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arrow Stories and Tales of the Weather Service
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Table of Contents
  Evolution to the Signal Service Years (1600 - 1891)
  Professor Cleveland Abbe
  Isaac M. Cline
  H. B. Boyer
  D. G. Benson
  Henry Calver
  Ford A. Carpenter
  Norman B. Conger
  Henry J. Cox
  John P. Finley
  H. C. Frankenfield 
  Glynn Gardner
  John S. Hazen
  C. F. von Herrmann
  J. W. Smith
  Richard H. Sullivan
  Wilford M. Wilson

signal service years

Personal View of John P. Finley

Editor's Note - John P. Finley is well known for the many contributions he made to the field of severe weather forecasting. He was a meticulous researcher, prolific writer, and a focussed individual. He was convinced that tornadoes, like other weather phenommena, could be forecast. He set precedents in weather forecasting which are valid today.

His perfectionist attitude is best depicted in the manner in which he contributed the following material in 1922. John Finley made four separate contributions with the last three opening with the similar phrase - "I am not satisfied with the information provided previously."

I reported for duty at the Signal Service School of Instruction at Fort Myer, Va., on March 8th, 1877. There were several officers of Infantry, Cavalry and Artillery at the School, taking the regular course in Signal Corps work. Line officers who developed a liking for weather work might be given a detail on that duty at the Office of the Chief Signal Officer of the Army in Washington, after completing the course at Fort Myer. Such a detail might involve office work in Washington or field work in various parts of the country. The former duty comprised the following:

1. Weather forecasting.

2. Testing meteorological instruments and cleaning them editing and compiling the Monthly Weather Review.

3. Editing and compiling the Summary and Review of International Meteorological Observations.

4. Charting weather data.

5. Conducting special studies in meteorology and climatology.

6. The writing of Notes and Professional Papers for publication as public documents.

7. Serving as officer in charge of the printing and lithographing division.

8. Serving as officer in charge of the meteorological records division.

9. Serving as executive officer.

10. Serving as property and disbursing officer.

11. Serving as officer in charge of telegraph lines and cables.

12. Serving as officer in charge of Signal Service stations.

Field work embraced the inspection of Signal Service stations, the establishment and inspection of river stations for recording and reporting the rise and fall of the principal rivers of the country, the operation and maintenance of the military telegraph lines and cables for military and commercial purposes. These lines and cables were sold to the public as fast as they became converted to commercial use only.

The old Signal Corps was provided with two classes of officers; those detailed from the regiments of the Line of the Army, and those promoted by selection and examination from the non-commissioned officers of the Signal Corps. The latter when fully trained for the duties of the Signal Corps were detailed so as to release line officers for duty with their regiments, a course of action very much desired by the War Department. The promotion of non-commissioned officers to commissioned grade was also an incentive to better work in the Corps when there was opportunity for distinguished service in signalling and in weather work.

Over three hundred individuals passed through the Signal Service School of Instruction. There were some punishments for derelictions of duty that were peculiar to the Signal Corps organization, such as, digging post holes for telegraph lines on the Carolina coasts and repairing cables in exposed situations from Florida to Massachusetts. According to the strict interpretation of the Regulations, legitimate duty could not be imposed as a punishment, but an occasional dose of the laborer's job was good medicine for the recalcitrant Observer.

The military instruction at Fort Myer was of varied character, embracing some features of all branches of the Line of the Army (Infantry, Cavalry and Artillery) in addition to that feature of the Staff of the Army, which included military telegraph lines and cables, and military signalling. It made a good foundation for the arduous, exacting and never-ceasing duties of the meteorological observer on station. Many of these stations were isolated, exposed, lonesome and not free from danager. Observations must be made at precise moments of time and on all days of the year, and with unfailing accuracy. Then came the process of enciphering certain data that had been carefully computed, and finally the telegraphing of the perfect message to the Central Office in Washington. Therefore the course of instruction at Fort Myer involved both military and scientific training, and the weeding out of those men who were unfitted for the exacting duties on station. Some men when tried out on station would never qualify for higher duty than an assistant to the Observer in Charge.

