For people living in and around Portland, there's simply no getting away from Casco Bay. It wraps around Cape Elizabeth and the cities of Portland and South Portland like a protective mother, splashing onto their wharfs and rocks, reminding these increasingly cosmopolitan populations of their maritime roots. While just walking down the cobblestones of the Old Port or venturing into the shops and alleyways lining Commercial Street becomes a voyage into the area's maritime past, four sites in particular in the greater Portland area offer exhibits and opportunities to learn more about the commerce and shipbuilding that continue to define these unique communities on the shores of Casco Bay.Portland Harbor Museum
After nearly two decades of changing its focus almost as often as the Casco Bay breeze shifts, the Portland Harbor Museum has finally settled onto a course that should satisfy maritime enthusiasts of all ages and interests. From an original narrow focus of preserving a massive, thirty-five-foot section of the South Portland-built clipper ship Snow Squall (pieces of this remnant have since been dispersed to other maritime museums, including the Maine Maritime Museum in Bath), this museum adjacent to Spring Point Ledge Light has since expanded to encompass both the historical aspects of shipping in Portland and Casco Bay and the modern oil tankers that have made Portland one of the top oil-import ports on the East Coast.
Interim director David Morton says he and others realized that the focus the museum had been seeking was right outside their windows on the campus of Southern Maine Community College. "We're situated right on a major shipping channel, where you can just look out the window and see ships unloading fuel at this major pipeline," Morton explains. "We realized that we needed to let Portland residents and tourists understand what this resource is that they have in the harbor."
Permanent exhibits help explain how the tankers navigate the busy harbor and unload their volatile cargo, and the museum is even designing a computer game that will allow youngsters to maneuver a vessel across the harbor and educate them about the history of shipping in Casco Bay. Those who fail to navigate their vessels properly may be motivated to visit the museum's primary exhibit this summer - Shipwrecks of Casco Bay and Portland Harbor - to learn if others made the same mistakes they did. Historic photographs, interpretive panels, and nautical artifacts will bring to life the many ships that have slipped beneath the waves in this busy harbor. The museum will also be exhibiting newly discovered records and warnings related to the tragic 1898 loss of the steamer Portland, as well as a video from the sidescan sonar that located the great ship in the depths off Boston.
But the Portland Harbor Museum is hardly willing to settle into its present course for too long. Plans are already under way to provide more access to Spring Point Ledge Light, the museum has erected a nearby memorial to the Maine workers and shipyards who built hundreds of Liberty ships during World War II, and organizers even hope to offer tours of the tunnels and military fortifications constructed during the war around the spot now occupied by this unique museum.
Located off Broadway in South Portland, the museum is open every day from Memorial Day-Columbus Day, 10 a.m.-4:30 p.m. $4. 207-799-6337. www.portlandharbormuseum.org Portland Observatory
138 Congress Street, Portland
Visitors may curse Captain Lemuel Moody as they climb the 102 steps in the eighty-six-foot-tall wooden signal tower he built atop Munjoy Hill, but once they gaze out at the islands of Casco Bay, Portland Head Light in Cape Elizabeth to the south, and even Mount Washington far to the west they'll thank this retired sea captain for his efforts back in 1807. Moody flew flags from his wooden tower, the last maritime signal tower left in the country, to signal shipping companies and stevedores ashore that their ships were arriving in the busy port below him. When not searching for approaching schooners or steamships, Moody served as the city's first weatherman, using his lofty perch to record weather patterns and storms. Moody's flag system and tower became obsolete when two-way radios became common in the early 1900s, but thanks to a complete restoration in 2000 visitors can enjoy the view that Moody and others have had for nearly two centuries, although you'll have to bring your own binoculars to spot a passing schooner or a modern-day freighter heading into port. Half-hour tours to the top of the tower are held every half-hour, but for those who don't wish to sweat their way to the top, the first floor now boasts a computer broadcasting an image from a Webcam mounted on the roof. The tower's first two floors, which are open to the public for free, also include exhibits, photos, and other materials about Moody and his terrific tower.
Open Memorial Day-Columbus Day 10 a.m.-5 p.m. $5 ($4 for Portland residents). 207-253-1800.Tate House Museum
1270 Westbrook Street, Portland
Even early visitors to Maine thought it was the way life should be, especially scouts for King George III who believed they'd found an ideal source of a "limitless" supply of tall, straight trees for the king's naval fleet. By the early 1700s the powerful British Navy had completely decimated England's old-growth forests in its search for new masts (most of these massive timbers were replaced every five years or so), and so the discovery of ideal trees in what would one day become the Pine Tree State seemed to the king's agents to be too good to be true. Despite promises to pay landowners for the trees that were marked with "the king's broad arrow," low reimbursement rates began to foster anti-British resentment among the locals and helped fuel the early flames of revolution. So in 1751, when the king sent Captain George Tate to oversee the harvesting and shipping of Maine trees back to England, Tate built an impressive fourteen-room home in Portland's Stroudwater neighborhood, as much as a symbol of the king's power as of Tate's own wealth. Today this classic colonial home, owned and preserved by the Maine chapter of the Colonial Dames since 1933, offers a unique glimpse into the life of one of Portland's most well-to-do early residents. The docents who lead the forty-five-minute tours here explain the importance of the mast trade for England, the system of selecting and trimming trees as masts, and the growing anti-British sentiment within which Tate conducted his business (he eventually fled from the young United States in 1803). Stand outside the Tate House's unpainted clapboards and gaze down toward the Stroudwater River while the sweet smell of English lavender floats up from the meticulously maintained herb gardens, and you'll understand why so many early settlers found the Pine Tree State - let alone its masts - worth fighting for.
Open June to October, Tuesday-Sunday 10 a.m.-4 p.m., Sunday 1-4 p.m. $7. 207-774-6177. www.tatehouse.org
Maine Historical Society
489 Congress Street, Portland
As you approach the Maine Historical Society from the hustle and bustle of present-day Congress Street, you might think someone's played a trick on your path through Maine's maritime heritage. But pass through the modern concrete-and-glass faA§ade and you'll discover one of the most comprehensive collections of Maine artifacts, photographs, and antiques anywhere in the state. You'll need to act quickly to take advantage of the impressive collection of more than sixty historic maritime photographs that Maine scholar Bill Bunting has selected from the archives of the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities, but the show is worth catching. These photos, taken from the 1870s through the 1920s, include rare views of fishermen unloading their catch, shipwrights building vessels, and early images of the steamships that would eventually bring to an end the grand age of sail in the early twentieth century. The exhibit, which also includes several maritime artifacts from the society's tremendous collection, is only on display through May 30, but the Maine Historical Society should remain on every maritime enthusiast's list far beyond then. For maritime researchers, the library here - housed in what seems a far more architecturally appropriate brick building behind the famous old Longfellow House next to the main museum - contains an extensive collection of nautical artifacts and documents, from original engineering drawings of the boiler in the steamship Portland to diaries and early maps of shipbuilding towns and yards.
The museum is open Monday-Saturday 10 a.m.-5 p.m., $4. Research library hours are Tuesday-Saturday10 a.m.-4 p.m. 207-774-1822. www.mainehistory.org