Historic Blizzards and the Weather Bureau

Sometimes it can be difficult to take the Weather Channel seriously, especially when there’s a chance of bad weather.  Their people get so excited as they pull out their L.L. Bean parkas and Carhart overalls so that they can stand in the middle of Connecticut Avenue or Times Square and predict doom and gloom – all while they have a look of anticipation/glee on their faces.  But this time, they got it right, sadly.   Their computer models were correct, and, if anything, the results were worse than predicted, especially on the Jersey shore.

How did we get to this point where there is an entire television network devoted to predicting and reporting on the weather?  Actually, observing the weather has been part of American history all along.

As a result of the Enlightenment, educated men in America observed weather patterns and recorded them carefully.  George Washington was among those;  as a farmer, it was essential that he understand weather and its effects.   Later, as a military leader, he applied his experience to planning military campaigns, as he did when he planned his sneak attack on a Hessian garrison right after Christmas in 1776.

Washington crossing the Delaward

According to historian David McCullough, in the days leading up to the attack, Washington visited the Delaware River frequently, even venturing out on the ice and jumping up and down to determine how solid it was.  Based on his experience, he predicted that it was not yet solid enough to stop his boats from crossing late on Christmas night!

Weather observing became more high tech in the 1840s, when the telegraph was widely adopted.  In 1849, the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. set up a special office to receive weather reports via telegraph.   But it wasn’t until after the Civil War that  an attempt was made to organize the weather reports so that charts (and weather models) could be created.   This wasn’t done by the Smithsonian, though, but by a private telegraph company in Cincinnati.telegraph wires

The following year, in 1870, Congress authorized the War Department to gather data and “give notice…of the approach and force of storms”.  The War Department seemed to be the best equipped to do this, since it controlled forts around the country, many equipped with a telegraph and operator.

But it still was not terribly scientific, and  then there were a series of nasty storms throughout the 1880s;  in the West, herds of livestock were wiped out by unpredicted blizzards.   Worse was the storm that suddenly hit Nebraska and the Dakota Territory on January 12, 1888:  what began with mild weather (in the 40s) suddenly turned into a raging blizzard.  School teachers released their classes in midday, telling the children to hurry home.  Sadly, many of the children were caught in heavy snowfall and temperatures that plummeted to below zero.   At least 235 people died in what historians call the Children’s Blizzard.

Children's Blizzard

Later that same year, in March, the Great Blizzard of 1888 moved up the Atlantic coast, dropping nearly five feet of snow on New York City.  There were drifts of up to 40 feet in areas along Long Island Sound;  telegraph wires were down and fire crews couldn’t get out of their stations to put out fires (remember, most houses and buildings were constructed of wood).  Many people weren’t able to get out of their houses for nearly a week.  More than 400 people died.

Blizzard of 1888 NYC

Imagine the isolation of this storm, in an age before television, radio, or the internet. Few people had telephones.  Food supplies couldn’t get into the city.

In 1890, Congress decided to move the responsibility for weather forecasting to a civilian agency, a newly created U.S. Weather Bureau.   Using the latest scientific methods, it was made part of the Agriculture Department, and a new profession was born:  metereologist!







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