Maritime History and Preservation
Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act
about the people and communities that built ships, shipped goods,
sailed ships, kept lights, rescued wrecks, fished waters, and kept
the sea lanes open
about the use of waterways for commerce, transportation, defense,
about the traditions and skills, arts and crafts, artifacts and documents,
and buildings, structures, and vessels that reflect our past maritime
what we help to interpret and preserve.
Built in 1807 on Munjoy Hill in Portland, Maine, by sea captain and entrepreneur Lemuel Moody,
the Portland Observatory played a vital role in maritime trade as a signal station for Portland's bustling harbor. From the Observatory, Moody and his successors identified vessels entering Casco Bay and conveyed this information to the city’s merchants and businessmen through a system of flags and colored balls
displayed from the top of the tower. The Observatory operated in this manner for over 100 years until radio communication
between ship and shore made it a relic of the past.
Restored in 1939 by the City of Portland with a grant from the Works Progress Administration after years of disuse and decay, the
tower was again called to duty during World War II, serving, as it had in previous wars, as a lookout tower for
enemy vessels and aircraft. After the war, it resumed its life as a tourist
attraction and local museum recalling Portland's heyday when vessels still relied on sails and merchants and businessmen relied on Moody and others for the latest news of harbor activity.
When constructed, the Portland Observatory was one of many maritime signaling stations operating in port towns along the East and
West coasts and in other maritime countries around the world. Today, it is the only known surviving example of a maritime signal
station in the United States. The Observatory was designated a National Historic Landmark in February 2006.
To learn more about the Observatory and Moody’s signaling system visit the
Greater Portland Landmarks
web site. Architectural drawings of the Observatory are included in the HABS/HAER/HALS Collection at the Library of Congress.
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