Belfast is home to possibly the quickest shipwreck ever. In 1856, the 1,100-ton Haulco was built and launched. Four hours after leaving its homeport, after dropping off its pilot and proceeding under its own sail, Haulco wrecked on Saddleback Ledge in Penobscot Bay. It was a total loss.

But what about other shipwrecks associated with Belfast? Being a ship-building town, it stands to reason that Belfast would become the repository or final resting place for vessels at the end of their lifespans, worn-out or used up, considered no longer seaworthy. It is true for many ships. If you look closely around the town shoreline, especially at low tide, there are remnants of several former working watercraft.

Many were broken up for scrap. Others were simply deposited on the shoreline, left to rot. Abandoned to the elements, they were stripped and scavenged by anyone interested. The planks and timbers slowly weathered, iron hardware rusted, and vessel pieces were scattered by wind, storms, tides and ice.

Pictured is Belfast Harbor with abandoned vessels A and B on the east side near the present-day footbridge. Courtesy of Belfast Historical Society and Museum

An examination of historic photos and current remains of wrecks around Belfast reveals an interesting assortment of vessels. Most are unidentified, nameless pieces of history that once likely did yeoman’s duty hauling wood, granite, bricks, coal, potatoes, ice, eggs, poultry, fish, fertilizer, or other Maine produce and products.

The fact that none of these vessels have been positively identified intrigues me. Not only do they have no name, but there is actually little recorded information or evidence about them at all, such as what kind of vessels they were, their sizes, what they were used for, their ages or their fates. For any of them! That’s just not right.

I recently completed an online course in Intertidal Archaeology Theory through the Nautical Archaeology Society of England (nauticalarchaeologysociety.org). It was very interesting, and I learned that not all shipwrecks were underwater; many are located in the intertidal region and shoreline. And some even farther inland than that.

The course got me thinking about the intertidal wrecks around Belfast; most are accessible at low tide, although you need to prepare and plan your visit accordingly. I have since roughly cataloged at least seven different locations of ship remnants on both sides of Belfast Harbor, anywhere from the Boathouse to just up the Passagassawakeag River. No doubt there are more, and I am hoping to hear from others so that additions can be made to this growing database of information. Here is a quick tour of those seven wreck remnants around town.

At least three vessels’ remains can still be seen from the footbridge at low tide. I refer to them as wrecks A, B and C. More helpful, they show up in late 19th century photographs as abandoned and derelict hulks. These three are located near each other, all tucked into the harbor-facing eastern side of the old bridge, now the city’s footbridge. This was apparently a conveniently nearby, yet out-of-the-way location to leave them. The elements soon broke them down. Today, if you look carefully, especially at extreme low tide, you might catch a glimpse of what is left of them.

This abandoned vessel, cataloged as Wreck C, is on Belfast’s far shore near the footbridge. Courtesy of Belfast Historical Society and Museum

One derelict wreck, located on the upriver eastern side of the footbridge, was captured in an aerial photograph taken by Belfast native and balloonist Capt. Albert W. Stevens. In 1922, he returned to his hometown and made a well-documented ascent over the city. An expert in aerial photography, he took pictures of the entire town.

Capt. Albert Stevens’ aerial photo of Belfast shows a close-up of an abandoned wreck, circled in red, near the site of the current Veterans Memorial Bridge. Photo Crop by Charles H. Lagerbom of Stevens’ larger aerial photograph at CASS elementary school.

One of his photographs occupies an entire wall at the Capt. Albert W. Stevens School in Belfast. The photo clearly shows an abandoned ship sitting roughly where the Veterans Memorial Bridge now connects with Belfast’s eastern side. Today, there are no visible remains for this unidentified vessel. I would still like to more fully explore the area but think bridge construction probably obliterated much of what remained of the wreck.

One Belfast ship remnant was used as part of the town’s dock, near the current boat launch. It was a fertilizer barge, one of possibly three known, owned by the Rockland and Rockport Fertilizer Company. No one remembered its existence under the landing, until it was found later while digging a sewer line. Another barge remnant, which might be a sister-ship, is located just off Route 1A in Frankfort, in the tall grass along the shore where granite slabs used to be loaded.

Yet another remnant of a ship is located along the Belfast shore near today’s Boathouse and Common. Again, a few timbers can be discerned during extreme low tide. No other information or identification has been found regarding this vessel or its use, age, or fate.

Belfast’s most complete shipwreck is located farther up the Passagassawakeag River relative to the others near the footbridge or in Belfast Harbor. It sits off Robbins Road, right along the shoreline.

For the past 10 years, students at Belfast Area High School in the archaeology or marine studies classes have journeyed to this shipwreck to further study, survey and examine the vessel. Their shipwreck archaeology projects have helped to measure and catalog the remnants and site in general, as well as providing a long-term photographic record of the wreck over time.

Belfast Area High School students measure parts of a Belfast shipwreck. Photo by Charles H. Lagerbom

 

Students measure the keel length of a wreck located off Robbins Road upstream of the Belfast Veterans Memorial Bridge. Photo by Charles H. Lagerbom

The Belfast Historical Society and Museum has long been working to ascertain more about these wrecks around Belfast. At one point, it was thought the Robbins Road vessel may have been a former schooner used as a barge, like the one under the city dock or the one in Frankfort. It’s possible.

What do you look for to help date or identify a shipwreck? Ideally, the ship’s name emblazoned on a piece of wood or inscribed on the ship’s bell would be fantastic. But remember, these vessels had been well stripped after years of hard use before they were abandoned to the elements. And since they have broken down over time, not much is usually left. So, you need to look for other clues.

One indicator can be saw marks on the wooden timbers, frame and knees. Rotary or circular saws from more recent times make distinctively different marks or patterns than the earlier used two-person hand saws. Maybe indications of a hand-used adze might help date it. Lack of iron fastenings may also be indicative of age, although use of treenails instead of iron or brass spikes might instead have been due to economy. Hand-forged iron hardware tends to be older than machine-produced. But, once again the fact these ships were stripped before being abandoned may affect any of these indicators.

The closeness of the knees or ribs relative to each other can be a possible indicator of use. If they are closer together, that may suggest heavier cargoes were carried, such as granite or an ice-strengthened vessel, but then again it is just one bit of information while compiling your thesis.

It definitely helps to have historical evidence to back up the wreck remains. Photos, newspaper accounts, letters and other documentation can help to identify, if not the vessel’s name, at least what it might have been used for or when it ended up where it sits. In the meantime, we continue to observe, measure, research and theorize. How cool is that?!

Charles Lagerbom teaches AP U.S. History at Belfast Area High School and lives in Northport. He is author of “Whaling in Maine” and “Maine to Cape Horn,” available through Historypress.com.

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