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arrow Stories and Tales of the Weather Service
arrow Personal Tales
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 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.

While at 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.

But signaling 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.

The meteorological 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.

The fact 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.

Arriving 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.

The Concho 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.

I relieved 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.

I immediately 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.

San Antonio 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.

My orders 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.

I received 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 given me.

An amusing 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 heartily.

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.

picture of building
Signal Service telegraph and telephone exchange near Jacksonville, Florida (1898).

Here there 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.

During May, 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.

Huachuca 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.

The time 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 stars."

The heliograph 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.

At LaCrosse 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.

At LaCrosse 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.

picture of man on horse pulling travois
Signal Service soldier with typhoid fever in transit to hospital at
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.

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