Maine – Portland: Congress Street from Munjoy Hill to Federal Street

The longest continuous street in Portland is Congress Street and it runs from Casco Bay all the way out past the Jetport for the entire length of the city.  The American Planning Association designated it one of the “Great Places in America.”  As they tell the story, the street began “as an access road for farmers bringing their goods to market” and developed into “a prestigious residential neighborhood and then Portland’s commercial and cultural center” (Congress Street).  That much change comes with a lot of interesting history.

They go on to describe the street’s rich and layered character that has evolved over time.  “The result is an area which is a delightful mix of historical architectural styles from 18th century Colonial and 19th century Federal to 20th century International and 21st century Post Modern.”       

Who knew what an illustrious stretch of pavement we had selected for our next walk? 

For those of you who have been following our rambles around Portland, you will already have been at the foot of Congress Street when we described the Cleeve-Tucker Monument with its surrounding bevy of food trucks.  Today, we will start at that intersection and walk up into the Munjoy Hill neighborhood. 

Sara Donnelly, one of the Hill’s residents wrote “The Cool on the Hill,” an excellent account of her neighborhood for DownEast Magazine.  She explains that Munjoy is not a slurring of Mount Joy, as is sometimes reported, rather the area was named “for George Munjoy, who came from Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1659 to settle the land on the eastern point of the peninsula that his father-in-law had bought from one of Portland’s founders, George Cleeve”…no less than the honoree on the obelisk!   

Munjoy may have had naming rights, but according to Greater Portland Landmark’s account he didn’t stay around long enough to really have much impact on the Hill’s development.  He and his family settled close to the shore of Casco Bay and “fled Portland after an Indian attack in 1676 and never returned” (Munjoy Hill). 

Captain Lemuel Moody is the man who has left the most lasting legacy of any here on Munjoy Hill.  In 1807, Moody decided to “quit his work as a sea captain after he was kidnapped and held briefly by pirates” (Donnelly).  He built “the 82-foot Portland Observatory tower” at the top of the hill and climbed its 103 stairs three times a day to its “lantern” to scan through his powerful telescope for approaching vessels.  He was able to see twenty miles out…beyond Casco Bay all the way to the Atlantic.   

Merchants paid Moody to keep an eye on the horizon for incoming vessels.  For a $5 annual fee, anyone who had their own ships could supply Moody with flags to match those of their vessels.  When he spotted a ship flying one of their flags, Moody would raise a matching flag on a pole atop the observatory, giving his customers notice to send men and wagons to the docks so they would be ready to unload when the ship arrived in port.  

Moody used his time well atop his lofty perch.  He kept daily record of the weather and, using his skill as an accomplished cartographer, he created charts of Casco Bay and maps and drawings of the Munjoy Hill.  On the land around the observatory he built a dance hall and a bowling alley, and he charged 12½ cents to those who wanted to climb up its the six levels to enjoy the unparalleled view from the top.  [The U.S. had ½ cent coins from 1792 to 1857.]

From April to mid-October for a somewhat higher fee, visitors can still climb those steps for a spectacular view and to learn more about the history of octagon-shaped tower.   If you visit be sure to look at the enormous boulders inside the ground-level base of the tower.  The structure was built without a dug foundation; instead these massive stones anchor the observatory firmly to the hilltop even through the strongest nor’easters. 

At age 79, on the last morning of his life, Lemuel Moody climbed those steps once again and died suddenly after he returned home.  His son took over the daily climbs until radio communication made the business obsolete.  The structure was left to fend for itself until the City of Portland took over in 1939 and in 1984 Greater Portland Landmarks (GPL) took over and began the extensive repair and restoration necessary to preserve “the only remaining historic maritime signal station in the United States.”  As GPL describes it, the Portland Observatory is “an intact survivor from the Golden Age of Sail” (Portland Observatory).

Even after the building of the observatory, Munjoy Hill went largely undeveloped, serving as little more than a cow pasture with a few scattered residences.  When the Great Fire of 1866 destroyed most of the city of Portland its flames died out at the base of the hill.  Suddenly, its summit was filled with a quickly built tent city to help house the “ten thousand people made homeless” (Varney).  But this population explosion was only temporary, “those residents only stayed long enough to rebuild their houses, in brick or stone, usually on the posh West End”…farther away from the sights and smells of the working harbor (Donnelly).

