PORTLAND, Maine — Dazzling sun and a stiff breeze streamed through the open windows atop the 86-foot tower at the summit of Munjoy Hill on Tuesday evening.
The views were sumptuous in every direction. To the west, 100 miles away, Mount Washington’s silhouette wavered among the clouds. To the east, the ocean’s vast horizon melted into the blue sky haze.
But the three women working in the small, glass-enclosed space weren’t feasting their eyes on the gorgeous landscapes about them. They had something else on their minds.
“Are these period correct pool noodles?” asked Peg Puza, getting a roar of laughter from her colleagues.
Puza was cutting long strips of fluorescent pink duct tape while Alessa Wylie and Nina Miller, stuck a shocking-green pool noodle on a low overhang where people often bump their heads coming up the stairs.
The bit of padding was the last step in finally reopening one of the city’s most historic, and beloved, buildings: The Portland Observatory. Closed all of last year due to the pandemic, the 214-year-old edifice is due to welcome visitors again starting Saturday.
“Oh the things we do to keep history safe,” said Wylie, manager of education programs for Greater Portland Landmarks, the group which operates the observatory for the city.
More laughter ensued. The trio were excited about getting the building reopened with the state’s recent easing of coronavirus restrictions.
“We were all set to open last year — but we didn’t,” Wylie said.
She and her staff of site managers and volunteer docents, came up with the best COVID plan they could in 2020. But in the end, the city asked them not to open at all, for safety’s sake.
The octagonal, wooden tower was built in 1807 by Capt. Lemuel Moody. It served as a communications hub for the busy harbor in the days before radio.
Gazing through a telescope, Moody could spot ships more than 30 miles away. Then he’d raise a series of signal flags, letting various merchants — who paid him a subscription fee — know what ship was on its way to the docks.
The tower has no foundation. Instead, it is held in place by tons of rock ballast. Today, it’s the only remaining maritime signal tower in the nation.
During the War of 1812, Moody was even able to observe the famous sea fight between the HMS Boxer and USS Enterprise off Pemaquid Point. As it raged, he yelled the news down to a crowd gathered at the base of his tower.
Later, Moody watched the victorious Enterprise tow the defeated Boxer into Portland Harbor.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, then a boy, wrote about it later in life: “I remember the sea-fight far away, how it thundered o’er the tide! And the dead captains, as they lay in their graves, o’erlooking the tranquil bay, where they in battle died.”
Both captains, slain in the fight, rest side-by-side in the Eastern Cemetery, just down the hill. Moody, who died in 1846, is also buried there.
After his death, Moody’s family continued operating the tower until two-way radio rendered it obsolete.
“Noted tower, 116 years old, closed,” read an April 1923 Bangor Daily News headline. “Owners lack funds to maintain observatory at Portland.”
The attached story said Moody’s granddaughter, Ellen York, then 86, owned the tower. York was already letting visitors ascend to the top to take in the view for a small fee but it wasn’t enough. That year, she was forced to lay off the caretaker and halt the signal flag operation.
Another BDN story in July said that the tower had reopened to visitors, at least for a while. The article also stated that York climbed to the top twice that Sunday.
When she died at age 95 in 1937, the tower was left to the city. Then, the federal Works Progress Administration undertook a restoration. The Observatory reopened to the public in 1939.
Greater Portland Landmarks took over management of the tower in 1984. Ten years later, inspections revealed serious moisture damage and a large powder-post beetle infestation. Another extensive restoration was then undertaken between 1998 and 2000.
Last summer would have been the 20th anniversary of those latest renovations. Instead, with the pandemic raging, the observatory sat empty. Not a single tourist climbed its 104 steps.
That will change this summer.
After Saturday’s reopening, the Portland Observatory will only be open Thursday through Monday and advance tickets are required. Masks are also mandatory.
Management polled the 40-odd volunteer docents and they preferred to keep wearing them, for now.
“They have been involved every step of the way,” Wylie said. “We couldn’t operate without them.”
It takes six docents a day, plus a site manager, to operate the observatory safely.
If things go well, the people come, vaccination rates rise and infection numbers drop, Greater Portland Landmarks may extend the operating hours and drop the mask mandate. Only time will tell.
“June is the test drive,” Wylie said.