PORTLAND, Maine — Thursday marked the 75th year the Portland Observatory hosted a Flag Day celebration, a tradition that began with a rededication in 1937, after the great-grandson of the 1807 tower’s founder gave it to the city.
When the seven-story octagonal observatory was first constructed — a project organized by legendary Portland Capt. Lemuel Moody — the nation was just 11 years old and the now densely populated Munjoy Hill was a vast pasture area.
“It was a marine signal tower,” said Jennifer Pollick, manager of education programs for Greater Portland Landmarks. “There was a series of flags used to signal ships coming in to port, which signaled to a harbormaster when a ship was coming in; it signaled to men who worked on the loading docks to run down and get a job; it signaled to merchants that their goods were coming in; and it signaled to families that their sailors were coming home.”
But although the structure’s observation deck is 210 feet above sea level, one of the most commonly told tales of the building is probably more legend than fact, Pollick said. Moody didn’t watch the naval battle between America’s USS Enterprise and the British HMS Boxer, which took place off Pemaquid Point and was immortalized in paintings and poetry, from the top of the observatory.
In addition to being the 75th anniversary of the observatory’s Flag Day rededication, this year marks the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812, in which the famous sea shootout between the Enterprise and Boxer took place — although that specific battle was in 1813.
“You could not see the actual battle [from the observatory],” Pollick said of the once widely believed tale. “We believe that Capt. Moody could see smoke from the cannon fire, and from [Henry Wadsworth] Longfellow’s poem ‘My Lost Youth’ that you could hear the cannon fire, but it wasn’t until the next day that Moody was able to signal which ship was the victorious ship, when the [Boxer] was being towed into harbor.”
Longfellow wrote of the battle: “I remember the sea-fight far away, How it thundered o’er the tide!”
“It was mostly a naval war,” said Pollick. “It lasted until 1815. The battle between the Boxer and the Enterprise was not a significant battle — it was only significant to the people of Maine. The Boxer and the Enterprise were two of the last sailing ships that moved under wind power that both navies used as warships.”