View of C. F. von Herrmann
For a brief
period of time I served as clerk in the Chief Office then on
"G" Street, copying from original records into large volumes
intended for publication, comparing data etc. General Hazen,
of course, was Chief Signal Officer at that time. While at work
there the surviving members of the Greely expedition returned
and I was thrown into contact with one of the members of that
expedition who was assigned to my room for duty, Sergeant Brainard.
Ft. Myer, we inherited...rather dubious tricks by which we endeavored
to make everything as easy for ourselves as possible. This refers
chiefly to the military training, the signal practice by flags
in the day time and by torches at night. The latter form of
signalling was especially laborious, and often practice messages
were arranged beforehand between the two parties, the one at
home and the other in the field, so that we knew beforehand
just what words were being sent, and I am afraid that unless
an officer was present we did not take much care in sending
or receiving, and probably learned about as much.
by the heliograph was much more interesting and several men
in my class made good records which resulted in their being
selected afterwards for duty in Arizona. We were supposed to
learn telegraphy also, but excepting Lt. Swift, who was an expert
operator, the other instructors were quite poor. At the closing
examinations L. Walshe, a rough Irishman but with a good heart
who used to pound his desk with rulers until it broke to pieces,
examined us in telegraphy. I remembered that I passed by the
skin of my teeth, for Walshe opened the telegraph key about
an inch wide and pounded on it with his fist making a racket
loud enough to wake the dead. He gave several trials with different
paragraphs all of which I missed but finally kindly returned
to the first one tried which I remember and so got through,
but I certainly was not a finished telegraph operator.
work was comparatively simple, mostly the routine work of taking
observations. What meteorology I know I learned afterward. Even
here there was trickery so simple that authorities must have
known and cared not. We were required to prepare monthly reports
on the order of the present Forms 1001. These were to be completed
by the students, were examined by the clerks at Washington and
the men rated on them by the number of errors made. But all
of the original records which had long been corrected were lying
on the tables before the men and it is not surprising that the
practice forms sent in were mostly merely copied.
that I was fresh from school and used to passing examinations
is the only reason that I can assign for passing the final examinations
at the head of the class. The man who passed at the head of
the class was paid the compliment of being sent in charge of
a station, and so I happen never to have been an assistant at
any station. My first assignment was in charge of the office
in San Antonio, Texas.
at San Antonio I found a telegram revoking my orders and requesting
me to wait for further instructions by mail. I found myself
entirely without funds in a strange city with no expectations
of getting any for about two weeks or so, but I preferred not
to write home but to manage in some way for myself. So I selected
the best hotel in San Antonio at that time for my experiment,
and going up to the clerk, I explained to him that I was a government
official stranded and in want of board and lodging for about
two weeks, but no money to pay as yet. He looked me over from
head to foot and seeing that I looked free from guile, simply
said, "Register." I paid the bill when my salary check arrived.
When my orders
finally arrived I found that I was to proceed to Fort Concho,
Texas, a station about 100 miles from the railroad at Abilene
and near a small town called on the maps San Angelo, but nicknamed
by its inhabitants "Hell on wheels." This was in the fall of
1885. Here I relieved Dr. I. M. Cline a gentleman well known
to us all up to the present day.
station consisted of a two small roomed house located on the
flat prairie about three miles from San Angelo, and not far
from the military post of Ft. Concho in the hottest and driest
part of Texas. I do not remember whether it ever rained there
but I do remember that the temperature rose on some occasions
as high at 110 in the shade. I had to sprint to get my telegrams
off in time as they had to be filed at the W.U. (Western Union)
office in town. Concho was discontinued however very soon, and
I turned over the house and everything to the commanding officer
at the Fort. Again I was ordered in charge of San Antonio.
Here I found
myself immediately in hot water, for this was a telegraph station.
I certainly had not made any reputation while at Ft. Myer in
the operating line, except by Heliograph, and wondered that
I had been selected for this post. The office was located at
the military post, about three miles from the center of town
and connected with the Western Union, and there was considerable
work for the military people.
