History of the NOAA National Weather Service in Detroit

History of the NOAA National Weather Service in Southeast Michigan

 

Part I:  Early History of the Weather Services in Southeast Michigan

 

1. Early Weather Observations in Detroit

 

As one of the oldest cities in North America, Detroit (and southeast Michigan in general) has a rich history of weather observations and significant weather events.  The earliest recorded weather observations for the area go back to the late 18th century by the ships HMS Welcome and HMS Hope, which the British wintered (1779-80) near the old Fort Sinclair on the St. Clair River.  After that, sporadic observational records exist for Detroit through the first half of the 1800’s.  Most reliable, were those ordered by the Army Surgeon’s General following the War of 1812.   These observations were routinely taken by Army Assistant Surgeons stationed at Fort Shelby from 1820 to 1826 – after which Fort Shelby was demolished.  The Surgeons General resumed taking observations at the Dearbornville Arsenal in 1836, and these continued until 1848.  Another set of observations were taken simultaneously at the Detroit Barracks at Russell and Gratiot from 1839-1851.  Records also started at the completion of Fort Wayne in 1862.  These were of frequent and good quality through the Civil War years, but then became less reliable and fragmented until their discontinuance in 1892.

 

The first attempt at a national, real-time weather observing network followed the invention of the telegraph in 1844.  In 1848, a network of 150 volunteers nationwide was recruited at the behest of the Smithsonian Institution.  In March of 1849, the Detroit observer, Dr. George Duffield, began transmitting his observation from Woodward and Larned to Washington D.C.   In 1858, the Smithsonian observations moved to the Marine Hospital at Jefferson and Mt. Elliot, and continued there until the start of the Civil War in 1862.   The Army Corp of Engineers’ Lake Survey unit also began taking observations in late 1858 and continued until 1870. 

 

2.  1870 - The Start of a National Weather Service

 

By the mid 1800’s, marine traffic on the Great Lakes was reaching a peak – and represented a significant segment of commercial transportation in the United States.  Unfortunately, the Great Lakes marine fleet was extremely vulnerable to the intense storms that traverse the lakes in summer and fall.  In the years 1868 and 1869 over 3,000 ship were damaged or sunk by storms on the Great Lakes, and 530 lives were lost in these disasters. 

 

Following these tragedies, Professor Increase Lapham of Milwaukee, a student of early meteorology and an avid weather observer, sought support for a national storm warning service to cope with the weather.  Sending clippings of the maritime casualties to Congressman and General Halpert Paine of Milwaukee, Lapham asked if it were not “…the duty of the government to see whether anything can be done to prevent, at least, some portion of this sad loss in the future…?”   In response to Professor Lapham’s petition, Congressman Paine, on February 2, 1870, introduced a Joint Congressional Resolution requiring the Secretary of War “to provide for taking meteorological observations at the military station in the interior of the continent and at other points in the States and territories… and for giving notice on the northern (Great) Lakes and on the Seacoast by magnetic telegraph and marine signals, of the approach and force of storms.”  The Resolution passed and was signed into law by President Ulysses S. Grant on February 9, 1870.

 

Thus was ordered the beginning of today’s NOAA National Weather Service.  In 1870, this duty was initially assigned to the U.S. Army Signal Service, and its meteorological division (formally known as the “Division of Telegrams and reports for the Benefit of Commerce”) quickly became popularly-known as the “Weather Bureau”.  On November 1, 1870, at 735 am, observations from 24 locations, including Detroit, were sent by telegraph to Washington and other cities. 

 

In Detroit, the Signal Service Sergeant Allen Buel was in charge of the weather unit and its initial location was in Room 186 in the top floor of the Michigan Exchange Hotel at the corner of Jefferson and Wayne.  This location is now occupied by the circular ramp to the roof of Cobo Center.  Six months later, on May 15, the Signal Service was moved to more permanent residence on the Buhl Block at the corner of Congress and Griswold.  Another ten years later, in 1881, the “Weather Bureau” moved to Room 225 of the Board of Trade Building at 154 Jefferson, where it remained until 1890.

 

All of the original weather records of the U.S. Signal Service currently reside at the NOAA National Weather Service office in White Lake MI.  The records are startling in their penmanship and hand-written clarity, and include documentation of two major weather events for the regions.  The first was a written account describing the first recorded tornado to hit Detroit (June 18, 1874).  The second describes Detroit’s the all-time 24 hour record snowfall (April 7, 1886).

 

3.  1890 – The Department of Agriculture

 

In 1890, the Congress and President Benjamin Harrison signed into law a resolution to establish the “United States Weather Bureau” as an agency of the Department of Agriculture.  In Detroit, the new agency occupied Rooms 1008-1010 of the Hammond Building at 122 Griswold and all employees of the old Signal Service were transferred to civilian service in the Weather Bureau.   The Weather Bureau’s role in forecasting and disseminating weather information was increasing at this time, and in 1895 Norman Conger became the first qualified meteorologist to take charge of the station.  In 1896 the office moved from the Hammond Building to rooms 1105-1107 of the Union Trust Building at 102 Griswold, and then was relocated in 1907 to rooms 1314-1319 of the Majestic Building at 1101 Woodward.  Instruments exposed on the roof of the Majestic were as high as 258 feet above street level

 

Even though the use of telegraph and telephone were increasingly in use as methods of disseminating weather warnings and forecasts in the early part of the century, from 1909-1919 one of the more popular ways and visible ways for people to access the Weather Bureau forecasts was via a kiosk.  The Detroit kiosk was located in a central location on the front lawn of the old City Hall, near the current location of Campus Martius at Woodward and Michigan.   The kiosk was 10 feet high and four feet square and each of the four sides held a plate glass window.  One side held several self-recording weather instruments, while the other sides contained weather maps and bulletins.

 

Several historical weather events occurred in southeast Michigan during this time frame.  Of particular note was the “White Hurricane” storm of November 1913.  The great storm was a freakish event that produced heavy snows around the region, winds in excess of hurricane force over Lakes Huron and Erie, and sank several large vessels on the Great Lakes over a several day period.

 

4.  1928 - Aviation Services Come to The Weather Bureau in Southeast Michigan

 

Detroit’s first airplane took off from the State Fairgrounds on July 14, 1910, and two airports were built in the area during World War I – one at the current Selfridge Army Air Field and Ford Field between Oakwood Boulevard and the Rouge River.  Following the War, Weather Bureau employees increasing involved in providing weather advice for aviation activities at the airports.  Pilot Balloon observations were started at Ford Field on January 17, 1919, and the Air Commerce Act of 1926 gave the Weather Bureau specific responsibilities in the field of aviation weather services.  The first scheduled passenger flight in the United States occurred on November 2, 1927 from Ford Airport to Cleveland.   By 1928, a full-time Weather Bureau Airport Station (WBAS) was established at Ford Field.  The WBAS was moved to the new Wayne County Airport (current Detroit Metro DTW) in 1930, and to the Detroit City Airport in 1933 (DET).  In the early 1930s a new Federal Building was built downtown and the Weather Bureau moved from the Majestic to room 1013 of the new building.  On January 1, 1934, all weather observations were transferred to the Weather Bureau Airport Station at City Airport while administrative and forecast functions remained at the Federal Building.  At the time, Detroit City Airport was the first airport in the United States to be the official weather observation site for their city.  By the late 1930s, the forecast functions of the Weather Bureau were gradually transferred to the City Airport office until, by 1940, only the administrative functions of the agency and the Meteorologist in Charge remained at the Federal Building location. 

 

 

 


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