Portland Observatory Reviews
Portland Observatory Apr 04, 2008
Please don’t confuse the Portland Observatory with astronomy. The octagonal tower atop Munjoy Hill in Portland was never intended to see the stars…it was only meant to see the sea. Lemuel Moody, a former sea captain, raised the structure in 1807 to identify vessels entering Portland Harbor hours before anybody else knew. Today the tower is fairly lost amongst all the modern structures, but it is the sole remaining maritime observatory in America and was virtually the only structure on Munjoy Hill for it’s first seventy years.
Time is money, and Moody’s tower aimed to give the local ship owners a heads up that one of their boats would soon need laborers to unload goods. For $5 a year, you simply gave Moody the flag your vessels raised. When Moody espied your ship from his loft, he would raise your flag along with a banner indicating what type of vessel it was (many of the ship merchants had large fleets with many different size ships). He would also hoist a number of globes to indicate his estimate of how many hours it would be until the boat arrived at the dock.
Though this didn’t strike me as a money maker, the observatory remained in business until 1922, when Marconi’s two-way radio finally put it under.
I found this to be a very interesting tour. You basically climb up six landings, stopping at each for a brief commentary from the tour guide (volunteers from the Portland Landmarks Society). The octagon was based on eight pillars from giant Maine White Pines…each of the original 65’ trunks remain as the foundation (though they have inserted a central pillar to add support for the floors on each landing). They do not tar or stain any wood they replace, so the interior is a crazy wood quilt which I found remarkable – quite a lot of the original wood structure from two hundred years ago remains.
Another tidbit I chuckled over was that the foundation. There is no concrete or girders embedded into the earth, just twenty tons of rock which the beams sit in. After all, the tower was designed by a former ship captain who was sold on the beauty of ballast! The lack of a sturdy foundation and the fear that a strong wind would topple something of such height always taunted the Observatory, but two hundred years is probably a safe rebuttal (Moody had maintained the octagonal shape would insulate the structure from high winds).
Though this is not a usual tour stop for those visiting Portland, it is rich with the essence of local history and I would heartily add it to your itinerary if you want to experience this remarkable city.
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