Mr. Dorman and the Commanding Officer was General Ruggles. As
soon as the change of observers had been accomplished, the Manager
of the W.U. called me up by wire and proceeded to send me a
message at the rate of about 1000 words a minute as it seemed
to me. Although I broke the operator a few hundred times I never
did get the message straight, and finally told the manager I
would take it by telephone which I did. I did not see why the
telephone could not have been used all the time, but as there
was a telegraph office of course the messages had to come that
way. The Manager of the Western Union immediately wrote to the
commanding officer, Gen. Ruggles, a strongly worded letter in
which he could not be responsible for the correctness of messages
sent by telegraph to the post as the new man was absolutely
incompetent. Gen. Ruggles sent for me, read me the letter and
asked what I had to say. Probably much to his astonishment I
replied that the Manager of the W.U. was perfectly correct and
that I was by no means an expert telegraph operator. The General
then asked how long it would take me to learn, and I told him
that I thought I could manage the office in about a month, whereupon
he kindly pigeonholed the letter and told me to try.
went to the City, saw the manager of W.U. and when he learned
that I knew about his letter to Gen. Ruggles and did not resent
it, but was anxious to learn, he advised me to buy a repeating
sounder and promised to place it on a busy wire so that business
not intended for me would be continually passing over my wire.
This was done and I spent every moment of my time in learning
to take down the messages that I heard. Meanwhile the other
operators at San Antonio, when there was business for the Fort,
very kindly sent the messages very slowly so that I got along
fairly well. In about a month the Manager tried me again, and
as he really could send a telegram most beautifully, though
fast, I managed to take it this time without a break. When through
I asked him, "How about it?" He replied, "You'll do," and that
was the end of my troubles in this line.
was a pleasant station and I hoped to remain there some years,
until Lt. Sebree arrived in charge of the telegraph division
embracing Texas and adjoining states, Lt. Sebree at once ordered
me to move my office quite a distance away to the vicinity of
his, and when I mentioned that the barometer could not be moved
without instructions from the Chief Signal Officer, he replied
that his orders were just as good.
I had a somewhat
narrow escape here, for I should most certainly have refused
to move the barometers without instructions from the Chief Office.
I think that Lt. Sebree saw that I would probably give him some
trouble for he spoke of it to other officers at the post, and
I heard of it through other channels. Fortunately for me, Lt.
Sebree about two days after his arrival went off on a hunting
trip for a few days, and while he was gone I received telegraphic
instructions to report at once for duty to General Miles at
Fort Huachuca, Ariz. For duty against the Apache Indians which
had gone on the war path in southern Arizona and northern Mexico.
This was Geronimo and his band.
came in April 1886. It happens that another man of the Signal
Corps was at the moment in San Antonio for reenlistment and
he received orders at the same time to remain and take charge
of San Antonio. I remember his disgust when he learned that
he would have to move his office next to Lt. Sebree's and be
practically an assistant, rather than be in charge of the station.
transportation requests from the army quartermaster, and did
not stop to get a ticket. Conductors in those days did not hesitate
to accept government transportation requests. The train was
crowded with soldiers, and I noticed frequently a gentleman
in civilian dress walking along the car who glanced at me as
if he wondered what I was doing on the train. I did not know
that this was General Miles, or I should have presented to him
there the letter of introduction that General Ruggles had kindly
incident occurred on this occasion. After I had surrendered
the transportation request, which the conductor did not refuse
but kept looking at as if there were something wrong about it,
he went on about his duties, but when they were finished he
came back and sat down with me and we had some general conversation.
After a time he again took out my transportation request, looked
at it, and then remarked, "You have a very peculiar name." "Yes,"
I said, "It is distinctly a German name, but I nevertheless
am an American citizen having been born in the United States."
"Yes," he replied, "I recognized that part of it is German,
but how do you come to have Pat for your first name?" For a
moment I was quite puzzled until the conductor showed me the
transportation request where the clerk had abbreviated my title
Private to Pvt. but had written it so carelessly that it looked
like Pat von Herrmann. Upon my explanation the conductor laughed
When I arrived
at Fort Huachuca my previous military experience was again serviceable.
