Women who raised the red-and-black flags

Published 8:35 pm Friday, May 3, 2013




Special to the Daily News

When posed the question “Who were the guardians of long-ago mariners?” most folks would picture brawny surfmen of the U.S. Life Saving Service or even dedicated gentlemen who served as keepers of the lighthouses that lined our coastal waters. But this is a story of a tower and two resilient women whose job it was to warn mariners of impending danger.
More than 100 years ago, when coastal shipping was a major method of moving goods to market, the federal government realized that a system was needed to warn boats and ships of impending bad weather. Such a system was vital to mariners’ safety and well-being. So in 1898, President McKinley ordered the newly established Weather Bureau to set up a series of coastal warning display towers to “supply the needs of the more important ports not having regular Weather Bureau offices.” Washington, being one of those important ports, received one of the first towers; a tower that still stands off East Main Street near the Pamlico River.
A coastal warning display tower, sometimes known as a “storm warning tower,” was a special kind of skeletal tower designed to display storm warnings by using flags during the day and colored lanterns at night. The flags were substantial in size. The daytime flags consisted of eight-foot-square red flags with black centers, two of which were flown as a hurricane warning, or a single red pennant that was 8 feet by 15 feet, flown to indicate a small-craft warning.
Three vertical lanterns, two of which were red separated by one white lantern, displayed the night warnings. The individuals employed by the Weather Bureau to display the warnings were given the title of “storm-warning display-man” and were often local residents. In addition to maintaining the signals, display-men were expected to post a notice of warnings in prominent places on the waterfront and, if necessary, personally notify the ships in port of any impending storm.
Research of the tower in Washington finds that instead of “storm-warning display-men” handling the operation of the signals, it was actually two “storm-warning display-women” who, over a period of some 80 years, took on this important responsibility.
Records indicate that a storm-warning display and seacoast telegraph station were in place in Washington by 1900, and the first storm-warning display-man in town was Mary Gallagher, wife of town physician Dr. James Gallagher. The Gallaghers lived in the house still standing at 629 E. Main St. It was in their backyard where the tower was first erected. Mary Gallagher was listed in 1906 Weather Bureau records as the “display-man” and received $12-a-month compensation for her services.
Dr. Gallagher died in 1911, and for more than 30 years, the widow Mary Gallagher had the sole responsibility of raising the storm flags. Mary Gallagher, 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.
Upon Mary Gallagher’s death, her neighbor Lossie Waters assumed the responsibility of storm-warning display-man for the tower. It was in the mid-1940s when the tower was moved to Miss Lossie’s backyard at 720 E. Main St.
According to her granddaughter Linda Waters, Miss Lossie would receive a phone call from the Weather Bureau in Norfolk, Va., when bad weather was approaching the Pamlico. Most often it was the “small-craft” red pennant that was raised, but occasionally it was the two red-and-black flags, an indication that hurricane conditions were imminent. Included in Miss Lossie’s 40-year watch were several notable hurricanes, including Hazel, Ione, Diane and Donna. Waters died in 1983 at the age of 94.
The U.S. Weather Service discontinued the use of the coastal warning display towers in 1989. Of the hundreds of towers built, just a handful still stand in the U.S. In North Carolina, the one in Washington remains, as well as the restored towers at Manteo and Southport. The owners of the Washington tower have agreed to donate it to the City of Washington so it can be preserved and moved to our waterfront.
Hopefully, the weather flags will fly from the tower again to serve as an educational exhibit and as an illustration of Washington’s historic maritime past. Perhaps when visitors to the waterfront view the tower, they will be reminded of the untiring effort made by Mary and Lossie for more than 80 years to warn the sailors of the Pamlico.