History of the Portland Observatory

The Observatory today 

The Observatory today 

For many newcomers to Portland Harbor, the striking outline Portland Observatory is one of the first things they notice. This iconic tower, visible over the tall ships at our festival, has long been a Portland landmark. It holds a strong connection to Portland’s rich maritime history, the same heritage that we are celebrating with our event. But why exactly was the tower constructed?

Not For Stargazing

Most who see the Portland Observatory, with its impressive height and old-fashioned design, assume that the structure was constructed for observation of the stars. Though this octagonal tower holds a magic that seems to come from another world, the tower was not constructed for astronomy. Rather, like many elements of the harbor, it served a utilitarian purpose in bustling 19th-century Portland. Constructed in 1807 at the top of Munjoy Hill, the tower was built out of wood, and used as a commercial signaling tower. Lemuel Moody, a former ship captain constructed the eight-sided tower. He would stand atop it and look out into the harbor with a powerful telescope, identifying the ships coming into the Portland channel, and notifying local merchants by setting up flags. The merchants paid to participate in Moody’s signaling service. Even the tower’s shape served a simple purpose – to lessen the strain placed on the wood by the wind by dissipating it along slanted sides. 

Later History

Despite this somewhat mundane commercial role, the tower’s unique shape and sheer height made it a popular tourist attraction even in the 19th century, and the tower was also a commercial success for more than a century. Captain Moody was able to build a number of buildings around the tower, including a house for him and his family. The tower operated until the early 1920s, when the advent of radio made it outmoded. It was purchased by the city of Portland in 1930s, and was managed by the city for most of the 20th century. It was added to the National Registry of Historic Places in the 1970s, and designated a National Historic Landmark in 2006. Today, it is the only marine signaling tower still standing in the United States, and is open to the public as a museum. Those who are interested in visiting this landmark can take tours of the tower, and some may get a chance to experience the incredible view from the top. For fans of Portland’s maritime heritage, it’s a must-visit. 

Are you interested in Portland’s rich maritime history? Do you enjoy good music, good food, and the sight of magnificent tall ships? Come to Tall Ships Portland, a celebration of Portland’s sailing past and present right here in Portland Harbor July 18-20th. Tickets on sale now!