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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 Wilford M. Wilson

I was enlisted in the Signal Corps, U.S.A. with rank of Second Class Private on September 25, 1885.

During the four years previous I had attended Allegheny College at Meadville, Pa. At intervals between teaching school, working on a farm, working in a mill, cutting timber, blacksmithing, painting and a few other things in order to obtain the necessary funds.

But in the summer of 1885, having despaired of obtaining my degree at the slow rate I was progressing, I decided to turn to teaching, in which I had been fairly successful, as offering the best opportunity within reach. Accordingly, I made application for the position of principal of the village schools of Hydetown, Pa., and, having been assured by each member of the board, for I saw them all, that he would support my application, I felt that matters were settled for the year at least.

But in early September, much to my surprise and chagrin, I received formal notice from the secretary of the board that another had been chosen for the place. This was a hard blow. By this time all the schools were engaged and about to open. Besides, I was without money or prospect of employment.

It will be recalled that in the spring of 1885, General Hazen, then Chief Signal Officer, circularized the colleges of the country, setting forth the advantages of the Signal Corps as a career. As a result, some 30 or 40 young men from different colleges enlisted. Thus, knowing that the Signal Corps was employing men, I wrote for information and advice with a view to enlisting.

Seventy-six dollars a month! Why, that was a fortune! - a munificient salary! I could hardly believe my eyes, but there it was in black and white. That anyone could earn $76 per month - earn it honestly I mean - was outside the range of my experience. (I had taught school for $18 per month and boarded around) I hesitated no longer. I was resolved.

Immediately I made my application. I spent the whole day on it. I neglected nothing. It was not too long, not too short, every word in its place, every punctuation just as set down by Quackinbush in his rhetoric. And the spelling; I was and am yet a notoriously bad speller. Any unprejudiced person may confirm this statement by consulting the official files of the Central Office. But I maintain that if there is a misspelled word in that letter, the mistake was in Noah Webster's, not mine. I verified every word. And the writing of it: Here I was at home.

On receipt of my letter at the Chief Office, examination papers were promptly forwarded - a list of questions for me to answer and then to make oath before a notary public that I had not "cribbed" the answers. The examination papers were sent in and in due time I was directed to report to the Chief Signal Officer, Washington, D.C. on September 25 for a final examination - mental and physical - pending enlistment.

In the Signal Service, I was assigned to the Fact Room of the Review Division under Sergeant James Berry. It was a small dingy room in the G Street Annex, with one dusty window. The sides of the room, from floor to ceiling, were lined with books in which were pasted the monthly meteorological records of all the stations in the world, on land, and of all the ships, keeping records, that sailed the seas. I was soon to make their acquaintance.

My job, the purpose of which I knew nothing, was simple but of deadly monotony. I was given books, containing 30 or 31 pages, according to the number of the days in the month. The pages were about 30 inches long and 12 inches wide, fastened together at the top and ruled lengthwise in columns. The columns were headed: latitude, longitude, time of observation; barometer, temperature, wind direction; force of wind; state of weather. The appropriate data to fill these columns were taken from the records that lined the room.

The procedure was as follows: The first name at the tope of each page was Alpena, and on the line opposite was entered the data appropriate to the several headings for the first day of the month. Then the page was turned and similar entries made on the second page for the second day of the month, and so on, turning a page after each days' entry until the month was completed. The same process was followed for each station and for each ship.

It will be seen that in this way all observations made on the first day of the month appeared on the first page of the book, and that those made on the second day of the month appeared on the second page, and so on throughout the book, thus bringing the observations made each day, both on land and on sea, together on a single page.

When I had finished one book, I immediately began on another. At first I was able to do one book a month, but later on I was able to do two. We were then about five years behind, and I figured that, baring accidents and delays, we would catch up in about ten years.

Early in March orders were received to go to Fort Myer, but a few days before the date specified, I was taken ill with tonsillitis which laid me up for about three weeks. I was glad to go to the fort, and I presume that that frame of mind was reflected in my experiences while there. For I may as well say here and now that I look back upon the months spent at the Fort as among the most profitable and pleasant of my life. There were a few disagreeable experiences of course but there were many pleasant ones; and there were friendships formed which the years have not dimmed.

