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Some History, Highlights and a Little Lore of the Beautiful Belfast Rail Trail

Photography by Erik Klausmeyer

Soon after arriving in Belfast in the Spring of 2009, I wandered along the old railroad track through a sea of multi colored lupine. A fine mist hung in the air, along  with scents of earth, foliage and water. Every break in the trees revealed a new vista. It felt like my own little secret “trail”.
Flash forward eight years to a brand new, beautifully fashioned, official rail trail.

The trail commences by the Armistice Footbridge, which replaced the original 1921 US Route One highway bridge in 2006. Penobscot McCrum potato processing plant is to the left, and this replaced the  Maplewood Poultry Factory, which reflects the ever changing economic vagaries of the area.

Footbridge in pre-sardine days


The main attraction is of course the Passagassawakeag (“a sturgeon’s place” or “a place for spearing sturgeon by torchlight). With a name like that you’re gonna get attention. Etymologically speaking, says The History of BelfastPassag has been regarded as a derivative from Pahsukus, the Etcheinin word for that fish. In the Indian dialect wa means clear, or smooth, and keag means place.

The History goes on to say that it is “properly an estuary” and its sources are various ponds  around Morril, and it once provided power for mills in Waldo and Brooks, It flows under a bridge on Doak Road at Head of Tides, where Cochran’s Mill once stood. “Below the railroad bridge, there is a sufficient depth of water at high tide for large schooners.”

You get an impressive view of the underside of the Route 1 bridge. The line of big t-shaped pillars gives the structure a clean, no-nonsense example of a functional engineering art style, and their reflection in the placid waters of the river is somehow comforting.

The trail begins just where the river’s personality takes on the quirks of inlets, peninsulas and even a few islands (Huck Finn!), and inexorably starts to narrow toward its source waters. Across the way, always framed by foliage-hemlocks groves, oaks, maples, beeches and a variety of others, that provide cool shade in the summer and dazzling colors in the fall – pleasant white homes are sprinkled here and there, some with  long rows of steps leading down to a moored boat, stirring up images of lazy days, moving up and down the Passy on a breezy summer afternoon.

On just such a day a friend and I kayaked upriver, launching from the old Upper Bridge site. Upon pushing off I entered a another little world, which is bound to happen when one lets a river take you where it will. The smells, the wind, the bird calls all felt close, and in stereo.

Upper Bridge, built 1801

Almost immediately, we passed the mudflat beach called Beaver’s Tail, where a summer cabin can be seen nestled in the trees.

The trick is to get the timing on the tides right, but we weren’t paying attention;the peace of the setting lulled us into a drowsy reverie. By time we headed down river, there wasn’t much river left, and soon we scraped bottom and had to “walk”, pulling our vessels behind. The gulls all cracked up at this sight. But it was a fine day nonetheless.

A pleasant day brings out the bikers, joggers, and strollers, and everyone is in a good mood, especially the dogs. One gets a sense of the care and craftsmanship that went into the construction, in details like the smooth wooden railings and the solid inviting stone benches.

The made-over railroad trestle bridge is especially impressive, still brand spanking new, and spanning perhaps the most picturesque section of the Passy, where  wide beaches appear for birds, and other critters, to explore, and where the river makes a sharp bend westward. Gulls, cormorants, and pelicans hover in the air and then land to sun themselves awhile in this bucolic setting..

Besides the common Herring gulls, winter visitors include Glaucous, Iceland, and Bonaparte gulls. Bald Eagle and Osprey can sometimes be seen floating aloft. A  power line near Head of Tides is said to accommodate  an Osprey nest. Barrow’s Goldeneyes,  American Black Duck, and Common Eider are also species that winter here.

Farther on, the trail passes by private homes, one with a perfectly preserved old barn, then a large corral where sleek horses may be seen grazing along the hillside. Statuary in the tiny City Point Cemetery can be seen just above the trail. The trail leaves the river behind as it narrows quickly at the Head of Tides. Like any river, the waters are not always peaceful, as this incident illustrates:

“On Sunday, March 1, 1896, the most disastrous flood ever known here occurred. Eight bridges on the Passagassawakeag were either wholly or partially carried away, including a large section of the Lower Bridge…Near Negro Island, the ice, lumber, and other debris piled up to a height of fifteen feet. When the jam broke, it struck the Citypoint Bridge, entirely destroying that structure.” History of Belfast, 1877.

The trail terminus is City Point Central Railroad Museum, with historical railroad cars, cabooses, and an engine. The rail-trail follows the route of the Belfast & Moosehead Lake Railroad, a passenger and freight line which operated from 1871 to 2007 between Belfast and Burnham Junction. Beyond trail’s end at City Point, the Brooks Preservation Society runs excursion trains on a still active portion of the line.

City Point and RR bridge circa 1900

The old cars evoke a bittersweet nostalgia for the days when this diminutive railway was one of Belfast’s connections to the the bigger world, and as such, each arrival and departure must have inspired the same excitement that any train trip still manages to inspire.

The Belfast and Moosehead Lake RR at Beaver Tail curve.

At City Point you will have covered a total of 2.3 miles. If you’re still feeling spunky, you may cross the road to the Hills to Sea Trailhead and add 47 more miles to your itinerary. Otherwise, I’ll see all of you at the local tavern for beer and pizza.

An idyllic moment from Belfast past.


Parking and Trail Access

You can access the north end of the trail at the City Point Central Railroad Museum (13 Oak Hill Road), start at the trail’s mid-point from the Upper Bridge parking lot on High Street, or by the footbridge where there is ample parking.

Thanks to Megan Pinette of Belfast Historical Society for some of the information in this article and all of the photos.

Thanks to the all the builders, craftspeople, landscapers, architects, surveyors, city planners, selectmen, selectwomen, mayors, trail residents, and regular citizens who contributed to this trail and had the vision and persistence to make it a reality. Truly an example of local government and citizenry at their finest, working together to enhance the lives of all who use this trail.

Happy Trails to you!