The Portland Observatory in 2005
|Location||138 Congress St
|NRHP Reference #||73000122|
|Added to NRHP||April 24, 1973|
|Designated NHL||February 17, 2006|
The Portland Observatory, built in 1807 at Portland, Maine, is the last surviving maritime signal tower in the United States. Using both a telescope and signal flags, two-way communication between ship and shore was possible several hours before an incoming vessel reached the docks.
Portland has a deep harbor sheltered by numerous islands. Ships entering the harbor are not directly visible from the wharfs, which created problems for merchants trying to prepare for the arrival of cargoes. This problem was solved in 1807 when Captain Lemuel Moody organized the construction of an observatory on Portland's Munjoy Hill, visible from both the open ocean and the wharfs. During the War of 1812, the observatory was used as a watch tower.
About the observatory
The 86-foot (26 m) tall observatory (7 stories) is octagonal and lighthouse-shaped, with a fieldstone base, and stands 222 feet (68 m) above sea level. The observatory's 'lantern' (cupola) included a P & J Dolland Achromatic Refracting Telescope, which could identify ships 30 miles (48 km) to sea. That telescope disappeared from the observatory in 1939.
The observatory has been renovated numerous times over the years, including a Works Progress Administration renovation in 1939. It was most recently renovated from 1998-2000 to repair damage from moisture and powderpost beetles. The latest renovation won a 2001 National Preservation Honor Award from the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The center column was not an original feature, and was added in the 1939 renovation.
The Portland Observatory is the only remaining maritime signal station in the United States. Tower operations were paid with annual fees collected from shipping merchants, who purchased the right to have their flags stored in the building and hoisted up its flagstaffs when their ships were sighted. A telephone was eventually installed, extending the tower's function until 1923, when the reliability of engine powered vessels and communication by radio made it obsolete.
Between the time of its closure and the 1990s, the building was often unlocked and popular among area children. Some older area residents have fond memories of playing in the building. The latest restoration left as much original wood as possible in place, distinguished by its stain where replacement was left an original color, and various carvings can be seen in the original wood.
Greater Portland Landmarks, a non-profit organization, maintains the building. Guided tours with discussion about the history of the building and the neighborhood are provided by volunteer docents from Memorial Day to Columbus Day for a small fee.
- Moulton, John K. (2000). Captain Moody and His Observatory. Mount Joy Publishing. 99-091647.
- Media related to Portland Observatory at Wikimedia Commons
- Portland Observatory -- Greater Portland Landmarks
- Portland Observatory Webcam
- Portland Observatory (1807) at Structurae
- Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) No. ME-1, "Portland Observatory, 138 Congress Street, Portland, Cumberland County, ME"