A few seasons back, I got a call from a friend who needed his lobster traps untangled. When asked where they were, he said out around the Monument. Cool! I had never dived out around there, so looked forward to the experience. It also got me thinking about the history of the structure and its story.

Making our way out to the Monument. Photo by Charles H. Lagerbom

First off, why the name Monument? From what I could research, it is called ARLHS USA 1254, the Belfast Beacon in Belfast Harbor, or simply the Monument.

It is actually situated on a ledge known as Steels or Steele’s Ledge, possibly named for one of the early settlers who lived near Patterson Point. The ledge is almost in the center of the harbor mouth entrance delineating Belfast Harbor from Belfast Bay and must have been known by those arriving and departing the colonial town, but whether it was marked is not clear.

It definitely was known during the War of 1812, because it was the spot where a small British force assigned to investigate Belfast anchored on the afternoon of Sept. 1, 1814. The mini-fleet consisted of three vessels and made an imposing sight.

It was not totally unexpected. From the higher ground in Belfast up what is now Main Street, residents had watched across the bay as British ships and forces arrived at Castine earlier that morning and took over the town.

Now it was Belfast’s turn. The warship frigate Burhante dropped anchor on Steeles Ledge along with two transports and 600 troops, under command of General Gerard Gosselin, longtime veteran of the British Army from 1787 to 1859.

Belfast-ers fled for their safety, hid in their houses or responded to the militia call to arms, who prudently decided to pull back a safe distance inland. Townspeople anxiously watched as the British ships slowly made their way across the bay toward them.

They reached Belfast by late afternoon. The warship anchored at Steele’s Ledge while one of the transports crept closer under its protective guns. Near shore, one of the transports put out a longboat that brought several British officers bearing a flag of truce. They landed just about where today’s town dock is located.

Inquiring as to who the main town official was and that they wanted to meet with him, they were told it was Asa Edmunds, chairman of the Board of Selectmen. Marching up what is now Main Street, they reached about where Alexia’s Pizza is and met Edmunds. They quickly demanded the town’s surrender.

However, they only expected to hold the town for a few days to make sure no one was able to immediately spread news of their arrival at Castine, until they were more entrenched. Any misbehavior or gunfire would result in Belfast being burned to the ground.

The troops who landed were from the same regiment that had been involved in Boston’s Massacre, an observation not lost on residents. They also requested provisions, which they paid for. After four days, they left and the invasion of Belfast was over.

Apparently, a wooden pier was built on Steele’s Ledge in 1828. Calls for bids for the job had appeared in the Belfast Gazette a year earlier. During this Jacksonian era, Belfast became a productive shipbuilding and merchant town, so a clearly marked entrance to the harbor was needed.

Town officials wanted it to be 25 feet at the base drawn in to 15 feet at the top for an overall height of 26 feet. It was to be evenly built of square timber for floorings and binders, nicely dovetailed and secured by bolts and sufficiently ballasted with stone. It would have a mast atop it as well.

This pier or base was eventually washed away in a storm and so was the structure that replaced it. By 1871 it was noted as a stone beacon in decent shape. By 1888, the town erected an even more stable granite monument, also with a pole on top, to which a barrel was later added to better be seen. And that was the marker to Belfast Harbor for years.

Sources say a cylinder and light were built on the granite base around 1912, probably an automated source, but were removed in 1980. A railing around the light was added at some point, but then later ruined, probably by ice that crept up the sides of the structure.

Belfast Monument in 1917. Courtesy of the Belfast Museum and Historical Society

People making their way up to the Monument on an icy year, sometime around World War I. Courtesy of the Belfast Museum and Historical Society

In a 1935 Report for Steel Ledge Monument, Asst. Superintendent Thomas Sampson inspected the structure on May 3 and reported the height of focal plane above mean high water was 20 feet. The painted white tower was described as a steel house set on granite base with an AGA cylindrical lantern house with 16 panes of helical 27-inch glazed ¾-inch-thick bars.

These 6.5-inch by 23-inch by 27-inch quarter-inch plates were encased in steel plate in eight parts and bolted together. The non-revolving ¾-foot flat flame burner produced 490 candles’ intensity using acetylene gas equipped with a sun valve.

The shallow waters around the Monument and Steele’s Ledge were and still are popular for locals to set lobster traps. That’s where we were headed, so I could help untangle the ropes to a few of them that had become snagged among the rocks.

As we neared the Monument, I noticed a ton of birds all over it. Cormorants. Lots of them as well as their poop. Searching the internet about the Monument, I found a paddler’s account of a visit to it.

The paddlers noted a ladder on the north side and thought about maybe climbing the structure for the view, although they would have had to pick their way among the many birds. However, before they even got near the ladder, they were surrounded by dozens of small flies, which appeared thicker the nearer one got to the Monument. They opted not to climb the structure.

We got close and I went over the side into about 15 feet of water. As I surfaced for some last breaths of fresh air, I noticed the wind had shifted. The potent bird smell of the Monument washed over me. Yikes! I quickly popped my regulator into my mouth and went below!

Immediately, lots of cool Maine marine flora and fauna like urchins and crabs came into view. Visibility was good so it was easy to see the tangled situation below. The lines to his traps were truly wrapped around jagged rocks and it took me a while to free them. I even had to break out my dive knife on one mess. The lines finally came free and I climbed back aboard, taking shallow breaths when the wind blew the Monument smell over us.

The tangle of lobster lines out near the Monument. Photo by Charles H. Lagerbom

I found myself thinking about Steele’s Ledge and the British warship anchored right there, while Belfast endured its four-day occupation. Then there were the various iterations of a marker or light or fixture marking the entrance to Belfast Harbor. Maybe calling it the Monument is pretty apt.

The New England winter of 1905 was especially hard; I learned that temperatures rarely got above 12°F. For most of February, upper Penobscot Bay was frozen, many places reporting almost half a foot of ice.

The Penobscot Marine Museum noted that steamboat travel had to be suspended until almost mid-March that year. Newspaper accounts of the time tell of people walking from Castine across the bay to Belfast. Some hardy souls even used an ice bridge out to Islesboro. Teams would use this pulling wagons and sleighs. What could go wrong?

On March 5 during low tide, Charles Coombs decided to take his camera out to the Monument. This was not a pocket camera like we might know, but one of those old-time large glass plate cameras on a tripod.

His efforts that day paid off, because he produced an iconic image of the Belfast Monument with the north shore of Belfast in the background. And lucky he did it then, as by March 8 the ice had been broken out of Rockland and, within a week, it was open water up the river to Bangor and over to Castine.

Charles Lagerbom teaches AP U.S. 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.