by Susan Page Davis
Is your ship coming in today? Look toward the observatory tower and see if you can spot your flag!
The Portland Observatory was built in 1807 by Captain Lemuel Moody. This octagonal tower served as a signal station for the merchants and ship owners of Portland, Maine.
|The Portland Observatory as it appeared in 1936|
Public Domain photo
The city was built on a peninsula that juts into Casco Bay. Moody constructed his 86-foot-high observatory on Munjoy Hill, a high point on the eastern part of the peninsula. When it was first built, that area was a pasture.
With a telescope and a stash of colored flags in the top of the tower, Moody could communicate with the entire waterfront in the busy harbor.
Spotting incoming ships was the main purpose of the observatory. Each merchant had his own distinct flag. Moody or one of his employees would climb the 102 steps and watch the harbor. When a ship rounded Cape Elizabeth, they would observe its pennants and flags, then they would run up the flag of the merchant company to which the ship belonged, hours before it would dock.
The owners watched the observatory anxiously to learn when their ships were nearly home. Moody’s coded flag system gave them time to reserve a berth for their ships on one of the many commercial wharves and have a crew of stevedores ready to unload the long-awaited cargo.
Sailors’ wives and sweethearts also paid close attention to Captain Moody’s flags, you can be sure. Many times this was the first indication that their loved ones had survived another arduous voyage and were bound for home.
The Portland Observatory is now the only extant maritime signal station in the United States. It ceased operation as a signal station in 1923. It was added to the National Register of Historical Places in 1972.
|In this modern photo from Portland Harbor, the observatory can be seen on the right. |
Photo by Dirk Ingo Franke, licensed through Wikimedia Commons
From 1998 to 2000, the building underwent restoration, after prolonged damage from seeping moisture and a beetle infestation. It became a National Historic Landmark in 2006. The organization Greater Portland Landmarks operates the observatory today as a museum and historical site, including guided tours. Visitors can look down on the city, Casco Bay, and as far west as the White Mountains of New Hampshire.
The Portland Observatory is featured in my novel The Castaway’s Bride, set in 1820, the year of Maine’s statehood. This book is also part of the Maine Brides collection. In honor of Captain Moody and his observatory, I’m offering a giveaway of Maine Brides this week. The winner will be chosen by random draw on Saturday (Sept. 28). To enter, comment here. E-readers may choose an e-book of The Castaway’s Bride instead, if they win.
Susan Page Davis is the author of more than forty published novels. A history major, she’s always interested in the unusual happenings of the past. She’s a two-time winner of the Inspirational Readers’ Choice Award, and also a winner of the Carol Award and the Will Rogers Medallion, and a finalist in the WILLA Awards and the More Than Magic Contest. Visit her website at: www.susanpagedavis.com .