The Portland Observatory has been a beacon to Portlanders and visitors alike since 1807, offering striking and commanding views of Casco Bay and its islands. It alerted locals to incoming ships for generations. While there is no direct relationship to the Irish-American community, uncalled Irish emigrants saw this tower as they entered Portland Harbor, followed by the nearby spires of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception and further down St. Dominic’s. Since the 1820s, Irish families have settled on Munjoy Hill under the watch of the observatory. Philip O’Donnell, from one such family, was Portland’s Harbormaster and a harbor commissioner from 1939 until 1980.
A group of merchants called the Portland Monument Association, led by Capt. Lemuel Moody, devised the idea of the observatory and purchased shares in the endeavor in the spring of 1807. These so-called “proprietors” included merchants John, Joseph, and Hugh McLellan, descendants of Scot-Irish emigrant Bryce McLellan, and mariner Thomas Roach, a resident of Portland and Portsmouth, and probably of Irish ancestry.
The 86-foot tower, which stands 160 feet above sea level, was used to “signalize” vessels and communicate with the islands using a flag system. Local merchants each had a personalized flag in which keeper Lemuel Moody could spot new arrivals. As historian William David Barry noted, the Embargo of 1807 ruined many of the proprietors, but Capt. Moody operated the tower until his death in 1846 at the age of 79.
Capt. Moody’s descendants continued the operation of the observatory until 1937, when Edward H. York, Moody’s great-grandson, gave it to the city. The tower was closed at this time to allow for extensive renovations. It was reopened to the public on Flag Day, June 14, 1939 and the city had a grand celebration. Among the dignitaries present were the local WPA administrator John C. Fitzgerald and Portland Park Commission secretary William J. Dougherty. The Works Progress Administration had given $6000 to the restoration (see Captain Moody and His Observatory, John K. Moulton, Falmouth, Maine, 2000).
The tower was again closed in 1994, when it was discovered that powder post beetles had been eating to their hearts content for some time. The Portland Observatory Restoration Trust (P.O.R.T.) and the City of Portland joined alliances to again restore the two-hundred year old structure. The city held a celebration on December 10, 1998 to raise funds and further the restoration process. Mayor Tom Kane, a descendant of Galway emigrants, and Cynthia Fitzgerald, a representative of the Munjoy Hill Neighborhood Organization, gave encouraging remarks. A grand re-opening of the observatory to the public was held in June 2000. Six-years later it was declared a National Landmark; it had been placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973.
The Portland Observatory, the best known and oldest of its kind anywhere on the Eastern seaboard, will hopefully enthrall many more generations. A little boy named John ”Jack” Feeney, if he were alive today, could attest to the magic of the tower and the dreams it can instill.
Greater Portland Landmarks has operated the observatory since 1982. Visitors can tour the tower daily from Memorial Day to Columbus Day.