At that time there were two classes or sections at the Fort, the Meteorological section of which I was a member, consisting of 14 men, and the Military Signal Corps section in which there were some 30 or 35 men.

I arrived at the Fort one late afternoon in March, 1886, and was assigned quarters. The barracks at that time consisted of a two story building, the gable end fronting the parade ground, and two wings extending outward perhaps seventy-five feet on either side. The wings were fronted with wide porches their entire length. The right hand wing, facing the parade ground, was partitioned into rooms, each accomodating four men. The Meteorological section occupied this wing while the other wing, which was not partitioned, was occupied by the Military Signal section.

The room was furnished with four iron cots, one in each corner, each cot with blankets, a straw tick, and pillow. A study table stood in the center of the room, and there were shelves for books on one side. There was also a small mirror that hung from a nail in the wall.

There was work aplenty. For the Meteorological section it consisted of drill, guard duty, signal practice with flags and heliograph, telegraph practice, observation work and recitations. But there was also time for pranks, base-ball, and for leave of an evening in Washington. The Military Signal section was exempt from observation work and recitations, but it enjoyed the distinction of cultivating the "post garden." It was a brave sight indeed to see it march to its work, armed with pick, shovel, rake, and hoe.

Fort Myer was regarded as a regular station, telegraphing, at least for the purpose of instruction, three observations daily at 7 a.m., 3 p.m., and 9 p.m. In addition, if my memory serves me, there were two "local" observations made at 11 a.m. and 7 p.m. The routine was intended to be the same in every detail as that of the field stations. In the interval between taking observations and working them up, we studied the Bible - Instructions to Observers - the ultimate authority of the Signal Corps, which no one, be he officer or private, might question with impunity.

Congress having failed to provide the necessary funds for the maintenance of the school of instruction at Fort Myer (the meteorological section at Fort Myer was closed in 1886), the members of both sections were distributed among the various stations. My original assignment was to Milwaukee, but later it was changed to Cleveland. However, I was retained for a time at the Chief Office.

My work was to copy letter "briefs" into books provided for that purpose. It was only a degree less monotonous than the work I had done in the Fact Room.

At that time there were few typewriters at the Chief Office and none on station. Letters were not duplicated as at present, nor letterpress copied as was done a few years ago. When a letter was written on station it was folded in three folds. At the top of the first fold was placed its number. (Letters for each year were numbered consecutively, beginning with January.) Following the number was the name of the station, the date, name and rank of writer, and a brief statement of the contents. This was called the "brief," and was copied in the "Letters Sent" book. No copy of the letter was kept - only the brief. Letters received were also briefed, and the briefs were copied in the "Letters Received" book. Later on someone made the discovery that it was unnecessary to copy the briefs of the letters received, since the letters themselves were placed on file.

The observation work at the Fort was exceedingly interesting to me, but the copying of briefs was no part of the future I had planned. Besides, there was about this room the same, ancient, musty odor that had sent me from the Fact Room to the Fort. I had been there about two weeks, when one day Zappone came to my desk and said that he was in need of a man permanently and, if I so desired, he would recommend me for the place. At the time my salary at the Chief Office was $18 per month more than I would receive on station. But, since I had been at the Fort on $12.50 per month, and had not suffered, the $58 per month on station appeared to be ample for my needs. I, therefore, replied, that, while I appreciated his offer, I would prefer a station assignment. He appeared to be surprised, but made no comment. Of course, on account of the difference in pay, a Chief Office assignment at that time was regarded as very desirable, and, when it became noised about the room that there was one of their number who actually preferred to go on station, it was looked upon as indicating a mental twist of some kind. I think that some even doubted my sanity. I am not sure that they were wrong, for, in this instance also, I exercised neither foresight nor judgment, but simply followed an inclination. I was assigned to Cleveland, Ohio.

I arrived at Cleveland in August, 1886, and reported to Sergeant William Line, and there began a station service which, for better or for worse, has continued unbroken to the present time. My service at Cleveland was the beginning of my meteorological education. For the first time I began to find out something of what it was all about. I had served at the Chief Office and at Fort Myer; had seen the forecasts and the weather maps, but upon what the forecasts were based, or what was the significance of the lines and figures.

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