Military signalling at Fort Myer embraced both day and night work at the School, and at distances varying from one to forty miles or more. The drill in telegraph line building and cable work was carried on at the School. Lines of a mile or more had to be constructed with lance poles and suspending insulators, a message or more put through, after which the entire construction was dismantled, wire reeled up, poles lowered, and the whole equipment placed on the accompanying trucks, horse drawn, and returned to the storehouses at the School. The men were marched back to quarters and barracks.

After some time on station I was ordered to duty at the "Chief Office" in Washington and came under the supervision of Prof. Abbe. While working with him, my attention was called to a book by Prof. William Blasius, entitled, "Storms, Their Nature, Classification and Laws," published at Philadelphia, May 10th, 1875. In this volume, special consideration is given the Tornado of August 22nd, 1851, at West Cambridge, Mass. His analytical map of the storm track is one of the best ever prepared and published of this class of storms. Prof. Blasius spent five weeks in making the survey of the path over a distance of two and one half miles.

My attention was later attracted to an incomplete list of sixteen tornadoes collected and published by Prof. Elias Loomis of Yale, the author of our well-known treatise on that subject. I discussed the Blasius book and the Loomis list with Prof. Abbe on various occasions and he urged me to make a special study of Tornadoes and improve on the work of these earlier investigators. This was the inception of my work on Local Storms, and from Jan. 1st, 1880 to July 1st, 1891, I had prepared and published a list of 57 papers and articles. Since that date, the list of titles has been increased by numerous other papers and articles.

Among the most important occurrences during my tour of duty with the Weather Service, under the Signal Corps administration, I may mention, first my investigation of the Tornadoes of May 29th and 30th, 1879 in the States of Kansas, Nebraska, Missouri and Iowa. This investigation involved extensive travel in these States and the survey of many storm tracks.


In April 1876, I was assigned the task of inspecting the Mountain Meteorological Station on Pikes Peak and the Base Station at Colorado Springs. This was the first full inspection since opening of the station with new buildings in 1876. No reports from the Observer in Charge at the Summit had been received for several months since telegraph lines and trails had been destroyed by fierce storms and heavy snow slides.

There was much excitement throughout the country by press reports that the entire station force of six men had perished from cold and starvation. The Observer at the Base Station had continually reported that it was impossible to reach the Summit. None of the hardy mountaineers could be hired to make the attempt.

I was stopping at the Antlers Hotel in Colorado Springs and it was so located that from the porch of this famous hostelry an excellent view of the upper portion of the Peak could be obtained, in fair weather, but then the Summit was enshrouded in swirling masses of snow. The men who stood with me viewing the impressive scene said that this condition had prevailed for weeks, and in their opinion the men on duty at the summit station had perished. In clear weather the station building could be easily distinguished from the Antlers Hotel and that was considered an attractive feature for guests. Notwithstanding all of the arguments presented by the mountaineers I firmly informed them that, as an Army Officer I was under positive military orders to make an inspection of the station at the Peak and ascertain the condition of the Observer in Charge and his assistants. Also I was to take important meteorological observations at the Summit and test out the station instruments. It was plainly to be seen that the Observer at the Base Station, Colorado Springs, was anxiously hoping that I could be induced not to venture the trip to the Summit, as I had informed him that he must accompany me.

My first work was to complete the inspection at the Base, where there was a large amount of Government property to be examined and disposed of. I recall the destruction by fire, on a vacant lot, of a huge pile of unserviceable property that had been accumulating at the Base for years. As fast as inspected I had it removed from storage and piled there. Then the mass was soaked with kerosene and the match applied. The property was guarded until the destruction was complete.

