Tuesday, January 26, 2010

When Columbia Tooted The Weather Forecast

by David Sapp Copyright 2010

Before the days when 24-hour weather was available on The Weather Channel and the internet and even your cell phone, weather forecasts were sometimes distributed using whistle codes. Columbia, along with a number of U.S. cities, used a steam whistle not only to signal time but also to forecast the weather. 

Columbia’s first weather whistle started as a public service as far back as 1892 when the E.W. Stephens Publishing Company built their building on the southwest corner of Broadway and Hitt Streets, according to company vice-president F.W. Dearing and superintendent H.H. Crosswhite in a 1927 account.  In June of 1925, the Columbia Water and Light Company continued the practice using the boiler at the power plant on U.S. Highway 40 (now Bus. Loop 70) after the Stephens Publishing Company installed new equipment.(#1) 

The accompanying photograph from an early postcard shows Columbia's first power plant on Hinkson Creek around 1912.

Jack Oliver is one who remembers the old steam-powered weather whistle being used in the late 1940s and early 1950s.  Mr. Oliver, a long time Oakland Gravel Road resident, recently told the writer of the whistle and remembered several of the codes with total recall.

Weather signals were standardized by the U.S. Weather Bureau. As early as 1905, they urged that “persons desiring to . . . sound the whistle signals for the benefit of the public should communicate with the Weather Bureau officials in charge of the climate and crop service of their respective States . . . .” The list of “central stations” which followed included “Columbia, Mo.” though that does not necessarily indicate the system was actually in use in Columbia as early as 1905.(#2)

Officials had a challenge communicating the signal system to a mobile population. In January of 1948, the Water and Light department superintendent D. Elrow Crane told a Missourian reporter “that whistle blasts indicate the following: One long, fair weather; two longs; rain or snow; one short, colder; two shorts, warmer; three shorts, severe cold wave; one long and one short, fair and colder; one long and two shorts, fair and warmer; one long and three shorts, fair with severe cold wave; two longs and two shorts, rain or snow and warmer; two longs and three shorts, rain or snow and severe cold wave.”(#3)

A 1948 Columbia Missourian article asked “Do you listen to the 10 a.m. whistle and do you know what it signifies?”

Answers from various citizens probably were reflective of the general population. Mrs. Robert Burns, housewife, said: “It’s the weather signal. One blast is for fair weather but I don’t know the meaning of the other signals. One of the people at a grocery store told me what the whistle was for.”

Miss Louise Smith, a student at the University, said: “I never heard the whistle. My ears must be conditioned to it. They don’t have weather whistles back home in Arkansas.”

John C. Crighton, Stephens College professor and historian, said: “I hear the whistle occasionally, but don’t make a point of listening to it. The signals mean little to me because I read the forecast in the paper. When I walk out at 10 a.m. I don’t need a whistle to tell me whether it’s raining or not. I’ve been here since 1935 and never found any need for the whistle.”

A Miss Maxine Stancil said: “I’ve been here for two years and never knew about the whistle. Why don’t people make the information available?”

Another University student, John Mead, said: “I’m in class at 10 a.m. three days a week and never hear it then. On other days I haven’t heard it either. The only whistle that I pay any attention to is the one at noon.”

Another housewife, Mrs. Joseph Goeke, said: “I don’t always hear the whistle, especially in the winter when the windows and doors are shut. It’s also hard to hear on the edge of town where I live. Even when I hear it I don’t know what the blasts mean. I wish I did.”(#4)

The idea of discontinuing use of the whistle was being openly discussed as early as the first part of 1949. Another Missourian article reported: “‘If the water and light plant stopped blowing its time and weather whistle, I imagine that we’d get from 150 to 200 calls in a few hours,’ D. Elrow Crane, plant superintendent, said today. Noting that Fulton has discontinued time signaling by whistles, Crane said a lot of Columbians depend upon them—too many to halt the practice now. Crane indicated he has made no survey of the cost of blowing the steam whistle at 7 a.m., 10 a.m.; noon, 1 p.m. and 5 pm. However, he said that Fulton’s cost of a dollar a toot wasn’t far wrong.”

“‘People do not realize it costs money to blow that whistle,’ said Crane. ‘But it’s a service many want and need.’ The halting of the water and light plant whistle at Fulton will save that city $1820 a year, it is estimated.”(#5)

Despite changing technology and known problems with the system, Columbia was slow to discard the weather whistle. David Horner, who began working at the Weather Bureau in 1955, remembers that the whistle was still in use then. Each day, the Weather Bureau would phone the power plant with the forecast and, sharply at 10 a.m., the boiler operator would toot the appropriate signal for all who cared to pay attention. The chief meteorologist at that time was Harold McComb. When James D. McQuigg assumed those responsibilities in 1956, he knew that the days of using a steam-powered whistle to broadcast the weather forecast were over. The whistle went mute after 64 years of service. 

The photograph at right was taken in April 2010 and shows the actual weather whistle preserved inside the Columbia power plant.  When the whistle was taken out of service it was mounted on a display stand on the floor of the plant.  The name plate reveals that it is a WORCESTER FIRE SIGNAL by the UNION WATER METER INC. of WORCESTER MASS.  Research shows that it was a three stage gong whistle consisting of sections that measure 8"x9-3/4", 12"x15" and 12"x25".

1. Columbia Missourian, Mar. 17, 1927, p. 1, col. 6.
2. "Scientific American Reference Book. A Manual for the Office, Household and Shop," by Albert A. Hopkins and A. Russell Bond.
3. Columbia Missourian, Jan. 15, 1948, p. 4, col. 7.
4. Columbia Missourian, Dec. 7, 1948, p. 10, col. 5.
5. Columbia Missourian, Feb. 21, 1949, p. 1, cols. 2&3.

© David Sapp 2010

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