On Flag Day — June 14th — I was lucky enough to be able to visit the one Portland landmark I’d always wanted to see but never had: The Portland Observatory.
The tower is 86 feet high, and was originally built so that observers (assisted by a telescope) could identify vessels coming into to port. The builder, Captain Lemuel Moody, was a shrewd business man and would, for a fee, alert local merchants that their ships were sailing into the harbor. The original complex also included a banquet and dance hall, and a bowling alley.
The observatory operated until 1923, and has been owned by the City since 1937. It is the last remaining 19th century signal tower in the US, and was named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1972. it has also been named a National Historic Monument and a National Civil Engineering Landmark.
Today, the observatory is a museum which offers amazing views of Portland, Casco Bay, and the surrounding communities. Owned by the nonprofit Greater Portland Landmarks, the facility also hosts a number of special events for children and adults each year. Guided tours are offered may to October, and special sunset tours are offered from midsummer to early fall.
A visit to the observatory begins on the first floor, which houses comprehensive displays about the history of the building and of 19th century shipping and maritime navigation.
Visitors can also peek through a trap door and gaze into a mirror which is situated so as to provide an excellent view of the giant boulders that form the foundation of the building.
Then, the climb begins. There are a total of 103 steps to reach the top of the tower, and due to the historic nature of the building and its design, the only way to get to the top is up the ever-turning staircase.
However, every 20 steps or so you reach a new level (4 in all) where you can take in views of the city and peruse displays detailing this history and construction of the building.
On the day we visited, there was a short wait to gain access to the top.
The final few steps up from the darkness of the building lead you into a beautiful sight. The ‘Lantern Desk’ is an space enclosed with windows, which lets you out onto open air platforms that provide a 360 degree view of the city and of Casco Bay.
On a clear day you can see 30 miles or more.
Take as much or as little time as you want to take in the view, but be aware that others may be waiting. Access to the top is limited to a few people at any given time.
When you’re ready, you descend the same staircase back down to the ground floor.
The ground floor features a charming, small gift shop with items for kids and adults.
I visited with my husband and my 6 year old son, and we had a wonderful time. Our visit took about 45 minutes (although because Flag Day was a special open house at the Observatory they said the wait for the top was much, much longer than usual). My son had a wonderful time climbing stairs, talking about how to build towers with the knowledgeable volunteers, and trying to find his house from the top. I highly recommend this to anyone living in Portland (again, free library passes!) or any visitor who wants to know about the history of the Port of Portland or just take in some astounding views.
The Portland Observatory is located at 138 Congress St in Portland, on Munjoy Hill. The site is owned and operated by Greater Portland Landmarks. You can Like them on Facebook and visit the Observatory web page or the GPL web page (Greater Portland Landmarks is much more than just the Observatory). The Observatory is open daily, May 25 – October 14, 2013, 10:00 am – 5:00 pm. All tours are guided and the last tour begins at 4:30 pm. Admission fees start at $9.00 for adults, and special rates are available for AAA members, seniors, students, and kids ages 6- 16. Children under 6 and GPL members are free, and the maximum rate for a family is $25.00. If you live or work in Portland, you can also check out passes for the Observatory from the Portland Public Library.
Distance from the Maine State Pier: seven-tenths of a mile, about an 15 – 17 minute walk.
Still can’t find them? Here’s a map!