Having cleaned up the Base, I made ready for the trip to the Summit. The mountaineers pointed out the several dangers to be encountered, in the way of mountain lions, hidden trails, difficult stream crossings, narrow ledges, deep snow of a hundred feet or more, the crossing of "Windy Point" where the most destructive snow-slides occurred that swept away all obstacles, even the rocks and trees; the scarcity of oxygen above the 12,000-foot level that make walking next to impossible, the blinding storms at the Summit that would impede progress and hasten exhaustion, and might so hide the trail as to carry the weary wayfarer over a precipice to instant death. When it was found that I was deaf to all of these entreaties the mountaineers gave every assistance to preparing myself and the Observer for the perilous journey.

We were completely sewed up in several layers of gunny sacks, provided with alpine pikes, hunting knives and small revolvers, as well as the instruments I was to use for comparison work at the Summit. The mercurial barometer was fastened to my back, after being covered in its wooden case with gunny sacking; the thermometers, likewise protected, were carried by the Observer.

We were then helped upon the two white government mules, which had been saddled and equipped for the journey. These animals were thoroughly trained and knew the trails after years of service over them. It was advisable to give them their head at all perilous passages, whether on ledges or at stream crossings. I learned to deeply appreciate the wonderful knowledge of these faithful animals when narrow passages were taken. The mules would test the security of the pathway by the pressure of one foot at a time, and gradually settling the weight upon it. If found firm and unyielding the mule carefully put forward the other foot, and in like manner over all narrow passages. On the broader trail increased speed was taken up without any urging by the rider, and perfectly free reins were given.

The first night was spent at the "Half-Way House" occupied by a mountaineer who lived there with his train of burros. During the open season, the mountaineer supplied the Summit station with fire wood at $50.00 a cord. The whole season was required to make the delivery. During the winter the wood was collected at the shack for summer delivery. The load for a burro was usually two four-foot sticks, slung to the back.

Our night at the "Half-Way House" was made hideous by the wild antics of huge flying rats, searching for food. They threw down from the shelves and overturned again and again every article of kitchen equipment, and racket of the tins and kettles was defeaning, if not altogether terrifying. The Observer and myself occupied a bed together which was covered with buffalo robes and other skins. We were cautioned to cover our heads and hands for protection against the flying rats. Sleep was out of the question while these devils were performing. Between 1 and 2 a.m. they left the shack, having ransacked every quarter in a vain search for more food, after having devoured the waste from the kitchen and table that was placed where they could easily obtain it.

We obtained a little rest, had a fair breakfast and a chance to examine two dead rats, killed by the mountaineer. After an arrangement of our equipment we resumed. Near "Windy Point" the mules were reluctantly abandoned and turned over to our guide, who took them back to the shack to care for until our return trip. We now entered deep snow in which we sank to our arm pits, extending the arms to prevent further descent, and treading the snow to rise sufficiently to advance. We were on the alert constantly for signs of a snow-slide, by pressure against the body from the up-hill side, in which direction we anxiously scanned the seemingly endless sweep of 3000 feet. In the direction of the Summit, the area was covered with a smooth layer of snow estimated at a depth of 125 feet.

We were completely exhausted on crossing the slide area, and there rested on open ground swept of snow by the fierce winds. The remainder of the ascent was made with great exertions and very slow pace because of the lack of oxygen. When necessary to rest, we had to lean on our sharply-shod alpine pikes and avoid sitting down because of too much exertion to rise, and we were too exhausted to help one another. The winds grew fiercer and the air was filled with pellets of snow, bits of ice and hail that cut our faces and covered them with blood that froze and blinded our sight. The Observer led the way and his last words to me as we neared the crest in a snow swirl of huge flakes; "for God's sake keep on your feet. If you fall, you will be quickly covered with snow and cannot be distinguished from the rocks. You will be lost and freeze to death." I did fall at the crest and the Observer staggered on a few yards to the station, and fell against the door more dead than alive.

