Belfast shipbuilding

Interesting Research Related to Maritime Maine
By Charles H. Lagerbom | Nov 19, 2020
Courtesy of: the Belfast Historical Society and Museum A newspaper advertises the Suliote sailing for California.

Belfast, Maine has long been considered a ship town. Even today, local businesses such as Front Street Ship Yard and French and Webb build and maintain vessels for the sea. But in the 19th century, Belfast was one of the dominant shipbuilding centers turning out numerous wooden fully-rigged ships that plied New England waters and beyond.

Historians and local histories have compiled chronological and alphabetical lists of ships built in Belfast. While not complete, the totals are still pretty impressive. This information and other local research helps shed light on the maritime history of the town.

At least a dozen ships have been recorded being built in Belfast before 1800. That is not bad since the area was only first settled in 1770 and incorporated as a town in 1773. And then it had pretty much been abandoned during the Revolutionary War: what was left was burned in 1779. Belfast re-incorporated in 1784, so really those dozen vessels attributed to it were built and launched in only the last 15 years of the 18th century.

One of the first vessels identified is a 34-foot schooner Lucy, built in 1789 and owned by Major John Russ. The story goes she was nicknamed ‘Pizenwater’ because she leaked so much. This was followed in 1793 with the 113-ton schooner, Jenny Miller and the 84-ton sloop Three Friends. The brig Two Brothers, built in 1796, was captured and sunk in 1800 in the West Indies, by the French.

Thirty-three ships were built in Belfast in the first two decades of the 19th century. Again, not too bad a rate of shipbuilding, especially since the British invaded once again in the War of 1812. They even occupied Belfast for five days.

Vessels built then included the sloop Mary, built in 1802, later to be captured and burned by the British in 1813, and Belfast’s first recorded full-rigged ship, the 300-ton Fox, built in 1805. There was also the 1811-built brig Illuminator, captured in 1812 on passage from Liverpool to New Orleans. The brig was taken into Halifax and condemned. Belfast’s schooner Washington, built in 1812, also captured was burned by the British in Penobscot waters.

But it was really during the post-war when Belfast’s shipbuilding boom began. Within the next two decades, 135 vessels were built, with an average tonnage of 115 — 30 tons larger than from earlier decades. In the 1840s, ships became even larger, averaging 171 tons. Belfast ships for the most part tended to go into coastal or Caribbean trade rather than blue water world-wide commerce, although some did both.

These early vessels included the 114-foot schooner Caroline built in 1826 and lost on Cape Cod in 1834. Two schooners built in 1828 included Albert, built for passenger service, and Elizabeth, later wrecked in 1845 on Rye Beach, New Hampshire. The 1829-built 119-foot schooner Lucerne capsized in a squall upon its launching; 60 Belfast townspeople were saved by the nearby schooner Castine Packet. The 1833-built schooner Oneco was found abandoned off Hatteras in 1839. The brig Odeon built in 1835 was lost with all hands in a hurricane off St. Thomas in 1837.

The Great Gale of 1839 wrecked Belfast-built schooner Deposit. Off Ipswich Bay, only the captain’s wife and two men were saved. The 1840-built bark Wyandotte was lost on the passage from Honduras to Bremen, never heard from again, and the brig Porto Rico was found abandoned in leaking condition off New York in 1845. The hull was towed to shore.

The 1846-built brig San Jacinto was lost off Humboldt Bar, California in 1851 while ferrying gold seekers to the west coast. The 1848-built bark Suliote departed for California as soon as she was launched, the first ship to sail from Maine for the gold rush. She carried 50 passengers from the Penobscot area hoping to strike it rich. Gold fever was rampant! More on her story later.

Most ships built in Belfast were schooners and brigs, a few barks, some barges. And the demand was there for these vessels to deliver Waldo County products such as hay for city horses, ice for the Floridians of Jacksonville, lime, lumber and granite for the buildings and curbs of growing American cities. Return voyages often brought finished goods or soft coal from Pennsylvania.

Belfast ship tonnage continued to increase, but the number of vessels built and launched in town had reached its peak. In the decade leading to the Civil War, the average Belfast tonnage per vessel was 385, over twice the weight from the previous decade. But Belfast only turned out 110 ships that decade, or two-thirds of what had been built in the 1840s.

During the Civil War, Belfast even produced a gunboat, USS Penobscot. The steamer was finished in record time — 90 days — and turned out to be the only one Belfast built. The Civil War naturally curbed commercial shipping and ship construction. Still, Belfast shipyards managed to produce 57 vessels that decade, with an average of 525 tons. Those numbers were nearly duplicated the following decade in the 1870s, but the 1880s only saw 31 vessels built and just 11 in the 1890s, although their average tonnage was 776. Still, by 1900 Belfast was recognized as one of the state’s three largest shipbuilding centers, alongside Bath and Waldoboro.

But end of that phase of Belfast shipbuilding history had come. Eight vessels were built in the first decade of the 20th century and only three the following, even though they were the biggest tonnage yet produced, averaging 925 tons.

The last of the large schooners launched in Belfast was Blanche C. Pendleton. At 880 tons, this four-masted schooner was built in 1920 by Pendleton Brothers at their shipyard just below Miller and Pearl streets.

Belfast’s only five-masted schooner was Jennie Flood Kreger, built a year before Blanche C. Pendleton. It was the largest vessel ever built in town. At 1838 tons, her keel measured 225 feet long. The vessel was so big, it required three-ton anchors. Jennie Flood Kreger was launched in 1919 by Mathews Brothers — yes, the same company in Belfast that sells windows. During WWI there was a steel shortage and sky-rocketing freight rates, so window company president Orlando E. Frost recognized the opportunity and tried his hand at shipbuilding.

It was a bold gamble, one which many in town hoped might even breathe life back into and revive the glory days of Belfast shipbuilding. Frost had a wharf built next to Pendleton Brothers yard and construction began. Local histories say the project became a community effort.

On the day of launching, March 5, 1919, most of the town turned out as witness. As people watched from shore or those lucky enough to be on the ship, the vessel prematurely started down the way. The christening with the bottle had to be hurried as the ship started to move. Some even had to hurry off the planks that attached to the ship, as the vessel started to slide into the harbor. It was a grand spectacle, but it did not revive the glory days.

While nothing like earlier years, Belfast in the 20th century still maintained some shipbuilding ties. The town never completely finished with the industry. But the heady days of full-rigged wooden sailing vessels had already passed into history.

Charles Lagerbom teaches AP US History at Belfast Area High School and lives in Northport. He can be contacted at clagerbom@rsu71.org. He is author of "Whaling in Maine" available through Historypress.com.

Four-masted schooner Blanche C. Pendleton is launched at Belfast in 1920. (Courtesy of: the Belfast Historical Society and Museum)
Pictured is the Jennie Flood Kreger in Belfast Harbor, 1919.
Pictured is the building of the Jennie Flood Kreger in Belfast, 1919. (Courtesy of: the Belfast Historical Society and Museum)
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