A new Portland emerged within ten years after the fire with wider and straighter streets and “more roomy, convenient and handsome” structures.  With the ongoing port activity and the arrival of the railroads, Portland needed workers to support its tremendous growth.  Around the turn of the 20th century, the city attracted “working-class blacks, Jews, and immigrants from France, Scandinavia, Eastern Europe, Canada, and, in particular, Ireland.”  These hard-working newcomers “built the single-family homes and three-story tenements that make up most of the modern-day housing stock” on the Hill.  The neighborhood became filled with “close-knit boroughs often divided by ethnicity” and the area “developed a reputation for toughness and inter-Hill loyalties among the residents, who lived in houses so close together that clotheslines were strung between them” (Donnelly).

By the 1960s the area had become “downright seedy.  Boarded up houses and absent landlords were common, and drug related crime made walking the streets at night dangerous.”  A lot of artists moved in to take advantage of the affordable rents, and finally a neighborhood group organized and created a community center and two parks.  The spark was lit for renewal, and in 2000, “the St. Lawrence, a crumbling Queen-Anne-style former church [built in 1897], was converted into the St. Lawrence Arts Center, a theater and community hub for the creative, eclectic neighborhood that by this time Munjoy Hill had become“ (Donnelly).

The movement began slowly, but one by one the modest little houses began to be bought and restored by their new owners until these days when Munjoy Hill has become one of the hottest real estate markets in town.  Houses like these three at the foot of Vesper Street are being snapped up at elevated prices…depending on the size of their lot they can easily close at over a million dollars nowadays. 

Some of these homes are being restored and frequently reconfigured while others are being torn down and replaced with larger modern structures that cover most, if not all, of the lot.  A hot battle is raging in city planning board meetings with residents, new buyers, developers and preservationists fighting over the future of this neighborhood.

Take some time to wander into the neighborhood, but be careful of your step.  The housing stock may be improving but the tree-speckled light makes it difficult to navigate some of the sidewalks, which old tree roots and winter freezes have turned into heaving brick rollercoasters.   On quiet summer afternoons, feline residents seem to find it entertaining to watch from their screened windows for people tripping down the street.

We love to attend Good Theater performances at the St. Lawrence and beforehand enjoy dining at the charming little Blue Spoon restaurant just up Congress Street. “Chef/Owner Will Lavey and his wife Liz Koenigsberg have been in the Portland restaurant scene for many years” and the restaurant’s menu is based on “fresh market ingredients.”

Across the street, Rosemont Market is one of “six locally sourced markets conveniently placed throughout Greater Portland that supply fresh and tasty food to a community of loyal customers.”  The European-styled market offers fresh local ingredients, delicious prepared items and their own baked goods for customers who like to shop within the neighborhood. Rosemont has remained loyal to both its suppliers and its customers with “over 60% of the products in our markets are grown or produced in the state of Maine” (Rosemont).

Willa Wirth’s silver shop is a reminder of the days when so many artists used to populate this area.  The colorful little façade, with its eye-catching displays, makes it difficult to pass without a stop to see what is new within.  As Willa describes the process on her website, “I use silver wire.  I form it.  Forge it.  Solder it.  As it begins to take shape, something special is captured.”   

We have now reached the top of the hill and are standing at the base of the Observatory.  The western border of the Munjoy Hill neighborhood is a bit murky.  Many declare Washington Street as the marker, but I feel like the vibe of the Hill really extends all the way to Federal Street.

At the intersection of Congress and Washington Streets is the Eastern Cemetery, which opened in 1668.  As Portland’s “oldest public burial ground and is a vital link to the City’s early English settlement.”  The clustering of grave sites “suggests the social stratification in early Portland: Anglo-American residents, African Americans, the poor, and impoverished outsiders are all clustered in different locations” (Portland Landmarks). 