The men within rushed to the door to respond to the knock that seemed to come from another world. They had given up all hope of rescue. The Observer barely had sufficient strength to explain about me and that I must have fallen at the crest. All hands rushed out and finally found me in the blinding snow by the upright position of my alpine pike. I was completely covered with snow and looked like the rocks all about me. I was carried to the station and when I regained consciousness, found myself on a big office table, prostrate with men working over me to restore circulation.

We both suffered awhile from mountain sickness, due to rarified air and finally became adjusted to our surroundings and recovered our appetites. In spite of all accidents my instruments were found intact and the necessary observations taken for station use. These observations eventually were used by Prof. Ferrel who was engaged on special work at the Office of the Chief Signal Officer of the Army, in connection with the Weather Service.

The station force was found in good health with plenty of food and sufficient firewood to carry them through the winter season. They were greatly surprised to hear of the big excitement of the country as to their alleged desperate situation, and wondered most of all at the successful venture we had made to reach them. The trip was looked upon as quite impossible at that season of the year, April being the stormiest month of the period. The return trip was performed under better conditions and in quicker time, but we exercised different body muscles in holding back on the steep down grade and were very sore for several days after reaching the Base.

During the ascent, from the trail entrance at Mineral Springs upward to the "half-way House," (elevation, A.S.L., about 10,000 feet) we passed a succession of severe storms, in the order named, of rain, hail, sleet and snow accompanied with very heavy thunder and terrific flashes of lightning. From "Half-Way House" to the Summit there were frequent alternations of snow, sleet and hail, invariably accompanied with thunder and lightning.

On the return trip to the Base Station at Colorado Springs similar storm conditions were encountered. Difference in elevation, A.S.L. between the Base and Summit stations, 8,100 feet. Distance, about on the same level, between Colorado Springs and Mineral Springs, about three miles.

All storms occuring on Pikes Peak, whether at the Summit or on the mountain sides, were accompanied with electrical displays of more or less violence. Between 1873 and 1882, station records at the Summit show that no month of the year is entirely free from violent electrical storms. All station instruments have been damaged by electrical discharges, even including the mercurial barometer. The members of the station force have suffered severely from electric shock and all telegraph instruments were cut out on the approach of a storm, however light in intensity, to reduce liability to injury.

New Quarters for the Weather Service

Circumstances connected with the occupation of privately owned buildings, that were "insecure, unsafe and in every way unsuited for public offices," by the U. S. Signal Corps and the U. S. Weather Service on "F" Street, and on Penn. Avenue, west of 17th Street, N.W., Washington, D.C., and the fact that this important Bureau was denied quarters in the New War Department building, gave rise to the conduct of a very active campaign, by the Chief Signal Officer of the Army, General William B. Hazen, to properly house the Bureau in Government owned buildings, and at a new location.

The General had submitted plans and recommendations in his Annual Report to the Secretary of War in 1885, for the erection of a fireproof building for the use of the Bureau. These recommendations were renewed in 1886 and contained in Senate Exchange Document, No. 152, Forty-eighth Congress, 1st Session. Reference was made to the alternative of purchasing the property of the Fergusson brothers at the corner of 24th and "M" Streets, Washington. This property was improved as one of the "show places" of the Capital City, by the erection of a singular appearing residence, that with its surrounding grounds, occupied a large portion of the square on which it was located. It was built after the Spanish-American or Mexican style of architecture, with a patio, or open inner court, around which the many rooms were built, each opening upon the court on the first story, and upon a balcony overlooking the court on the second story.

The large residence was completed for occupancy and then the Fergusson family decided to return to California and the property was offered for sale. The Fergussons had been residents of Mexico for sometime, engaged in mining, and had acquired considerable wealth. On our acquisition of the Phillipines, the Fergusson brothers turned up in Manila, as did many other venturesome American civilians, and the elder brother, on account of his education and thorough knowledge of the Spanish language, became the Spanish Official Interpreter for Civil Governor Taft, and finally the Executive Secretary of the Insular Government, remaining on duty in that position until his death in Manila in 1908.

