Belfast Harbor is the seat of Waldo County in the State of Maine. Lying on the shores of the Passagassawakeag River where it meets Penobscot Bay, Belfast Harbor is about 32 nautical miles (45 kilometers or 28 miles by air) southwest of Bangor. Belfast Harbor is also about 175 nautical miles (288 kilometers or 179 miles by air) northeast of Boston, Massachusetts.
Named after Belfast, Ireland, Belfast Harbor was an active seaport during the era of sailing ships. Today, Belfast Harbor is popular with pleasure boaters. Its important industries include sardine fishing and processing, light manufacturing, and tourism. In 2010, almost 6700 people lived in Belfast Harbor.
People have inhabited Maine and parts of Maritime Canada for as long ago as 11 thousand years. When Europeans arrived, the Penobscot Nation populated the area that would become Belfast Harbor. Living on plentiful natural resources, the Penobscot followed their food sources from season to season.
Their first contacts with Europeans came when fur traders arrived in Belfast Harbor. As the European settlers populated the area, they depleted the natural resources upon which the Penobscot depended. In addition, they gave alcohol to the indigenous people, taking advantage of them when they drank it. Before that, though, the Europeans brought diseases that had almost decimated the Penobscots.
By the 1670s, the Penobscot territory around the future Belfast Harbor area was being settled by French and English colonists. The Penobscots sided with the French during the French and Indian War. They also fought with the Patriots during the American Revolution, but this did not improve their fortunes.
The Penobscots entered into treaties trying to keep some of their lands, but they were not able to enforce the treaties. Waves of settlers continued to flood the area of Belfast Harbor. By the early 19th Century, most of their lands had been taken by the settlers, and the Penobscots lived on reservations as wards of the State of Maine.
In the early 1700s, Boston's General Samuel Waldo bought rights to the Belfast Harbor land. In 1759, Waldo died. His heirs sold the land to 35 Scots-Irish settlers from Londonderry, New Hampshire, who quickly named the area Belfast Harbor after the city in Ireland.
Belfast Harbor was incorporated as a town in 1773, but the new landowners all but abandoned the small community when the British occupied the area. In 1779, the British burned Belfast Harbor. During the War of 1812, the British held Belfast Harbor for five days in 1814.
Residents rebuilt the seaport, and Belfast Harbor prospered. By 1827, Belfast Harbor was an official port of entry and the seat of Waldo County. In 1853, Belfast Harbor was incorporated as a city, becoming Maine's eighth city. Before long, it was an important ship-building center. As the ship-builders prospered, they built mansions in the Italianate, Greek Revival, and Federal styles for which Belfast Harbor became known.
In 1871, Belfast Harbor's Belfast and Moosehead Lake Railroad was connected to the Maine Central Railroad 53 kilometers (33 miles) inland in Burnham. The line's passenger service continued to operate until 1960, and all operations stopped in 2005 when the main yard was dismantled. In 2011, the grounds were occupied by Belfast Harbor's Front Street Shipyard.
By the early 20th Century, wooden ships were no longer in demand, but the local economy refocused on seafood when refrigeration became practical. Belfast Harbor provided sardine, herring, scallop, lobster, and mackerel to big markets in New York and Boston.
After World War II, the poultry industry drove Belfast Harbor's economy. Two large processors were located there, and the Broiler Festival became a popular summer attraction. The 1970s nationwide recession devastated the industry and the town's economy. Throughout the 1960s to the 1980s, many residents left seeking work elsewhere. As the exodus continued, young college graduates and artists began to move in.
In the 1990s, credit-card titan MBNA located a big facility in Belfast Harbor, and the company played a major role in getting the University of Maine's Hutchinson Center into the town. MBNA created jobs that boosted Belfast Harbor's population.