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PORTLAND — Climbing to the top of the 86-foot tall Portland Observatory on Munjoy Hill provides fantastic views of the harbor and beyond.
But there’s also a remarkable history behind the more than 200-year-old structure.
That’s the story Greater Portland Landmarks is trying to tell with new exhibits designed to engage visitors in “a more dynamic way,” Alessa Wylie, manager of education programs, said.
The Observatory, built in 1807, will open for the season on Saturday, May 25. Admission is $10 for adults and $8 for seniors and students, with discounts for Portland residents.
Wylie said the exhibits at the Observatory were overdue for an update after being installed in 2000 when the building re-opened to the public after extensive renovations.
“One of the major reasons that we undertook this upgrade was to provide more information about the building,” Wylie said this week. “Before this update, there was very little information to engage self-guided visitors.
“What we discovered is that a lot of visitors would come simply to climb to the top and not realize what a great story we have to tell. These new exhibits will definitely engage all visitors.”
The new panels, she said, “have a lot more color and images and less text than the old ones,” with the particular aim of engaging children.
For example, one of the panels explains how members of Boy Scout Troop 12 helped during World War II by delivering messages to City Hall when the Observatory was used as a spotting tower.
But, Wylie said, “I think the most important thing we try to stress for kids is that this was a way for people to communicate in the early 19th century; that the Observatory was really a communication tower. It was sort of the Twitter of its day.”
She said about 300 school children visit the Observatory every year, most of them from Portland.
One of the most exciting items in the new display, Wylie said, is a 19th-century telescope. She said purchasing a suitable telescope was the most expensive item when the tower was first built by Capt. Lemuel Moody.
Without the telescope, she said, Moody wouldn’t have been able to identify the vessels coming into the harbor and then convey that information to the city.
Wylie said what’s also great about the new exhibit is that interpretive panels are located on every floor. “This will greatly help visitors understand how important this building was to Portland’s development and to learn more about the man who built the tower,” she said.
She said the Portland Observatory is the last remaining marine signal tower in the country, which makes it unique.
Wylie said the story of Moody “and all his entrepreneurial endeavors, including a dance hall, banquet hall and bowling alley, along with his other marine-related activities, shines a light on this remarkable man.”
Moody originally built the tower as a commercial venture, according to the Greater Portland Landmarks website. The goal was to provide a competitive edge to ship owners that paid Moody an annual fee to alert them when their ships arrived.
Using his powerful telescope, Moody could identify incoming vessels from 30 miles away. “This signal tower greatly increased the efficiency of Portland Harbor, and the Observatory remained a working marine signal tower run by the Moody family until 1923,” the Landmarks website says.
After that, the Observatory fell into disrepair and was eventually donated to the city of Portland. Restorations were done and the tower reopened in 1939.
Forty-five years later, in 1984, Greater Portland Landmarks assumed management of the tower and opened it to the public, offering regular tours.
The Portland Observatory is now on the National Register of Historic Places and is also both a National Historic Landmark and a National Civil Engineering Landmark.
The Portland Observatory, built on Munjoy Hill in 1807, is the last remaining marine signal tower in the country.