximity to varied agriculture gave rise to shipbuilding and maritime commerce, with fortunes made in both. Hundreds of wooden sailing ships were built by local shipyards and, during the 19th century, as much as 30% of the male population was employed in the maritime trades.
In 1868 construction began on the Belfast and Moosehead Lake Railroad, which connected Belfast to the Maine Central Railroad at Burnham Junction. Belfast merchants sold a variety of goods and steamship operators who provided transportation between coastal towns advertised “shopping excursions” to Belfast. Prosperous shipbuilders and merchants constructed the architecturally significant houses that dominate our residential neighborhoods today. Two disastrous fires consumed much of the downtown area in 1865 and 1873, but merchants rebuilt with brick, creating a pleasing and long–lasting commercial district. The Belfast Historic Districts, residential and commercial, are included on the National Register of Historic Places.
The city’s prosperity, built on shipbuilding and commerce in such unglamorous cargoes as hay, ice, apples and fertilizer, began to fade as the 20th century unfolded. A four–story shoe factory dominated the industrial area, and Belfast became a blue–collar town. By the 1950s poultry, sardine and potato companies had set up processing plants along the waterfront. Belfast called itself the “Broiler Capital of the World” and each July thousands came to eat barbequed chicken on Broiler Day.
In 1962 Route 1, which had come straight through downtown via High Street, was rerouted around the city and across a new bridge. The rerouting was seen by some as the death knell for a once–vibrant shire town, but in hindsight the bypass preserved the city’s heart and soul and in the 1980s a rebirth began. Public and private investment restored some of the past luster. The arts flourished, the railroad was revived for tourist excursions, and the stately houses and commercial buildings were restored. In the early 90s USA Today named Belfast as one of America’s “culturally cool” communities. Today, Belfast is that rare combination of quiet small town with an active social and cultural life that is attractive to residents and visitors alike.