For on reporting to the adjutant he started to say I will assign
you to troop so-and-so, but I spoke up quickly and said that
the men of the Signal Corps on duty outside of Washington did
not participate with the troops but would take care of themselves,
as he could judge by the fact that I wore no uniform. "All right,"
he said, "there is a hotel," and promptly forgot all about it.
So I took quarters at the hotel and there I found also all the
young unmarried lieutenants and other officers, and as they
did not know me I was not disturbed, and remained at the hotel
for some time until I found more reasonably priced lodging and
board with a married commissary sergeant.
I was the
only man apparently who had so far been ordered to Huachuca
for heliograph duty, and of course I did not then know that
many others would also be ordered there, otherwise I might have
saved several members of the class sent direct from Fort Myer
a great deal of trouble. Unfortunately they arrived at Fort
Huachuca and reported to the post adjutant before I knew it.
They were assigned to troops, as they were in the uniform of
a private, and the adjutant had forgotten what I told him. Soon
afterward when I heard they had arrived I hastened to tell them
not to accept assignment to troops but was too late.
By the time
the new men arrived, I had already completed a permanent heliograph
station on a pretty high hill close to Huachuca. This station
used a large round heliograph mirror which tipped backward and
forward slightly by means of a key at the back, making a click
just like a telegraph sounder. No screen was required as the
flash of light was simply lifted far above and dropped down
to the station to make the dots and dashes. I had had a very
firm stand or table made with heavy posts let into the ground,
and the outfit worked wonderfully well.
Service telegraph and telephone exchange near Jacksonville,
occurred an illustration of the effect of the clearness of the
atmosphere in the west, which was well known to me. The young
fellows from Ft. Myer had none of them ever been west. When
they first visited my heliograph station I pointed out to them
a town in which the houses could be very clearly seen. I asked
the boys how far away they thought it was. One spoke up and
said, "You can't fool us on that proposition. We have heard
all about the deceptiveness of distances in this country, and
so although that place looks to me to be about 2 miles distant,
I'll say it 5 miles." With this the others mostly agreed and
were astonished when they found the place was 25 miles away.
When I reported
to General Miles the morning after my arrival, he informed me
that the plan was to establish signal stations on prominent
peaks for the purpose of watching the country thoroughly by
telescopes and transmitting intelligence of the movements of
troops and of hostile Indians by the heliograph which would
be the instrument chiefly used. I was able to inform General
Miles that I had had considerable success in the use of the
heliograph while at the school of instruction at Fort Myer,
Va. and that I could instruct men in the use of the instrument.
Classes for instruction were at once assigned to me. We practiced
across the parade ground and the officers, I could see, had
but little belief that the instrument could be of any service.
As the altitude
of Huachuca is very considerable, the sun was very powerful,
and being obliged to be in bright sunlight practically from
sunrise to sun set, my face burned terribly and the skin pealed
off not once but continually, as I unfortunately do not burn
brown but rather burn up. Finally the adjutant of the post took
compassion on me, and gave me an oddly made shade. It had a
strong wire frame which was secured around the body, and above
it an umbrella like structure covered with white canvas, which
could be folded over the back when not in use. I wore this all
the time and it was certainly a comfort, but it was conspicuous
and I became a notorious character.
1886, before there were any other heliograph stations established
excepting the one at Huachuca, I made my big flash move continually
around the country trying to stir up something, and especially
I directed it on every little collection of houses that I could
see through the telescope, so that the natives were generally
more or less wonderstruck. At last one day I got an answering
flash very faint from a party in the field, and after careful
adjustment took a message to the commanding office requesting
the immediate dispatch of forage and other supplies to a place
some fifty miles away. When I delivered this telegram to the
Commanding office, the fact became known shortly and a crowd
of officers came up to the heliograph station to see it work.