Captain Lemuel Moody, builder of the Observatory, is buried here.  Two other especially interesting side-by-side graves are those for Commander Samuel Blythe of the H.M.S. Boxer and Lieutenant William Burrows who commanded the U.S.S. Enterprise.  In September 1813, the two warships engaged in battle in Casco Bay.   Blythe was prepared for a fight to the finish and had his flag nailed to the ship’s mast…and for him it was the finish.  He died in battle and Burrows was severely wounded.  The injured man was brought to shore and housed with local residents who nursed him for weeks, but the valiant Lieutenant ultimately succumbed to his wounds.   The two foes now lay next to each other for eternity…their names unknown to most Portland residents…but the opening of Blythe and Burrows, a local bar and restaurant on lower Exchange Street, has brought the story alive.  It is a fun place to have a drink and some fresh oysters when you are done touring.  If you go be sure to try to find the “secret passage.”  

Across from the Eastern Cemetery is the colorful “Clam Diggers” mural that runs the length of a sixty-foot building.  Artist Susan Bartlett Rice’s work is a tribute to the men and women of Maine who trudge across the tidal flats when the water is out, wearing hip waders and carrying their clam hack in hand.  They bend and push the hack down into the sodden soil and pull out live clams that they toss into their baskets…then straighten up and move on (Gagne).

Around the corner from the mural is an eclectic series of shops.  Right at the corner is Otto Pizza.  The original Otto opened in 2009 and now there are several locations in Maine and Massachusetts.  They offer a wide variety of pizzas with standard and unusual toppings.  “The Masher,” with mashed potato, scallion, and bacon is one of their most popular pies.  If you are feeling a bit peckish by now, you will be happy to know that they sell whole pizzas as well as pizza by the slice.

On the other side of Otto Pizza is a thrift shop, used book store, yoga studio, hair salon and KnitWit, one of my favorite yarn shops.  The store originally opened as the flagship store for Quince & Co. yarn.  They carry a lovely selection of Maine-based yarns as well as a variety of other yarns and supplies.  Their staff is helpful and friendly so this is a pleasant stop if you want to pick up supplies for a new knitting project or to buy a gift for a knitter you may know. 

In the block-and-a-half stretch from here to Federal Street there are three houses of worship. The first is Etz Chaim Synagogue, which was founded in 1906.  The congregation “flourished through the 1950’s when it served more than 125 families….however, by the 1970’s, membership had dwindled to about 25 families, [and it] no longer had a rabbi or offered Hebrew school.” 

The synagogue and its congregation are now once again thriving, welcoming “all types of Jewish families, from orthodox to reconstructionist” (Etz Chaim website).  

That sense of rebirth and outreach extends to the greater Portland community as well.  Their well-tended garden is a quiet place to rest, contemplate and pray; and their museum space offers interesting exhibits throughout the year. 

Print: A Bookstore is a much more recent arrival.  It is an independent bookstore that inserted itself here on Congress four years ago.  The store offers a wide range of contemporary titles and the friendly and knowledgeable owners and staff welcome questions and requests. 

St. Paul’s Anglican Church is Portland’s oldest church.  It was established in 1763 “under the oversight of the Bishop of London, St. Paul’s was founded as a mis­sion church, the first non-Puritan church in what is now Portland.”   This Gothic stone building, with its beautiful rose window and attached rectory was built in 1867 after the original church structure was destroyed in the Great Fire.  I found it interesting that “since the War of 1812, St. Paul’s has en­joyed serving as the Maritime Church for the local seagoing community, including all who serve and work on the world’s seas and their families” (St. Paul’s website).

We have now arrived at Federal Street and the back door of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception.  I’ll pause here, in part because I don’t have photos of this historic building, whose walls were just being built in 1866 when they were destroyed in the Great Fire.  Undeterred, construction was resumed and the cathedral was completed in 1868.  You will have to go online to see photos of this impressive Gothic structure and its beautiful restored interior.

Feel free to join us again next week…we will cross Federal Street and come into the civic and commercial heart of Portland.

Recommended Resource:

 “Congress Street: Portland, Maine.”  Great Places in America: Streets.  American Planning Association.  

Donnelly, Sara Anne.  “The Cool on the Hill” DownEast Magazine

Gagne, Jessica.  “Clam Diggers.”  News Center Maine.  October 11, 2016.

“Munjoy Hill, Portland, Maine.” Greater Portland Landmarks website. 

“Portland Observatory.”  Greater Portland Landmarks.

Varney, Geo. J.  “History of Biddeford, Maine.”  A Gazetteer of the State of Maine.  Boston: B.B. Russell, 57 Cornhill, 1886. 

Munjoy Hill Garden

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