The Portland Observatory is closed now, but staff and volunteers of Greater Portland Landmarks are telling the building’s story through online videos. When the tower is reopened, guests will likely be limited and have to pre-register for tours. Michael Kelley / The Forecaster

PORTLAND — The 86-foot high Portland Observatory’s panoramic views of Portland harbor and the city aren’t available to visitors now, but operators are making sure the old signal tower’s history is.

While the Observatory is closed at least until June 22 because of the coronavirus pandemic, Greater Portland Landmarks has been working with docents to record videos “so people can experience the tours and stories from home,” said Communication Manager Kate Burch.  The videos, available on Youtube, include stories about  Lemuel Moody’s Map of Casco Bay and The Fire of 1775.

“We have plenty more in the works,” Burch said.

Usually the Portland Observatory, an iconic former naval communication station atop Munjoy Hill on Congress Street,would be opened for the season by now, but concerns about how to maintain distancing and public health concerns have kept the building closed to the public.

In 2019, close to 20,400 people visited the Portland Observatory.

“We are working with the city of Portland and with the state of Maine’s reopening guidelines to determine how and when we can reopen the Portland Observatory,” Burch said. “We are hopeful that we will be able to set an opening date for early summer.”

All city buildings are closed until at least June 22.

When the Observatory opens, it is likely “we will only be able to have five visitors in the building at a time,” Wylie said. Usual capacity is 45 people.

Tickets, which range from $3 to $10, will have to be purchased in advance and only guided tours would be offered.

Greater Portland Landmarks is “expecting reduced revenue due to the closure and potential limited reopening of the Observatory, Wylie said, and is  “planning for this impact with a variety of budget scenarios for the coming year.”

Upcoming videos will include information on the Observatory’s 2000 restoration, the capture of the HMS Boxer by the USS Enterprise in the War of 1812, the Battle of Portland Harbor during the Civil War in 1863 and how the Observatory was used to spot enemy airplanes during World War II as told by a 93-year old docent who was a spotter during the war, according to Alessa Wylie, Greater Portland Landmarks’ manager of education programming.

“Docents were asked about their favorite story they tell and everyone has shockingly picked a different story. Some of these are things we don’t spend a lot of time on during the tours,” she said.

The tower dates back to 1807, when Capt. Lemuel Moody had it built to alert ship owners of their ships’ arrival in port. At that time, according to Greater Portland Landmarks, “ships entering the harbor could not be seen from the docks of Portland until they rounded the point of land at Spring Point Ledge and were almost in the harbor.”

With the high-power telescope, Moody was able to identify ships as far away as 30 miles and hoist signal flags to identify the vessel approaching. The Observatory was run as a signal tower by the Moody family until 1923 when the two-way radio was invented, rendering the tower obsolete. The facility fell into disrepair and it was donated to the city, which, after renovations, reopened it in 1939. Greater Portland Landmarks took over management of the tour and began offering regular tours in 1984. By the mid-1990s, inspections of the tower showed extensive damage from moisture and beetles. The Observatory was once again shut down, but was reopened in 2000.

According to Greater Portland Landmarks, “the Portland Observatory is the only remaining historic maritime signal station in the United States. As an intact survivor from the Golden Age of Sail, the Observatory was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1972, became a National Historic Landmark in 2006, and named a National Civil Engineering Landmark in 2006.”

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