Bottom up, observatory logs history

Portland Observatory is the country’s last remaining maritime signal station. One view is over the city’s Munjoy Hill section. Portland Observatory is the country’s last remaining maritime signal station. One view is over the city’s Munjoy Hill section. (Photos By Marty Basch/For The Boston Globe)
By Marty Basch
Globe Correspondent / July 18, 2010

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PORTLAND — In the distance, a ferry shuttles passengers to Peaks Island in Casco Bay a few miles from downtown. Below, coffee-carrying Mainers amble along the funky residential streets of Munjoy Hill in the city’s East End. There is a cooling breeze atop the 86-foot high Portland Observatory, but clouds mask the White Mountains far in the northwest.

Captain Lemuel Moody built this octagonal, wooden tower in 1807 as a communication station for Portland Harbor. From this perch, Moody could peer through his powerful Dollond telescope, spotting as far as 30 miles away incoming steamships, schooners, double-masted brigantines, clipper ships, and other vessels loaded with coal, ice, and hay.

The former sea captain would then hoist flags signaling to his merchant customers that their vessels were coming into port. That gave them a time- and money-saving heads up either to redirect their ships if the goods were needed elsewhere or to secure wharf space and stevedores to unload them.

Today Moody’s lighthouse-shaped structure is celebrated as the country’s last remaining maritime signal station and has been named a National Historic Landmark. Restored initially in 1939 as a Works Progress Administration project and then again in 1998, it is owned by the city and managed by the nonprofit group Greater Portland Landmarks, which runs it as a museum and historic site and offers educational programs and seasonal guided tours.

The first two floors of the building contain photos and panels detailing the history of the observatory, along with Moody’s own personal story and his ship-signaling system. Here visitors also will learn about “thermometrics,’’ his system of recording the weather three times a day for local mariners and the weekly newspaper. Moody, who was present at the observatory from 1807 to 1846, kept these records throughout.

As you ascend to the upper floors, models of the tower and maps of the harbor are on display.

While the museum offers a trove of fascinating information, the tower itself is the main attraction. A creaky circular climb up 103 steps yields a glorious panorama from city skyline to harbor lighthouses.

One of the knowledgeable docents can point out the causeway leading to Mackworth Island. The island was once the summer home of Percival Baxter (1876-1969), governor from 1921-24, and namesake of Baxter State Park. It now houses the Maine Educational Center for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing.

Maine’s tallest building, Franklin Towers, can be spotted from the deck as can City Hall’s dome. The walkable Old Port, Commercial Street wharves, and South Portland’s oil storage tanks are easily visible. So is Moody’s final resting place: Eastern Cemetery, Portland’s oldest, where the view isn’t as impressive.

Though the tower is the focus, be sure to look underneath through a trap door on the ground floor. The observatory is above ground on 122 tons of stone rubble secured by a cradle of cross beams. The tower, located next to a fire station since the 1880s, miraculously escaped fire over the years, including the 1866 Great Fire of Portland. Not so graffiti; some early scrawls date to 1834. From top to bottom, a fascinating piece of the city’s history.

Marty Basch can be reached through

If You Go

Portland Observatory
138 Congress St., Portland
Daily 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Memorial Day to Columbus Day. Adults $8 (Portland residents $5), seniors/students $7, children ages 6-16 $5 (Portland residents $2), under 6 free with paid adult. No restrooms, street parking.