Augusta station was precursor to National Weather Service

The U.S. Army Signal Corps established one of the nation's first weather stations on what is now Seventh Street in Augusta.

Before weather forecasters had Doppler radar and satellite imaging, they had barometers, rain gauges and wind vanes at a downtown Augusta office.


In 1870, as the federal government sought to better understand weather forecasting and destructive storm systems, they turned to the U.S. Army Signal Corps to establish one of the nation's original weather stations on McIntosh Street -- now Seventh Street.

From their small station, soldiers of the Signal Corps would compile barometric pressure readings, temperatures, humidity, wind directions and other weather information from the Augusta area.

Three times a day, they would collect their readings, coupled with reports from 24 other early stations across the country, to create "probabilities" of future weather conditions.

"We call that forecasting today," said Steven Rauch, the historian for the Signal Center at Fort Gordon.

The early forecasts were sent by telegraph, which conveniently was just one block from the weather station, to the Signal Office in Washington, D.C., where they were assembled into the first national weather maps.

Rauch, who has researched the Signal Center's weather-related history, said it was the precursor to today's National Weather Service and might even have saved the Signal Corps.

After the Civil War and the Reconstruction that followed, the Army had demobilized and been "reduced to a skeletal force with the primary job of policing the remaining Western Frontier," Rauch wrote in a report on the Signal Weather Service.

As Army officers worked to preserve their branches from more cuts, they looked to the civilian world.

Business and farming interests were pressuring Congress to establish a weather forecasting system on the national level, so the chief signal officer, Brig. Gen. Albert J. Myer, wrote to Congress to ask that it be entrusted to the Signal Corps.

"The Signal Corps at the time was kind of looking for a reason to be," Rauch said. "So that's what they did."

When a tornado tore through downtown Augusta on Feb. 8, 1878 -- demolishing the city's Lower Market and narrowly missing the Academy of Richmond County -- it was a Signal Corps private from the weather station who sketched the tornado's path of destruction through town.

To better understand tornadoes, Signal Corps Sgt. James P. Finley organized a team of more than 2,000 "reporters" in the mid-1880s to document tornadoes across the east and central United States, according to a history of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Storm Prediction Center.

He created maps of weather patterns that spawned tornadoes -- which were used to issue some of the first tornado alerts.

In the latter part of the decade, however, Finley's work fell out of favor as the Signal Corps -- and later the Weather Bureau, the predecessor of the National Weather Service -- banned the use of the word "tornado" out of concern that it "provoked undue fear amongst the public." The ban on the word continued until new technology and military aviation during World War II prompted officials to lift it in 1938.