The supplies were sent at once. I have seen the heliograph flash
as far away as Ft. Bowie, 90 miles distant.
was station No. 7, and communicated west with Mt. Baldy, about
40 miles, on which my friend Neifert was in charge. The heliograph
line ultimately attained a length of over 200 miles from Mt.
Baldy, to stations in New Mexico, and undoubtedly aided the
troops in capturing Geronimo and his men who were frightened
by the flashes of light which appeared everywhere. But this
story has no doubt been fully told in public reports.
I spent at Ft. Huachuca was very pleasant. The work was interesting,
the climate was fine, and the skies so clear at night, that
having an excellent book on astronomy with me with some good
charts of the constellations, I spent a good part of every night
in studying the heavens and learned much about the "friendly
stations were discontinued in September, 1886, and I was ordered
to take charge of the station at LaCrosse, Wis. I got on the
train at Huachuca station with a straw hat and linen duster,
and as the country was uninteresting and besides familiar to
me, I hardly left the car, reading novels most of the time until
I reached Omaha. Here I got off the train and for a moment was
surprised to have everybody at the depot staring at me, until
I began to feel that it was very cold, and presently saw a cold
wave flag flying and found that the temperature was 3 degrees
below zero. I bought an overcoat, quick.
I found the station in bad shape. I relieved a man whose name
I have forgotten, as he soon left the service. But he had an
office the main entrance to which led past some toilets which
appeared to be continually out of order so that a decent person
could not get to the office. The first thing I did before even
taking charge was to telegraph to Washington for authority to
immediately move the station. I selected two rooms in the large
MacMillan Building, furnished them nicely, and soon had all
the girls in the large department store on the ground floor
running up to find out about the weather at their lunch hours,
and Lt. Walshe who inspected me there flattered me by the remark,
when I found him quite unexpected in my office (he having found
the key where I usually hid it) "von Hermmann, this is the neatest
little office I ever entered." At this place I delivered a lecture
on meteorology to an audience of Y.M.C.A. men.
the temperature once fell to 43 degrees below zero, a temperature
I had twice experienced before in Wyoming. On this occasion
the circumstances were somewhat peculiar. At night when I went
to bed I did not care for a fire, but I liked to get up in warm
room, so I always had a fire laid in my room in the afternoon,
which I would light in the morning, and then remain in bed until
the room was comfortably warm. But on this particular morning
when I got up it did not seem to me to be cold enough even for
a fire in my room, and I got up and dressed without the least
discomfort; wore my overcoat down town wide open, and no gloves
and yet experienced no inkling that it was very cold, and was
supremely astonished to find all the mercurial thermometers
frozen and the alcohol minimum registering 43 below zero. Fog
prevailed at the time, and I wondered why the fog particles
did not freeze; they did not appear to be frozen, though settling
on objects in the form of thick frost work. I have never been
able to explain why on this occasion I did not experience a
sensation of cold, but was perfectly warm and comfortable, until
I had read the thermometer.
Signal Service soldier with typhoid fever in transit to hospital
Camp Meade, Pennsylvania (1890).
I was transferred
to Fort Custer, Montana. On one occasion there was a tremendously
severe hail storm at Fort Custer, a description of which would
probably be found in the records from that station. What I recall
particularly in connection with it was the evidence of good
sense shown by a quartermaster's team of six mules that happened
to have been loosely hitched to the porch of my office at the
beginning of the storm. At the first touch of hail these six
mules deliberately climbed up on the porch and sheltered themselves.
Horses would have fled in wild fear. This storm was so severe
that cattle were killed, and large hailstones fell through shingle
roofs into the rooms where people were sitting.
I left Fort
Custer in consequence of the death of my father, and after a
brief period of duty in the instrument room (Central Office
in Washington, D.C.) under Prof. Marvin, I was offered either
Mount Desert Island, Maine, or Savannah, GA. I selected the
latter station but was there only three or four months when
I received orders to take charge of the Section Center at Raleigh,
NC. Here I was introduced to climatological work, and remained
at Raleigh until the meteorological work of the Signal Corps
was transferred to the Department of Agriculture.