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Ever hear about someone starting up the kind of business that no one had ever thought about before and after hearing about it you said something like, "Why didn't I think of that?" Or, maybe you had thought of it, but you were among the many who never take their bright ideas beyond the "cerebral stage."
I was thinking of those inventive people the other day after reading a piece in the Landmarks Observer, the monthly newsletter of Greater Portland Landmarks. The article concerned Lemuel Moody and the unique enterprise he started 200 years ago this spring on Munjoy Hill in Portland.
For years Moody had been a ship's captain but at the age of 40 he decided to call it quits and get what government bureaucrats might call a land-based occupation. What Moody decided to do was build what we now know as the 86-foot-high Portland Observatory. Moody figured that by looking through a telescope atop this tower he could see ships sailing into Portland Harbor at least an hour and a half before anyone below him could catch sight of them. Apparently he had seen such towers in ports like Boston, Providence and Baltimore.
I have no doubt that there were scoffers who laughed when first hearing of Mr. Moody's tower idea, and these scoffers probably said it would be a waste of time and good Maine lumber. But Lemuel Moody ignored the cynics and just ordered up some white pine timbers and white oak for braces and started building. When he was finished he realized that he was right in his speculation. From his lofty tower he could see arriving ships at least 90 minutes before anyone else in Portland.
Why would someone want this timely information, you ask? Well, back before radios and telephones and faxes and cell phones, ships, had no way of giving landlubbers a heads-up on their arrival time. A vessel would sail into port and heave to with all sails luffing and the surprised ship's owner would have to scramble along the waterfront looking for berthing space and then try and round up a crew of stevedores sober enough to unload his precious cargo.
From his new observatory, Moody could spot the vessel way down the bay and raise the appropriate signal flag to alert the ship owner who would then have a leisurely 90-minute interval to make the necessary on-shore arrangements. Ship owners and other interested parties were willing to pay Lemuel Moody a fee for his information, and that was the whole point of his observatory.
After reading about Mr. Moody's Munjoy Hill communication center I couldn't help but wonder about some of the problems he must have encountered with his enterprise. There must have been occasions when the wrong flag was raised on Mr. Moody's tower sending the wrong signal to the wrong ship owner. But I'm sure they worked it out eventually.
Moody soon discovered that when you build an 86-foot tower on a hill people become curious. They want to know what the view looks looks like from the top. Before long people were expressing a strong desire to climb the tower and check it out. Ever the entrepreneur, Mr. Moody began charging 12 and a half cents for a climb to the top of his observatory. I'm not sure how the experience compares to a trip today to Santa's Village or Six Gun City but I imagine that to someone in Portland in the early 1800s with an afternoon to kill, a trip to the top of Mr. Moody's tower was quite a memorable event.
Figuring he was going to spend a lot of time in the vicinity of his tower Moody eventually built himself a home on the site. Never one to sit in his tower twiddling his thumbs and eating bon-bons, he also built stables, a banquet hall, a ballroom and even a bowling alley.
If you're in Portland, why not drive up Munjoy Hill and take a look at Mr. Moody's tower? Even after 200 years it's still pretty impressive.
John McDonald is a humorist and storyteller who performs regularly
throughout New England. John’s e-mail address is
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