Logo   Portland Observatory, Portland ME
A lighthouse in the city center? No, the Portland Observatory was the 19th-century equivalent of a traffic-spotting helicopter.




It looks like a lighthouse towering above the Portland city skyline, but in fact it had a different purpose.

The Portland Observatory, an octagonal wooden tower built on a Portland hilltop one mile (620 meters) northeast of the Old Port (map) by Captain Lemuel Moody in 1807, was a communications station. Equipped with a powerful Dollond telescope, Captain Moody could spot ships as far as 30 miles away at sea.

As soon as he spotted and identified an arriving vessel, Captain Moody hoisted signal flags to alert the ship's owners that "their ship had come in." This gave the owners time to arrange dockage and porterage for its unloading and the swift distribution of its cargo.

Captain Moody worked in his observatory until 1846, signalling to vessels and owners, and recording the weather three times daily, compiling a historical profile of each day for mariners.

Maritime signal stations such as the Portland Observatory were common in the 1800s, but Portland's is now the only one remaining in the USA.

Restored in 1939 by the Works Progress Administration, and again in 1998, the observatory is now a museum owned by the city. The ground and second floors hold exhibits of photographs, artifacts and hand-written records from the observatory's active years as a communications center.

Want to see what Captain Moody saw? Climb the 103 steps to the cupola of the observatory to enjoy the panoramic view of Portland.

The Portland Observatory is maintained and administered by Greater Portland Landmarks. It's open every day from Memorial Day weekend through Columbus Day. There's an admission fee; no restrooms, though.

Portland Observatory
138 Congress Street (map)
Portland ME 04101
Tel 207-774-5561

—by Tom Brosnahan

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Portland Observatory, Portland ME

Portland Observatory, Portland ME.




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