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All Over The Map: Searching for ghosts of Seattle’s storm signal towers

From the 1890s to the early 1960s, a succession of tall buildings in downtown Seattle – each one taller than the last – played host to equipment operated by the U.S. Weather Bureau, and designed to warn mariners of coming storms.

Though they’ve been gone for more than 50 years, a recent “urban rooftop archaeology expedition” turned up evidence of these once-vital elements of maritime safety that spread the word of coming storms in the days before radio and the internet.

The earliest versions of what eventually came to be called “Storm Signal Towers” were just tall wooden flagpoles. That was the case in Seattle at Second and Cherry on the seven-story New York Building from 1893 to 1905, and then on the 15-story Alaska Building across the street, from 1905 to 1911.

At both locations, when the forecast called for high winds, special flags were raised by U.S. Weather Bureau staff to warn mariners aboard ships in Elliott Bay. At night, at the Alaska Building, they’d also hoist lanterns – it’s unclear if they were electric or oil – on that same flagpole. However, one problem with the flagpole system was that if the wind wasn’t yet blowing, the warning flags would hang slack, and would thus not be very visible to anyone.

Either way, it helped that the Weather Bureau office was also in the New York Building and then the Alaska Building, which meant easy access for the employees whose job it was to raise and lower the flags. Weather instruments for daily observations for forecasts were also located on the roof as well.

In December 1911, the weather office and the storm warning operation were moved across the street to the brand-new 18-story Hoge Building, also at Second and Cherry. This was around the same time that a new warning system was adopted by the US Weather Bureau, and a new tower design, rather than a single flagpole, was being deployed at coastal areas around the country.

The upgraded warning system was based on a 40-foot tall metal tower that allowed for better display of flags, even with no wind blowing – otherwise known as the calm before the storm. The towers were also equipped with white and red electric lights which were easier to operate than lanterns and, unlike flags, were visible at night.

The key used for deciphering the flag code and lantern code was widely known by mariners, and was also published in the “Coast Pilot,” the government publication that every serious sailor kept in the wheelhouse.

Seattle’s Storm Signal Tower on the Hoge Building was in use from 1911 to 1933. When contacted by KIRO Radio in June, property managers visited the Hoge rooftop and took photos. They shared the images with KIRO Radio, which appear to show that a portion of the base of the old tower remains in place nearly 90 years later.

In 1933, the Weather Bureau moved its Seattle staff to the new Federal Office Building at First and Madison. Since this building is only nine stories tall, the Storm Signal Tower was moved to the top of the also brand-new 23-story Exchange Building across the street.

KIRO Radio was invited by building management to visit the roof of the Exchange Building in June. Based on comparisons with old photos, it appears that a portion of the base of the 1933 Storm Signal Tower remains in place. With a commanding view of Elliott Bay, it’s easy to see why the U.S. Weather Bureau chose this spot (though the fact it was across the street from their offices was probably part of the choice, too).

It was from the Exchange Building that the granddaddy of storm signals was flown at least once – on October 21, 1934 – in advance of what turned out to be one of the biggest windstorms in the Northwest of the first half of the 20th century.

On that day, according to newspaper accounts, two red flags with a black center were displayed, which means “hurricane” or “gale.” Or, as the Coast Pilot put it in 1906, “a red flag with a black center indicates that the storm is expected to be of marked violence.”

Sure enough, there were reports of 59 mile-per-hour gusts in downtown Seattle, 70 mile-per-hour gusts at Boeing Field, and 90 miles per hour on the Washington coast. Newspaper headlines called it “THE WORST GALE IN HISTORY,” and reported at least 17 had died, including five fisherman who went down in the purse seiner Agnes off of Port Townsend.

Other deaths were caused by falling trees, downed electrical wires, and the collapse of a wall in a downtown Seattle hotel. Dozens of passengers on the famous steamer Virginia V escaped injury when that vessel struck the dock at Ollala during the storm.

By the 1950s, winds of a different kind were blowing: Winds of change. Radio had become a far more efficient way to share information about dangerous weather conditions, and so, around the country Storm Signal Towers gradually began to be phased out.

Atop the Exchange Building in downtown Seattle, the Storm Signal Tower was last shown on a nautical chart published in 1958 and it is assumed to have still been in use at that time. When the next edition of the chart was published in 1966, the tower was no longer shown.

In 2020, the National Weather Service website still includes general information about what’s now called the “Coastal Warning Display Program,” though there’s no listing of display locations.

At various times from the 1920s to the 1960s, there were similar Storm Signal Towers at many spots along Washington waters, including Pier 2 in Everett, the Ballard Locks, Portage Bay Yacht Club, Madison Park on Lake Washington, Leschi on Lake Washington, downtown Tacoma, Anacortes, Blaine, in front of the old marine hospital in Port Townsend, Tatoosh Island in Aberdeen, North Head at Cape Disappointment, and Neah Bay.

It’s unclear what, if anything, remains of the old Storm Signal Towers at any of these locations. If you have any insight or recollections to share, please get in touch via my contact information below.

Special thanks to Glen Conner of Kentucky for his research on U.S. Weather Bureau activities in Seattle, which was published in 2006 by the National Weather Service.

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News and read more from him here. If you have a story idea, please email Feliks here.

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