87th AMS Annual Meeting

Monday, 15 January 2007: 11:00 AM
The first weather service modernization program, 1899–1909
206A (Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center)
Stephen R. Doty, Doty Data Services, Arden, NC
The United States Department of Agriculture's Weather Bureau was established in 1891 taking over the weather program of the United States Army Signal Service. The Signal Service located their observing stations in rented space usually in downtown office buildings. The Weather Bureau continued this rental program but by fiscal year 1899 had begun to purchase land and construct buildings. This “modernization program” lasted through fiscal year 1909 when the last of the 47 buildings was completed. A building for the Weather Bureau headquarters in Washington, DC was purchased for $174,950.79. Costs for a single building (some sites had several buildings) location including the land and construction costs ranged from $832.94 to $21,923.75. The buildings were located in larger cities and rural America, from mountain tops to the coast. Wind instruments were mounted on the roof. The instrument shelter and rain gage were to be found either on the roof or on the ground near the building. Being near the telegraph office was a major consideration for the location. By the 1950's the Weather Bureau had moved from these first generation building the new airport observing sites.

Twenty of the structures were of identical design, stately two-story brick structures with porches and basements. The buildings had an Instrument Room and then all the comforts of home as there were four bedrooms, a bathroom, a kitchen (complete with pantry,) a dining room, and a living room. Some “local customization” was apparent depending on the local climate conditions, items like window awnings and landscaping. Of these 24 identical buildings, 13 remain to this day. The building in Abilene, TX has been fully restored. The building in St. Joseph, MO is still used as a private residence, being owned by the second generation family that purchased the building from the government. The building still houses many old original Weather Bureau records.

For the most part the chief observer lived in the building with his family. In deed, the running of the office, the handling of community requests, the posting of forecasts was many times handled by wives and children. Several deaths were recorded in the buildings from such accidents as falling down the stairs. At least one observer was buried within sight of his beloved building. Of course, many children were born with in the walls of the structure.

The buildings were located within the community so as to be easily accessible and easily seen. To disseminate the daily forecast many sites had a steel tower located on the roof or adjacent to the building. During daylight hours, flags were posted to indicate the days expected weather. At night, lanterns of different colors were used. To further disseminate the forecasts notices were often posted in store windows and in centrally located kiosks.

Bringing a modern weather observational program and community service effort was as important a hundred years ago as it remains today.

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