Digest>Archives> May/Jun 2016

Collecting Nautical Antiques

U. S. Signal Service

By Jim Claflin


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St Simons Island, Ga. Signal Service Station at ...

Many are aware that the U.S. Coast Signal Service was organized simply to open and maintain communications between the shore and ships traveling along the coast. However, few realize that its origins and functions were far more complex and essential, and that they can still be recognized within today’s governmental organizations.

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Morris Island, SC. Signal Service Station at ...

Prior to the 1870s, the Signal Service of the U.S. Army was devoted to (1) opening and providing communications at the front in time of war, and (2) noting the development and progress of storms and other meteorological phenomena and reporting same to the public, with predictions of probable future conditions. Reports were transmitted by telegraph and by the display of warning signals.

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Crew space inside a typical signal station.

By the 1870s, some forty observation stations had been established in the principal cities of the country. The organization was sufficiently complete so that on the 1st of January, 1871, regular reports of weather observations taken synchronously were telegraphically reported to the Washington office. For the first time a complete picture of the nation’s weather could be had at any given moment in time.

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Signalman using semaphore to signal a vessel.

Soon, by act of Congress, the Secretary of War was authorized to establish signal stations near, and to operate in cooperation with, the lighthouses and life-saving stations on the Great Lakes and on the seacoasts. These signal stations were connected with telegraph-lines, and were constructed, maintained, and operated under the direction of the Chief Signal Officer of the Army.

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Close-up of signalman. Note the Navy style ...

By this cooperative arrangement, Life-Saving Service and lighthouse personnel were now able to better communicate information as to hazards and deteriorating weather conditions to vessels at sea and to each other. Communications to ships at sea was by light or flag, and by the early 1900s by radio. Signal stations were also able to receive messages and summon assistance to vessels in distress from the nearest life-saving stations or ports. “The Signal Service became a valuable if not an indispensable auxiliary to the sister services with which it connected.”

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U.S. Signal Service binoculars c.1890. Marked on ...

By the 1890s it appears that the Coast Signal Service was still under the jurisdiction of the War Department but was overseen now by the Navy, as stations expanded along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, and later extended to the Pacific coast.

The Coast Signal Service stations aim continued to be to warn vessels within signaling distance of the approach of storms, and to give the life-saving stations quick notice of marine disasters calling for rescue. In addition, trained observers were now on hand to observe and record meteorological data and the state of the sea.

This enhanced communicating between stations insured more efficient operation in times of disaster. Now all stations were connected by wire or submarine cable, and connected similarly with the office of the Chief Signal Officer at Washington, DC. Apart from the meteorological value of the Coast Signal Service, its incidental contributions to the life-Saving stations proved to be of great assistance. The History of the Signal Service (GPO. 1884.) relates the following example:

“On the 22d of March, 1877, after a severe storm on the middle Atlantic coast, Sergeant William Stein of the Signal Service, in charge of the Cape Henry station, discovered before dawn a large vessel stranded on a shoal of that station, and summoned the wreckers at Norfolk to come to the rescue. With the earliest light the Sergeant displayed the “attention-flags” of the international code, with which every seacoast signal station is supplied; and, receiving answer that she was the Winchester of Liverpool, with request for two steam-tugs to be sent to the vessel, he telegraphed at once to Norfolk for wrecking-steamers. Before sundown active efforts were made to save the stranded vessel. She was gotten off the shoal after some days’ labor; but meantime three other vessels, in a second storm (of the 25th), were stranded within a mile of her. Sergeant Stein again telegraphed the wreckers at Norfolk for aid. He ascertained the name of the bark in greatest peril to be the Pantzer, a Norwegian vessel, and the crew of the Life-Saving Service a little later succeeded in firing a lifeline over her deck. The Norwegians did not comprehend its use; but after some effort the Signal Service officer, by means of international signals, instructed her crew to “haul in on the line,” and by nine o’clock all the crew of the Pantzer were safely landed.

In the wrecks of the steamships L’Amerique, Ruslaud, and Huron (of the United States Navy), the first tidings were conveyed by the Signal Service wires, and through them succor was speedily summoned. In the case of the Huron, drifted ashore near Kittyhawk, a private of the Signal Service, A. T. Sherwood, stationed at that place, received the first intelligence November 23d, and, after telegraphing to Washington, hastened to the awful scene, walking sixteen miles through the sand, and brought full reports of the situation to his station, which were instantly telegraphed to the Chief Signal Officer. The War and Navy Departments and the Life-Saving Service were thus notified (this was in the very early years of the Life-Saving Service before the coastline was adequately covered with stations), and by them steamers of the navy and wrecking companies were started to the fatal point of the shore on which the Huron had gone to pieces. The Kittyhawk observer, immediately on receiving orders from the Chief Signal Officer, opened a “wreck-station” abreast of the foundered vessel before daylight of the 25th, connecting it by a temporary telegraph wire with his station, and, working this improvised station on the open beach, while the gale was yet raging, drew toward the spot the whole organized relief force of the Government.”

This Signal Service Telegraph System was constructed, owned, and operated by the Signal Service. In addition to the seacoast, it covered yet a much larger area. As required by Acts of Congress, this service soon completed in the interior and on the frontier an extensive network of telegraphic lines for connecting military posts, and added more signal stations to relay messages and to take weather observations. The goal of the interior stations was to “…warn the population of “Indian depredations,” and to transmit meteorological, military, and other reports to the Government.” By the turn of the century a total length of 4,000 miles of frontier telegraph line along with 77 stations were in operation and maintained by the Signal Service.

Apart from all of the afore-mentioned benefits, the value in the scientific work of the Weather Bureau based at the stations was felt to be the greatest. The telegraph system made it possible to furnish weather observation reports daily that would not otherwise be attainable. These were of primary importance for the purposes of weather-prediction throughout the United States.

After the turn of the century, as the Life-Saving and Lighthouse Services expanded their capabilities, the Signal Service would become the U.S. Weather Bureau, a civilian agency assigned to make weather and ocean observations and disseminate the information to the public and to coastal shipping through signals from shore, and later by radio. The Army and other services had by now developed their own “Signal Corps” for use during times of war.

A few items still remain to remind us of this important service. In addition to early photographs, we occasionally come across report forms and log books. We occasionally find antiques as well. As with all of the government services, most if not all of their equipment was suitably labeled “U.S. Signal Service,” or just “Signal Service.” Probably the most commonly found items are binoculars.

Signal Service binoculars were generally 6” and were manufactured in Paris by Audemair, Marchand Faet, Chevalier Optician and others. U.S. Signal Service binoculars were manufactured to the exacting standards of the day and, due to their high quality optics, they were utilized by other services as well including the Life-Saving Service and Lighthouse Service.

Many were labeled on the slide “U.S. Signal Service, Day & Night,” or on the frame just “Signal Service.” Most were fitted with sun glare shields and had a leather covered body. I addition we have found a few 30-36” telescopes of the Signal Service as well.

There are few references on this important early service. For more information on the early history of the Signal Service, check out History of the Signal Service with a catalogue of Publications, Instruments and Stations. (Washington. 1884. 39p.)

This story appeared in the May/Jun 2016 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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