Archived Story

Project aims to restore warning tower

Published 1:47am Saturday, April 20, 2013

Although its practical usefulness may be over, an old weather-warning tower in Washington may be moving to a new location soon, possibly along the Washington waterfront.

During its meeting Monday, Washington’s City Council unanimously voted to accept Jim Miller’s offer to donate the coastal-warning display tower to the city. The tower, which once displayed weather flags during the day and used lights at night, is on Miller’s property at 720 E. Main St., where it’s been since the 1940s.

The former U.S. Weather Bureau once used such towers to display signal flags to warn mariners of wind shifts and approaching storms. Scores of these towers were built after 1898, when President McKinley ordered the Weather Bureau to implement a hurricane-warning system for ships. Use of the forecast flags faded after 1925 as radio stations assumed the role of broadcasting local weather conditions. The National Weather Service discontinued its coastal-warning system in 1989. Some Coast Guard stations and other facilities continue to display warning signals without direct assistance from the National Weather Service, according to John Rodman, the city’s chief planner.

Such towers in Manteo and Southport have been restored.

City inspectors and a structural engineer determined the local tower could be moved safely to another location. The cost estimate to refurbish the 50-foot-tall tower and relocate it came in at $14,200, according to Rodman.

The council did not allocate funds for the project. Rodman said an effort is under way to obtain funding to help pay for the project.

“Over 100 years ago when shipping was a major method of moving goods to market, the federal government realized that a system was needed to warn sailing and motor vessels of impending bad weather. Such a system was vital to mariners’ safety,” said Ray Midgett, a Washington resident and amateur historian.

“A coastal-warning display tower, sometimes known as a storm-warning tower, was a special kind of skeleton tower designed to display storm warnings with flags during the day and colored lanterns at night. The daytime flags consisted of eight-foot-square red flags with black centers, two of which were flown for hurricane warnings, and a red pennant that was eight feet by 15 feet to indicate small-craft warnings,” Midgett said. “The night warnings were displayed by three vertical lanterns, who of which were red, separated by one white lantern.”

Midgett said the people hired to display the warnings were known as storm-warning displaymen and often were local residents. Midgett said Washington’s tower was in place by 1900. The first storm-warning displayman in Washington was Dr. James Gallagher, assisted by his wife Mary, Midgett said. The Gallaghers lived at 629 E. Main St. According to records, Mary Gallagher received $12 a month for her services, Midgett noted.

“Dr. Gallagher died in 1911, and for almost 30 years 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,” Midgett said.

Hugh Sterling, former Washington fire chief, said the tower was moved to its present location in the early 1940s, according to Midgett.

The Washington tower was taken out of service on Feb. 15, 1989, Midgett said.

“Like the coastal towns of Southport and Manteo, it is my hope that Washington’s tower can be restored and moved to our waterfront to be used as an educational exhibit and as an illustration of Washington’s historic maritime past,” Midgett told the council.

The Washington Area Historic Foundation supports moving the tower to the city’s waterfront.

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