A Window on the Past - June 5, 2015

Portland Observatory

By Craig H. Skelton, member, South Portland Historical Society

 First Schoolhouse in SP sketch.jpg

[Photo, caption: This early sketch by a student depicts the first school house in South Portland (then Cape Elizabeth), located on the waterfront in Ferry Village. Kevin Conroy and Bruce Garrow, both Society members and docents, are currently curating an upcoming exhibit on South Portland elementary schools to be mounted in the Society’s museum at Bug Light Park. We are currently seeking any photographs that show South Portland school buildings, past or present. If you have any photos of school buildings to share, please contact the Society at 767-7299 or by email at sphistoricalsociety@maine.rr.com.]

I read with interest, in a recent National Geographic magazine, what navigating across the country in an airplane was like before all the electronics we have come to depend upon today.  In the mid-1920s the Department of Commerce began establishing cross-country routes.  This was before instruments for navigation and two-way radio communications were installed in aircraft.  In fact some of the airplanes of the time were leftovers from World War I and weren’t much more complicated than a soap box derby with wings and a motor.

Following nearly a straight line from New York to San Francisco, the government installed 70 foot long concrete arrows on the ground that were painted yellow or some other bright color.  The arrows were lit with beacons at night and pilots typically flying below 3,000 feet were said to be able to see from one to the next.  The transcontinental airway system when completed consisted of over a thousand arrows spaced between 10 and 15 miles apart.

Those of us living in some areas of South Portland are acutely aware of aircraft flying over our homes as they are on final approach to the Portland Jetport.  I have often joked with visitors to our home that when we built the place, the FAA required us to paint an arrow on our roof.  Reading the article in NG made me laugh thinking that my joke might not have been all that outlandish after all.

Although not devoid of jet noise, Bug Light Park is a community treasure for us and if your view of the Portland skyline isn’t blocked by the town line running down the middle of the harbor, you will easily see the Portland Observatory.  Our community is not simply defined by the limits of a town line on a map and our connection to Portland across the river included dependence upon the signal flags that long ago flew atop the Portland Observatory.  For any of you that enjoy Bug Light Park, the historic signal tower is easily seen and I imagine even more so if you were able to roll back time to 1807 when the signal tower was built.  The residents of Ferry Village or any other neighborhood within eye shot of the tower whose family depended upon any one of many seafaring trades would have been just as attentive to the flags being flown as our teens are to incoming messages on their cell phones.

The height of the tower at 86 feet does not by itself sound all that impressive, however sitting atop Munjoy Hill the combined height totals an impressive 222 feet above sea level.  Without cell phone contact or two-way radios to communicate with ships approaching the harbor, ship owners and the maritime signal tower used flags to communicate messages.  This communication began when ships were within about 30 miles of the port through the use of a P & J Dolland Achromatic Refracting Telescope.  For those of you that know what that is I ask your help in explaining it to the rest of us.  Let’s just say that the telescope, through a special lens, is able to correct for distortions caused by different wave lengths of light.  I think it means that the refracting telescope allowed observers to accurately see the colored flags. 

That being said, it would be important to note that the communication used between approaching ships and the tower was based on colored flags which identified different shipping companies.  Shipping companies paid a fee to have their flags housed at the tower and when approaching the port, their company flags were raised allowing observers on both sides of the harbor to prepare for arrival of the incoming ships.  Eventually a telephone was installed which improved local communication.  Operations were discontinued in 1923 at a time when radio communication with ships became common, making the tower obsolete.

During my 50 plus years here in South Portland, I had never been to visit the observatory.  I took the guided tour recently with my daughter.  Bob King, who soon turns 90 years old, led us up the stairs as he took us back in time to 1807, the year the observatory was built.  From there he guided us forward in time covering a very interesting history.  The building is somewhat of a modern marvel as to how the post and beam structure was assembled.  You really need to be there, inside the building while he describes how the builders were able to assemble the tenon of each post into the mortised beams that were over 60 feet tall.  And it is quite a miracle that the building was not burned to the ground during the great fire of 1866.  I encourage you to take the tour and while you’re there, say “Hi” to Bob for me.        

Like the few remaining concrete arrows that once crossed the country to aid early transcontinental travel, the Portland Observatory stands as the only known surviving maritime signal tower of its kind in America and serves as a reminder of a simple, uncomplicated and elegant solution to a need, back before the electronic age changed the world around us.  


A Window on the Past - June 12, 2015

 Cofferdam Construction at the Cumberland Shipyard

By Kathryn DiPhilippo, director

South Portland Historical Society

cofferdam construction.jpg

[Photo, caption: This early-1941 photograph shows the cofferdam under construction between Spring Point and Cushing's Point. Building the cofferdam was one of the first steps in the construction of the Todd-Bath Iron Shipbuilding Corporation shipyard. The cofferdam kept the ocean at bay so that construction could take place.]

