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Weathering Life

Bill Meredith

"Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it."
… attributed to Mark Twain

"… time and chance happeneth to them all."

News reports of the mounting evidence for global warming became increasingly frequent over the past year, so last January, simply as a matter of personal curiosity, I decided to record the daily temperatures. It is a simple process; I merely copy the temperatures from the Frederick News-Post onto a spreadsheet in my computer. These numbers are instantly converted into a graph which shows the fluctuating daily readings superimposed on the steady seasonal rise and fall in average temperatures, in three colors. To my grandson, who was born in the same year as the Macintosh computer, this is boring beyond description; but to me, it is a fascinating reminder of how much things have changed in just 25 years.

Sometime around 1980 I got a small grant to upgrade my ecology lab. This allowed me to buy some instruments to record various aspects of the weather… rainfall, temperature, barometric pressure, etc. I quickly found myself with two problems: I was flooded with information, and I had nothing to compare it to, to see if it was unusual or not.

The first problem was not solvable at the time. I had endless columns of numbers and reams of daily and monthly instrument readouts, but there was no practical way to summarize them. Simply finding a piece of graph paper long enough to accommodate 365 days of data was a problem, and errors were unavoidable when plotting the data by hand. Desktop computers were in their infancy; the state-of-the-art model was the IBM PC, which was unaffordable, and the most widely used teaching computer, the Radio Shack TRS-80, had no capacity for storing data. So manila folders piled up, filing cabinets multiplied, and it became harder to find specific pieces of information.

The second problem was easily solved, for there was an official U. S. weather station in Emmitsburg. It was maintained by Mrs. Lucille Beale, who had recorded the temperature and rainfall every day since 1956. She was happy to share information with me, and also provided Weather Service records extending back into the previous century. Through her cooperation I obtained invaluable baseline data on average and extreme values to which I could compare the readings I was taking in my lab. She also made me aware that the Emmitsburg weather station had a longer history than the Weather Service itself.

In response to the need for weather information by the expanding agricultural industry and the embryonic railroad network that served it, the Smithsonian Institute began giving weather instruments to telegraph companies in 1849. Weather stations were set up at army bases in the farm belt; by the time of the Civil War there were over 500 of them scattered about the prairie states and Indian territories. At each base, a sergeant was assigned to record the temperature, rainfall and barometric pressure. A network of telegraph lines then carried this information to Cincinnati, where it was compiled to create the first weather maps. As time went by, additional stations were established in the east; these were manned by unpaid volunteers, and were often located at colleges and universities. One such station was set up at Mount St. Mary’s College in 1869, a year before the Weather Service was officially started.

The National Weather Service was established by an act of Congress in 1870. The original legislation placed the new bureau under the Army Signal Corps, a logical arrangement at the time since most of the recording stations were on army bases. A series of generals headed it for the next 20 years, but after the Johnstown flood in 1891 it was placed under civilian control in the Department of Agriculture.

The weather station at Mount St. Mary’s was located at the Seminary. This was a good idea in theory, since seminarians were available the year round to tend the instruments; but in practice, even seminarians apparently needed some vacation time, so over the years there frequently were gaps in the data for the summer months. The last seminarian to be weather recorder was James Forker, who later returned to the college as Professor of Theology and became a valued friend and colleague. Apparently, after Fr. Forker graduated from the seminary in 1956, no one was available to replace him as recorder, so the weather station was moved to the Beale farm just east of town.

The original station was a standard design that consisted of a wooden box, about two feet on a side, with louvered sides to allow air to enter freely. It housed a pair of "minimum-maximum" thermometers, in which the mercury would stay at the highest or lowest point reached until re-set. Beside the box was a rain gage which consisted of a funnel-like copper container, about 8 inches in diameter at the top; rainwater that collected in it was measured by dipping in a measuring stick which was calibrated to accommodate the decreasing diameter from top to bottom. In recent years the mercury thermometers were replaced by sensors that were connected to wires and could be read from inside the house; the copper funnel was replaced by a plastic one with markings that could be read directly without a dipstick. Using these simple but accurate instruments, Lucille Beale served as an unpaid volunteer for the Weather Service for nearly 50 years, and became well known to the news media as the most authoritative source of information on Emmitsburg’s weather.

We had no rain for over a month this fall, so I decided to write about the weather. I had not seen Mrs. Beale for a long time, and I wanted to talk to her to refresh my recollections about the Emmitsburg station and see what kinds of equipment she was using to collect records now, but I was not able to reach her by phone. Then, on the afternoon of the first Sunday in October, I went for a drive to look for birds and, on the chance that I might see a bluebird, drove past her farm. Her son, Paul, was working in the yard as I drove by, and purely on a whim, I decided to stop. She recently had knee surgery and was unable to walk, so she was lying on the couch watching television; a folder of Weather Service forms was on the coffee table near at hand. She was glad to have company. She had become quite frail physically, but her mind was clear, and we had a pleasant conversation. Her hope was that she would be able to continue to record the weather until April, 2006, which would have completed 50 years on the job. Her main concern was finding someone younger who could take over the task when she retired from it.

We talked for half an hour or so, and Lucille was in good spirits when I left, so I was shocked and saddened to hear that she died the following day. In a way, it was the end of an era as well as a life; more and more, the Weather Service is shifting to automated stations rather than people for recording daily weather. But this does not detract from the value of 50 years of service. As far as the Service is concerned, Lucille may have been a small cog in a very large machine; but without such cogs, the machine could not have worked for the past 130 years.

Read other articles by Bill Meredith