Washington Historic Storm Warning Tower
Posted 11:04am on Friday, August 12, 2022
Over a hundred years ago, when coastal shipping was the primary method of getting goods to market, the federal government realized that a system was needed to warn mariners of impending inclement weather. So in 1898, President McKinley ordered the newly created Weather Bureau to set up a series of coastal warning display towers. The Bureau built towers at existing Weather Bureau stations in important coastal locations, such as the US Weather Bureau stations at Hatteras and Manteo. Towers were also built to “meet the needs of larger ports that do not have regular Meteorological Bureau offices”. These North Carolina ports included Beaufort, Columbia, Edenton, Elizabeth City, Plymouth, New Bern, Southport, and Washington. Records indicate that Washington Tower was in place in 1900.
The Coastal Warning Display Tower, or “Storm Warning Tower”, was a unique skeletal tower designed to display warnings using flags during the day and colored lanterns at night. Persons employed by the Weather Bureau to post warnings, otherwise Weather Bureau employees, were given the title “Storm Warning Presenter” and were often residents. In addition to maintaining the signals, the presenters were to post warning notices in prominent places on the waterfront and, if necessary, personally notify ships in port of any impending storms.
The first storm warning presenter was Mary Gallagher, wife of town physician Dr. James Gallagher. It was in their backyard at 629 East Main Street, where the tower was erected. Mary Gallagher was listed in Weather Bureau records in 1906 as the “poster man” and received compensation of $12/month for her services. Dr. Gallagher died in 1911 and for more than 30 years the widow Mary Gallagher was responsible for raising the storm flags. At age 88, Mary was still listed in the 1940 census as employed by the Weather Bureau. Mary died in 1944 at the age of 91.
Washington’s historic weather signal tower from 1900 now stands beside the NC Estuary. The tower again displays coastal warning flags. Many people are familiar with hurricane warning flags, two square red flags each with a black square in the middle. Additional warning signs are:
- Notice to small craft (only one red flag).
- Gale warning (two red flags).
- Tropical Storm Warning (a red square flag with a central black square).
Prior to the daily weather radio broadcasts, the public would check local weather forecast flags to find out what to expect for the day. This system of signal flags was established in 1887 before the advent of radio. The Washington Tower recreates history by displaying these flags as well. A white flag means good weather, a blue flag means rain or snow, and a white flag on blue means “local rain,” what we now call scattered showers.
Ray Midgett is a Washington resident, local historian, and former chairman of the Historic Port of Washington Project.