When posed the question "Who were the guardians of mariners of the past?" most folks would picture brawny surfmen of the U.S. Life Saving Service or even dedicated men who served as keepers of lighthouses. The majority of people would not think of the men and women who served the U.S. Weather Bureau whose job it was to warn mariners of pending storms. This is the story of these folks and two of the towers they maintained.
Over one hundred years ago, when coastal shipping was a major method of moving goods to market, the Federal government realized that a system was needed to warn mariners of impending bad weather. So in 1898, President McKinley ordered the newly established Weather Bureau to set up a series of coastal warning display towers.
Towers were built at existing Weather Bureau stations located in important coastal locations, like the U.S. Weather Bureau stations at Hatteras and Manteo. Towers were also built to "supply the needs of the more important ports not having regular Weather Bureau offices." North Carolina ports meeting that criteria included Beaufort, Columbia, Edenton, Elizabeth City, Plymouth, New Bern, Southport and Washington.
A coastal warning display tower, sometimes known as a "storm warning tower," was a special kind of skeletal tower designed to display storm warnings using flags during the day and colored lanterns at night. The flags were substantial in size. The daytime flags consisted of eight-foot square red flags with black centers, two of which were flown as a hurricane warning, or a single red pennant that was 8 feet by 15 feet flown to indicate a small craft warning.
Three vertical lanterns, two of which were red separated by one white lantern, displayed the night warnings. The individuals employed by the Weather Bureau to display the warnings were often local residents given the title of "storm-warning display-man" if they wer not already Weather Bureau employees. In addition to maintaining the signals, display-men were expected to post a notice of warnings in prominent places on the waterfront and, if necessary, personally notify the vessels in port of any impending storm. (See "Instructions for Storm-Warning Displaymen")
The Hatteras Tower
The tower at Hatteras was located next to the 1902 U.S. Weather Bureau Station. Twice in its career the Hatteras tower was blown down, once on September 15, 1933 when a hurricane struck the area and the final time on August 30, 1999 by Hurricane Dennis. According to my father John E. Midgett, he and his father, Luey A. Midgett, were contracted to restore the tower following the 1933 storm.
In September of 1938, Lucy Stowe, who was born in Hatteras Village in 1925, when questioned if the locals in her day heeded the Weather Bureau's warnings, "Absolutely, they used them" says Stowe. "You could see the top of the tower from all over the village, and the fishermen definitely paid attention to them." Lucy was employed in 1943 as a Junior Weather Observer lived in the station until 1957.
From the commisioning of the Hatteras Weather Bureau station until the station was moved to Buxton in 1957, the weather warning signals were raised by the weather observers at the station. In that year, Mr. Damon M. Gray, Sr. a retired barber and popular wood carver who lived next door to the tower, was hired as the displayman for the tower, a job he performed until his death in 1980.
Afterward, the Gray family continued to display the signals with his grandson, D.M. Gray, taking on the responsibility. According to Mr. Damon's granddaughter, Rosa-Alice Gray Mayo, displaying the signals was a family affair, "Granddaddy did them, but so did Daddy, Mama, and all of us kids were taught how to run the flags up and do the temp, raingauage, and turn the lights on the tower at night. Miss those days, Granddaddy got a little check each month, after he passed DM started to do it and got the check, it was not much, but to a teenager it was a lot."
The Washington Tower
Research of the tower in Washington finds that instead of "storm-warning display-men" handling the operation of the signals; it was actually two "storm-warning display-women" who, over a period of some 80 years, took on this very important responsibility.
Records indicate that a storm-warning display and seacoast telegraph station was in place in Washington by 1900 and the first storm-warning display-man in town was Mary Gallagher, wife of town physician Dr. James Gallagher. The Gallaghers lived in the house still standing at 629 East Main Street. It was in their backyard where the tower was first erected. Mary Gallagher was listed in 1906 Weather Bureau records as the "display-man" and received $12/month compensation for her services.
Dr. Gallagher died in 1911, and for over 30 years, the widow Mary Gallagher had the sole responsibility of raising the storm flags. Mary, at the age of 88, was still listed in the 1940 census as employed by the Weather Bureau. Mary died in 1944 at the age of 91.
Upon Mary Gallagher's death, her neighbor Mrs. Lossie Waters assumed the responsibility of storm-warning display-man for the tower. It was in the mid 1940's when the tower was moved to Miss Lossie's backyard at 720 East Main Street.
According to her granddaughter Linda Waters, Miss Lossie would receive a phone call from the Weather Bureau in Norfolk, VA when bad weather was approaching the Pamlico. Most often it was the "small craft" red pennant that was raised, but occasionally it was the two red and black flags, an indication that hurricane conditions were imminent. Included in Miss Lossie's 40-year watch were several notable hurricanes including Hazel, Ione, Diane, and Donna. Lossie Waters passed away in 1983 at the age of 94.
The U.S. Weather Service discontinued the use of the coastal warning display towers in 1989. Of the hundreds of towers built, only a handful remain. In North Carolina, in addition to the Washington tower, there are towers at Manteo, Southport and Beaufort. The owners of the Washington tower have donated it to the City of Washington and it has been moved to the waterfront next to the NC Estuarium.
The weather flags are flying again from the Washington tower and serve as an educational exhibit and as an illustration of our historic maritime past. Perhaps when visitors to the Washington waterfront view the tower, they will be reminded of the untiring effort made by the Gray family of Hatteras as well as Mary Gallagher and Lossie Waters of Washington warning the sailors on Pamlico Sound and the Pamlico River.