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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 H. C. Frankenfield

History was in the making on that damp and gloomy afternoon in Washington in January, 1882, when at the seat of the throne at 1719 "G" Street, N.W., a number of callow youths, each hugging to his breast the visible and tangible evidence of his collegiate experience, embarked in the mule-motor express, with the black-bearded, black haired, pessimistic McQueen as chauffeur. The objective was Fort Myer, Va., the land of mystery, also only some three miles distant on the Virginia hills that afford such a magnificent view of our city of magnificent distances.

The little party, of which the writer was one, arrived at Fort Myer shortly before nightfall, and was at once shown to quarters, small oblong rooms along a long covered porch, each room with a single window, running water, an army bunk in each corner, two double desks, shelves and clothes chests. All shone with characteristic neatness, and the first impressions were very favorable and encouraging. Soon the staccato notes of a bugle rang out, and for the benefit of the unsophisticated and uninitiated these tones were translated into the supper call. It is almost needless to add that thereafter we never failed to recognize the first notes.

Our appearance in the mess hall was the signal for loud cries of "fish, fish," the colloquial appellation for newcomers. Well can I remember the shout of derision that arose from the hardened reprobates assembled when poor old McRae, big, burly and lovable, and who has but lately passed over, said in his gentle voice "No, I thank you. I do not take coffee. I would like a glass of milk." It didn't take any of us long to discover that any milk we might wish must be paid for out of our little salary.

We were soon outfitted in the regulation "blues," and settled down to the routine of study and military life. The menu was very limited as to variety and poor as to quality with the exception of the bread, potatoes and coffee. The bread was the finest I have ever eaten.

We came from every quarter of the country; from Maine and Louisiana, from Oregon and Georgia, each more or less stamped with the peculiarities of his native heath. There was the lumberjack from Maine in the person of the stolid Fickett, the Frenchman, Martin from Louisiana with his pleasant voice and gentlemanly manners, Glass, the webfoot from Oregon, and several cotton planters from Georgia and Alabama.

College experiences had rendered us easy of assimilation, and we were soon welded into a compact and harmonious unit. We lived and moved as one in a monotony that was unbroken save for Saturday and Sunday trips to Washington for a square meal, (thirty-five cents at the Temple Cafe on 9th Street, when we had the price), for the seven-up game in the "extra duty" quarters, (tobacco money), and for the little observatory game after taps.

We were a happy, carefree set of youngsters, and our greatest trials were the constant longing for a good, square meal and the Sunday morning inspections, especially the latter when the Chief Signal Officer came up from Washington to witness the same. This gentlemen was very fond of military display, and his present always meant additional labor and trouble, both at the time and thereafter, for our days were full to overflowing. It was not:

Eight hours of work;

Eight hours for play;

Eight hours for sleep;

Eight dollars a day,

but eight hours for work, six hours for more work, two hours for recreation, and eight hours for sleep, the latter not guaranteed. The program was about as follows:

5:30 A.M. Reveille.
5:35 A.M. Assembly
5:40 to 6:00 A.M. Police Duty in rooms.
6:00 A.M. Mess.
6:30 A.M. Sick call.
7:45 A.M. Guard Mount.
8:00 to 9:00 A.M. Study and general work such as cleaning uniforms and equipment.
9:00 A.M. Military drill.
10:00 A.M. to Noon. Recitations.
Noon Mess.
1:00 to 2:00 P.M. Study.
2:00 to 4:00 P.M. Recitations.
4:00 to 5:00 P.M. Drill.
5:00 to 6:00 P.M. Recreation. Sunset.
6:00 P.M. Mess.
7:00 to 9:30 P.M. Study, (supposedly).
9:30 P.M. Taps.

Later on came the field signalling, both by day and by night, the latter frequently calling for midnight travel in the rain, over muddy road in black darkness, the horses choosing the proper route, as we could not.

And thus some six months passed. We had become a rugged, healthy and active band of thirty-two youngsters. At the end of the fourth month we were well pleased when old Mike Mahany, the terrible, efficient, sarcastic, friendly, gruff first Sergeant, announced that he could teach us no more of the manual of arms and company drill, and that we had become a virtually perfect military machine. We had mastered the military details, mounted and dismounted and kept guard. We also had studied meteorology, physics, telegraphy, mathematics and military signalling by wand, flag and torch. We had constructed telegraph and telephone lines, spliced marine cables and learned how to ride a horse, wait at table, clean a carbine, act as valets de chambre and wield a saber. We were more than ripe for the final course before leaving for our future field of broad endeavor.

picture of officers

Signal Service officers at Jacksonville, Florida (1890).

This course was our observatory course which consisted of instruction in observational and instrumental work. With bag and baggage we wended our way to the observatory which covered the second floor of post headquarters building for a stay of some weeks. The observatory was in charge of Sergeant Williams. Sergeant Williams in uniform arrived mysteriously each morning shortly after guard mount, that is, each morning except Sunday, and as mysteriously disappeared each evening. He had some hiding place in the vicinity of the Old Aqueduct Bridge for both mule and uniform, but its exact location was never revealed to us.

Under Sergeant William's supervision we soon became sufficiently versed in the theory and care of meteorological instruments and in the taking and reduction of observations to qualify us as assistant observers. It also made us worthy to be promoted from the grade of second class to that of first class private, the same carrying with it an advance of pay of about $4.00 a month.

The writer in company with Lamar and Ellis was assigned to the Central Office at Washington, on temporary duty, and he remained on temporary duty for five years and five months, taking charge in December, 1887, of the station at Chicago, Ill. On June 1, 1894, he proceeded from Chicago to St. Louis, and on September 15, 1898, he returned to Washington as Forecast Official.

The professional staff was then in the height of its glory. Abbe, Ferrell, Mendenhall, Hazen, Upton, Waldo, and Marvin, and for a time McAdie and Hammon joined us. They did yeoman service and their fame is international.

Well do we remember that early summer day in 1884 when the telegraph announced the rescue of Greely and his little party by Admiral, then Commander, Schley, and the excitement that attended his return. After a rest Greely took his place among us, and in time it became my good fortune to assist him somewhat in the preparation of his official report. I gratefully acknowledge my obligation to Greely for the first real opportunity that came to me in the Signal Corps. He was thorough and square and just, to commissioned and enlisted men alike, and his administration as Chief Signal Officer was eminently successful.

After the transfer of the meteorological branch of the Signal Corps to the new Department of Agriculture on July 1, 1891, troublesome times followed for a few years, but the troubles were finally smoothed out and the Weather Bureau made giant strides upward in efficiency and accomplishment.


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