“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.”
Thus began the history of Belfast, Maine, and the Belfast Historical Society will be pleased to show you what transpired during the next 246 years. You won’t be disappointed.
The Society opened its doors in 1975, but the sturdy brick Federal style structure it inhabits today was erected way back in 1835. A Mr. James Langworthy sold a variety of West-India Goods, nails, flour, cloth, window glass, and teas. The store was in the basement, the family in the upper two floors. Future tenants included a marble monument works, plumbing supply, and a hairdressing shop. In a more genteel era, tea and sandwiches were served in a basement shop during the 1920’s.
The museum, tucked away at the corner of Church and Market, houses a fascinating presentation of how Belfast came to be the charming Belle of the Bay it is today. President, Megan Pinette has done a wonderful job of creating a well-designed and intriguing tour of Belfast’s bygone days. There are vintage photographs, maps, postcard collections, interpretive displays, along with extensive archives and a library available for research.
The maritime history exhibits display Belfast’s storied past on the seven seas, when area shipyards built more than six hundred sailing vessels during the mid–19th century. On display is an exceptional and finely detailed model of the Charlotte W. White, a full–rigged ship which was built in Belfast in 1858.
My favorite piece of history is a foggy evening on March 14, 1925, when the first long-wave radio broadcast from London was received by the experimental RCA station in Belfast and then relayed to station WJZ in New York. You can hear the actual recording of that transmission in the museum. I wonder if the operators had any inkling of the power of this new technology. On a Halloween night only fourteen year later, Orson Welles terrified a national radio audience with a graphic performance of War of the Worlds.
Next door to the museum is a very cool renovated barn featuring a 19th century horse drawn hearse and a two–cell jail. The jail was built in the 1890’s and you are welcome to experience a lock up, Belfast style. (It only gets stuck occasionally, but there’s gourmet bread and water until help arrives)
The feats of native son, Captain Albert W. Stevens, “Daredevil of the Skies” and aeronautical pioneer, are prominently featured. He snapped that wonderful image from the twenties that can be seen on the historical marker by the harbor, showing a Belfast of spacious fields and farmland across the river. He took part in risky high-altitude balloon flights into the stratosphere and took the first photo to actually show the curvature of the earth. Flash Gordon stuff!
Speaking of historical markers, the museum sponsors the excellent Museum in the Streets self-guided bilingual walking tour. And I quote:
“Thirty attractive panels with vintage photographs and descriptive text will lead you through the downtown, residential and waterfront areas. Architecturally significant buildings and houses, notable people, historic events, and our maritime history are highlighted.”
I have taken these tours and can testify that you will learn some fascinating local lore and come away with a minor degree in American Architectural History, with which you can impress visiting friends and relatives.
The museum is open from June 11 to September 5. You know how fast summer flies by, so I suggest you see it sooner rather later.
Link to website is here.