This lighthouse-shaped building is definitely not a lighthouse

Hello! Every seven days, for the rest of the year, This Week in Portland History is bringing to light a person or event from the city’s past.

Here’s a bit of Portland trivia: There are no lighthouses anywhere in the city. It’s true. They’re all in South Portland and Cape Elizabeth.

OK, you might say, but If there’s no lighthouses here, what’s that tall, red-shingled, lighthouse-looking building at the tip-top of Munjoy Hill?

That’s the Portland Observatory. It looked for ships, rather than the other way around, like a lighthouse. Captain Lemuel Moody built it as a signal tower in 1807. He was born in Portland on June 30, 1767, and died in the city, 171 years ago this week, on Aug. 11, 1846.

The view from the top of the Portland Observatory has changed over the years. When it was built, in 1807, it sat in the middle of open pasture land. (Troy R. Bennett | BDN)

The view from the top of the Portland Observatory has changed over the years. When it was built, in 1807, it sat in the middle of open pasture land. (Troy R. Bennett | BDN)

Retired U.S. Navy Capt. Lemuel Moody built the Portland Observatory in 1807. (This image is Maine memory Network item no. 5586)

Retired U.S. Navy Capt. Lemuel Moody built the Portland Observatory in 1807. (This image is Maine memory Network item no. 5586)

Moody was a former U.S. Navy captain who’d enlisted as a waterboy when he was 13. When he was 40, he built the 86-foot, octagonal tower as a money-making venture. Ship owners paid him $5 a year to watch for their vessels. When he saw one approaching, he’d raise a special flag for the owner. This was a competitive advantage. It gave them time to get longshoreman together to meet and unload the ship as soon as it arrived.

You may have never noticed, but standing on a wharf in Portland, you can’t see into the open ocean past Spring Point. So, in a time before radio, you wouldn’t know a ship was coming in until it was already here. The tower stands 222 feet above sea level, and Moody could see ships up to 30 miles away through a telescope.

He even observed the famous sea fight off Pemaquid during the war of 1812. That’s when the American warship Enterprise captured the British brig Boxer. He saw what was happening through his telescope and hollered the play-by-play down to those on the ground. Both ship captains died in the fight and are buried together, just down the hill from the observatory, in the Eastern Cemetery. Moody is also buried there.

Portland Observatory, Engine No. 2 fire house, and Methodist Episcopal Church on Congress Street, Portland, circa 1875. Trolley tracks are visible in the street, an American flag strung up above the road blows in the wind. (This image is Maine memory Network item no. 72491)

Portland Observatory, Engine No. 2 fire house, and Methodist Episcopal Church on Congress Street, Portland, circa 1875. Trolley tracks are visible in the street, an American flag strung up above the road blows in the wind. (This image is Maine memory Network item no. 72491)

Moody’s family operated the tower until 1923, when two-way radios made it obsolete. Then the tower fell into disrepair. The 1924 tax assessment reported the building to be in “poor” shape with no taxable value. In 1937, the family gave it to the city. In 1939, the U.S. Works Progress Administration restored and reopened the observatory.

In 1984, the nonprofit Greater Portland Landmarks took over management and tours. A decade later, powder post beetles and water damage forced them to close it. Public fundraising efforts, plus money kicked in by the city, got the damage repaired. Saved once again, the observatory reopened in 2000.

A 1930's Works Progress Administration poster invites the public to the newly-restored Portland Observatory. (This image is Maine Memory Network item no. 161)

A 1930’s Works Progress Administration poster invites the public to the newly-restored Portland Observatory. (This image is Maine Memory Network item no. 161)

Today, the Portland Observatory is the only remaining historic signal tower in the country. It got placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1972. It became a National Historic Landmark and a National Civil Engineering Landmark in 2006. It’s open for daily tours every summer.

This past June, the folks at Greater Portland Landmarks celebrated Moody’s 250 birthday with a cake in their office.

Note: I found most of this info right on the Greater Portland Landmarks website. They’re nice folks. You should visit them.

Disclaimer: I’m not a historian. I owe everything I know to the dedicated research of those who have come before me. These character sketches and historical tidbits are assembled from multiple (often antique) sources and sprinkled with my own conjecture. I’m happy to be set straight or to learn more.

An original 1810 observatory record book shows six signal flags for different shipowners. The observatory on Munjoy Hill would raise the appropriate flag to communicate the arrival of ships in Portland Harbor. (This image is Maine Memory network item no. 165)

An original 1810 observatory record book shows six signal flags for different shipowners. The observatory on Munjoy Hill would raise the appropriate flag to communicate the arrival of ships in Portland Harbor. (This image is Maine Memory network item no. 165)

Troy R. Bennett

About Troy R. Bennett

Troy R. Bennett is a Buxton native and longtime Portland resident whose photojournalism has appeared in media outlets all over the world.