Captain Lemuel Moody of Portland, Maine was a very enterprising individual. In 1799 after being held up by French pirates operating out of the Caribbean and having his cargo seized, the Captain gave up piloting cargo ships and commissioned the construction of a 86-foot signal tower on Munjoy Hill in Portland. At the time, the site was a small cow pasture located about a mile away from the busy port. Since the hilltop held the highest ground in the city, Captain Moody found this location ideal for building his observatory. Also added was a bowling alley, as well as a dance and banquet hall
Once the octagonal tower was opened in 1807, Captain Moody would make the daily climb to the top of the structure and record the path of ships as they made their way into the Casco Bay harbor. With his powerful spyglass, Captain Moody could spot ships thirty miles away from port. Once a vessel was identified Lemeul would then notify merchants and shipping companies of their eminent arrival, a service for which he charged a small fee. Captain Moody died in 1846, but the tower remained in operation until 1923. In 1937 the tower became property of the city of Portland and after a 1939 WPA restoration, the Portland Observatory returned to service, this time as a tourist attraction with a bird’s eye view of the city.
The Tower Today
Open from May to October, the tower is open to anyone, who wishes to climb the 200 year old set of wooden stairs. The view from the small observation deck is quite extensive, especially when you gaze east across Casco Bay towards the Atlantic Ocean. At your feet you can see the Portland harbor, which was once a major port-of-call for wind-powered schooners, laden with exotic goods from all across the seven seas.
Further out in Casco Bay are the Calendar Islands, which are so numerous that supposedly, there is one for every day of the year. Several lighthouses are also visible including the famous limestone tower at Cape Elizabeth, named Portland Head Light. To the west is a small tidal body of water called Back Cove and beyond that, lies a vast expanse of forest informally known as the “North Woods”.
Around The Neighborhood
Admission is charged to climb the tower, but the permanent display and exhibition at ground level can be viewed by anyone. Be sure to check out the “basement” of the tower, which can be viewed through a narrow portal. It is a dense labyrinth of huge beams carefully installed during the building process, so as to help anchor the tall tower to the ground. The observatory serves as a good place to begin a walking tour of the east side of Maine’s largest city. You can either head west on Congress Ave to check out the many art galleries, coffee shops and restaurants – or head in the opposite direction towards the Eastern Promenade and waterfront.