I accompanied General Hazen, on several occasions, to inspect the Fergusson residence, with a view to its acquisition by the Government for the use of the Signal Corps and U.S. Weather Service, for which it was finally purchased and ultimately became the permanent headquarters of the reorganized U. S. Weather Bureau. The last inspection was made in December 1886, and at a time when the weather was very inclement. The building was not heated when we made these inspections, and especially the last one, and I protested with the General that our visit was a very dangerous exposure for him, in fact for both of us, but nevertheless we finished the inspection, in a very thorough manner, including the basement of the structure, as was customary with the General in the performance of all of his duties. As a result both of us acquired severe colds.

Death of General Hazen

The General was suffering from incipient Brights disease but not to the extent of incapacitating him for active duty. This cold, however, aggravated the symptoms and he was confined to his quarters for a few days, which consisted of rooms over a business shop in the north side of "F" Street between 13th and 14th Streets, N.W.

When the General's family went to Europe (Mrs. Hazen and her young son) in the autumn of 1886, he finally removed to these rooms from the family residence at the northwest corner of 16thand K Streets. This new and beautiful residence was the personal property of Mrs. Hazen, specially constructed for and made as a gift to her by her father, the Late Washington McLean when the General and his family came to Washington, upon his appointment as the Chief Signal Officer of the Army, to succeed the late General Albert J. Myer. Before her marriage Mrs. Hazen was a Miss McLean of Cincinnati, a member of the family of the millionaire publishers of that City and Washington. As a widow, she became the wife of our famous Admiral Dewey, the hero of the Naval Battle of Manila Bay, May 1st, 1898.

During holiday week in January 1887 I accompanied General Hazen to an evening reception at the White House. It was a cold day and the evening set in with snow and high winds. The General was in full uniform with only the protection of his military cape. He was not feeling well. I urged that I should go to his quarters for his overcoat, that he might be well protected on leaving the overheated White House. He overruled my desire, and later, near the close of the reception, when some of his lady friends were leaving on account of the storm, he gallantly helped them to their carriage, even without his cape. When I discovered the situation I rushed to get his cape and flung it over his shoulders, but the swirling wind took it off, or nearly so and he was much exposed on the White House portico.

Two days after this reception the General became quite ill and was confined to his rooms, and later on to his bed, from which he never arose, death ending his great sufferings on January 16th, 1887. I was with the General daily during this illness (at times his pains were so violent that he had to be held down in bed, and his death was agonizing in the extreme) as was also his body attendant (also a messenger at the Signal Office and the Weather Bureau) who accompanied the General during the latter part of the Civil War, especially on Sherman's March to the Sea, at the close of which Gen. Hazen made the celebrated attack on the Confederate position at Fort McAllister, as Sherman entered Savannah.

Reminiscences of the Signal Service Years

I entered the Signal Corps of the Army and the U.S. Weather Service at Washington, D.C. on March 7th, 1877. When I presented my application for admission to the Executive Officer at the Office of the Chief Signal Officer of the Army, then on F street, near 17th Street, N.W., I was informed that the waiting list numbered more than one thousand; that if I had letters of recommendation they would be considered in connection with my application. I was well supplied with letters from public men and with certificates from the leading educational institutions of Michigan, my native state, having been born at Ann Arbor the University town on April 11th, 1854. I finally received notification to appear for physical examination and having successfully passed that, I was later advised to appear for a mental examination. During my four years course at the Michigan State Agricultural and Mechanical College I had given special attention to the subjects of meteorology and climatology in relation to agriculture.

This bent in my college work directed my attention to the U.S. Weather Servivce, then in control of the Signal Corps of the Army. After completing a postgraduate course at the University of Michigan, admission to the Signal Corps was sought. Immediately following entry into the Corps came a tour of duty at the Signal Service School of Instruction at Fort Myer, Virginia.


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