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Though designated a national landmark, the Portland Observatory is not managed by any federal agency. It is owned by the City of Portland and maintained by a private non-profit group called Greater Portland Landmarks. There is a small fee to enter and tours are conducted by volunteers. Access to the tower is only via the guided tour during the summer.
We made our way up to the observatory late in the afternoon on a whirlwind tour of the city that involved a Ride the Ducks tour, the Maine Narrow Gauge Railroad, kayaking, and, of course, walking.
The observatory sits on top of Munjoy Hill and is the only remaining historic maritime signal tower in the United States. It cost us about $25 for the three of us to climb to the top of the seven story structure with the docent while learning about the history of the observatory.
Though it looks like a lighthouse, the observatory was built in 1807 for a different purpose. Through a system of flags and lights, the tower signaled merchants down at the wharf that their ships were on their way in to the harbor so that they could prepare for their arrival. During the war of 1812, it served as a watchtower. It then continued to serve as a signal tower until 1923 when radio made it obsolete.
We’d tired ourselves out walking all over the city and up Munjoy Hill, so it was nice to take the steep stairs at a slow pace during the tour that paused at exhibits on each floor. Once at the top, we spent some time admiring the spectacular views of Casco Bay, Back Cove and Portland. The entire visit took little more than a half-hour, but definitely augmented our Portland experience.
Location: 138 Congress Street, Portland, Maine
Designation: National Historic Landmark
Date designation declared: 2/17/2006
Date of my visit: 8/18/2015