U.S. Weather Bureau in 1890s Nebraska

The U.S. Weather Bureau was established by an act of Congress on October 1, 1890. It took over the weather service that had been established in the office of the Chief Signal Officer of the War Department in 1870 during the administration of President Ulysses S. Grant. The bureau in Nebraska maintained meteorological stations at Lincoln, Omaha, North Platte, and Valentine with numerous substations. The difficulty of accurately forecasting Nebraska weather was noted through the years by newspapers and periodicals in the state. H. F. McIntosh of the Western Stockman and Cultivator, published in Omaha, in 1892 criticized the government weather service for attempting what he considered an impossible task:

“As we go to press on the afternoon of July 28th [1892] it is raining a steady continuous downpour which has been nearly continuous since ten o’clock P.M. of yesterday. This rain we are glad to say extends nearly all over the Northwest. The weather bulletin issued at 8 P.M. yesterday said: ‘The expected rains in Nebraska have occurred. North Platte heads the list with 2.90 inches. At Kearney it is now raining. Valentine had .12 of an inch and now enjoys a rain. It has rained at Yankton, and Sioux City reports 1.66 inch. From appearances this evening it must have rained in the vicinity of Omaha. A rain belt exists over the country from the upper lakes to Colorado.'”

McIntosh went on to criticize the government weather service for “making up its reports from the facts reported from hundreds of weather stations from which accurate observations of the temperature and air, which govern the weather conditions, were taken” and in succeeding issues of the paper demanded drastic reductions in the service. McIntosh believed that it was impossible to accurately predict weather and on November 15, 1892, called the weather service an “egregious farce” and “a hoax at public expense.” On December 15 he editorialized:

“The all-around-hoax of the nineteenth century is the United States Signal Service commonly known as the weather bureau. It has been supposed that forecasting the weather is a science more or less exact, which with properly adjusted instruments an experienced person could anticipate storms or fair weather and so could govern his actions accordingly. The fact is, however, that the instruments in use for the purpose of prognosticating the weather have nothing to do with results. The observer sees his column of mercury rise and he says we will have a change. Again he sees his column of mercury fall and he says we will have a change. With either change the curious public are kept on the anxious seat, and when the weather gets here we have it. Mostly, we have weather every day, and the weather bureau has nothing to do with it.”

Fortunately, not all Nebraskans shared McIntosh’s views. J. Sterling Morton was appointed secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture at the beginning of President Grover Cleveland’s second term in 1893. Under Morton’s leadership, the Weather Bureau added ten thousand cities and towns to its service.

From the Omaha Bee’s special issue on one of the most destructive weather disasters in the state’s history.

(November 2009)

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