Portland Observatory

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Researching the drive from Bar Harbor to Maine, there were points we considered visiting – a one hour train ride, a visit to the Maine State Prison store (which we did – woodworking), and “museum” or a collection of comic book/pop art stuff, a rock store, and… yeah, it sort of devolves.  We also happened to cross Penobscot Narrows Bridge which boats the highest observatory on  a public bridge in the world, which begs the question if there’s a private bridge with a higher view.  In any case, we pulled over and… sorry, the observation area is closed.  There’s an elevator to the tip of the nearest column in the photo below.  Oh well.


This was kind of a “play it by ear” endeavor, but we knew that our next likely stop would be the Portland Observatory.  To borrow from publicly available information, it’s been in place since 1807 and is the only remaining historic maritime signal tower in the U.S.   Using a telescope and signal flags, it allowed two-way communication between ships and the shore, up to several hours before an arriving vessel reached the docks.  Shipping companies would pay to stock their flags in the tower, which would be raised when their vessels were sighted.


The tower survived a fire in Portland in part because the area was fairly barren.  That’s no longer true as the town has expanded literally next door.  It’s survived disuse when communication systems improved and other lapses in maintenance, including abandonment.  However, locals made an effort to restore it, and it was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1972 and a National Historic Landmark in 2006, whatever that distinction is…  In any case, they offer tours to provide a little history which is now suitably summed.  Below is a model, and it’s notable that the top part can removed by crane (a feature added when repairs were made) to lower it the ground for maintenance:


The tower is 86’ tall and was built with an octagonal design to reduce wind pressure.  At the main level is an access port to view the foundation.  Stone blocks and other materials are laid across the wooden beam foundation to help the tower resist the wind.


Inside, here’s some “old graffiti.”  Guess that’s not a new thing.




At the top, you can see the counterbalance mechanism from which the telescope was hung.  It was stolen at some point.


Properly equipped, you could look in any direction (while minding the open stairway on the floor).  The little step allowed access to the telescope.


And, here’s the main view if using the telescope:


Walking out on to the catwalk, the view is clearer and worth paying the admission fee.




Viewable from the tower was Portland Head Light, which was a close enough drive to make it worthwhile.  It’s a park area and the postcard location for the city, I think.


Oh, and lobster rolls for dinner on a converted Ferry:


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