At the South Portland Historical Society’s museum at Bug Light Park, the main exhibit room features an exhibit covering 100 years of shipbuilding history in our city, from 1845 to 1945. Through the first 75 years of that time period, our talented shipbuilders were makers of wooden ships. At first, they crafted beautiful sailing ships, but as steam engines came along, they were able to build and outfit wooden tugboats, fishing boats and other ships with engines. While there was a dip in activity toward the end of the 1800s, those shipbuilding skills were called back into action during World War I. Cumberland Shipbuilding hired over 1,000 workers to build wooden cargo ships, called Ferris ships, to help with the war effort.

When World War II began, the site of the old Cumberland shipyard was viewed as a viable location to construct a massive shipyard to make cargo ships for, at first, Great Britain. The vacant Cumberland shipyard location was cleared and a large cofferdam was constructed to hold back the tide while they built the new shipyard basins. The photograph (above) was donated to the Society in 1975 along with several others which are now on display in the museum. The photo here shows cranes at work putting the cofferdam in place. Once that cofferdam was constructed, they were able to do all the work needed to create the yard. This new shipyard was used to build large steel-construction cargo ships, both Ocean ships and Liberty ships. Because this was a new style of construction, most workers who came on board had to be trained to become skilled welders. The shipyard took over the old East High Street School, formerly an elementary school, and turned it into a welding school instead.

The Society would like to thank Bath Savings Institution for sponsoring the 2015 shipyard exhibit. Bath Savings has been a partner with the museum for four years now; their sponsorship each year helps to keep the museum free from admission charges.  We hope that this encourages residents to stop by for a visit! We have added some new items to the exhibit this year – related to three young men who were South Portland High School athletes, all of whom enlisted after they graduated: Philip Russell, Donald Thorne and Bud Ellis. While you are here, you can check out the new Meeting House Hill exhibit, as well. Hope to see you soon!

 A Window on the Past - June 19, 2015

 Field of Dreams at the Summer in Maine Auction

now thru July 4

 By Kathryn DiPhilippo, director

South Portland Historical Society

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Now in its 9th year, the Summer in Maine Auction is the place to check out for anyone interested in spending time in Maine on vacation in the summer – whether coming from out of state or just taking a relaxing vacation close to home. The Summer in Maine Auction features the very best places and attractions that our state has to offer ~ and has great ideas for things to do in the summer. Whether you’re interested in going for a sail on a schooner along Maine’s coast, taking a lighthouse cruise, visiting a museum, enjoying the scenery at Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens, riding a trolley, or going out to eat, there’s something for everyone in the Summer in Maine Auction. Best of all, the auction is the signature fundraiser for the South Portland Historical Society. Your high bids will help to keep the museum at Bug Light Park open to the public with no admission charges, and you can win some great auction items at the same time!

There are some unique items being offered up in the auction again this year. Portland Pilots has generously donated a ride for four people on the Portland Pilot boat. The Pilot boat is a busy fixture in Portland Harbor ~ every large tanker and cruise ship entering or leaving Portland Harbor must do so with a Portland pilot at the helm. But the Portland pilots, who know every inch of our harbor, must either climb up or down a rope ladder from one ship to the other while out at sea and traveling at high speed! This auction item is truly unique ~ not many people get the opportunity to go out and see the Portland Pilots up close and in action.

Another great item up for bid this year is a Portland Sea Dogs sky box, generously donated by Portland Tugboat. This isn’t just any Sea Dogs game, though; this sky box is for Sunday, September 6, the “Field of Dreams” game. At this game, the Portland Sea Dogs will emerge from a cornfield wearing old-style uniforms, reproductions of the 1926 Portland Eskimos baseball team. The sky box includes seats for 22 people either outside in front of the sky box, or inside where heat and/or air conditioning will provide a comfortable setting for your family or friends.

There are multitudes of other items in the auction, including hotel stays with breakfast (and pools), local restaurants and attractions, and unexpected items like having your student’s senior portrait taken by professional photographer Robert Akers, having a will prepared by attorney Robert Raftice, or add some beauty to your home with matted lighthouse prints by artist Dick Anzelc. Auction items will be on display and can be bid on inside the museum from June 20 through the 4th of July. The Society will again hold its daytime 4th of July Celebration starting at 11am with a barbecue at Bug Light Park. Our own “Benjamin Franklin” will read the Declaration of Independence at noon from the museum front porch. Come on down with your lawn chairs or blankets, enjoy a picnic and Mr. Franklin’s fiery and patriotic reading.  The auction will close after the reading. Old fashioned games for children will take place in the park at 1pm for those interested. Members of the NorEasters Kite Club will be there throughout the day, flying their whimsical and patriotic kites for all to enjoy; a large selection of kites is available for sale in the museum gift shop, as well as kite wands for toddlers and young children.

 The Summer in Maine Auction will be set up in the silent auction format at the Society’s Cushing’s Point Museum, from June 20 through July 4. For more information and to bid, come visit the museum at 55 Bug Light Park – take Broadway east to the ocean, turn left onto Breakwater Drive, then turn right onto Madison Street that leads into the park – or call the museum at 767-7299. Bidding will also be possible by email or messaging on Facebook. Check out the South Portland Historical Society page on Facebook for more info on online bidding, or email us at sphistoricalsociety@maine.rr.com