The History of the Rochester Weather Station | News
When I visit schools, I’m often asked how I became interested in the weather. Observing the weather as a high school student and as a college student studying meteorology at Lyndon State College in Vermont played a very important role in my professional growth. Growing up in eastern Massachusetts, I had many opportunities to be an eyewitness to a number of major weather events like Hurricane Gloria in 1985, and the March “Superstorm” of 1993. I also had the unique opportunity and privilege to work at and intern at the Blue Hill Observatory, which holds the title for the longest, most homogeneous climate record in the United States. They’ve never missed a day of weather observations since April 1, 1885. Now that’s what I call dedication!
As I thought back to my days at the Observatory taking weather observations and monitoring the skies, I became curious about the history of our own weather station here in Rochester. It turns out that like Blue Hill our fair “Flower City” has a long history of weather observation as well! According to an article written by city historian Blake McKelvey, scientific observations of Rochester’s weather can be traced as far back as 1830. Equipped with a thermometer and a barometer supplied by the State Regents, Dr. E.S. Marsh, a well respected Rochester physician, collaborated with others interested in studying and understanding Rochester’s weather to take daily observations of high and low temperature, barometric pressure, rainfall, and wind direction. Armed with that rudimentary instrumentation, Dr. Marsh and his colleagues established Rochester’s first weather station. The location of this station was the Rochester Collegiate Institute on Chestnut Street. It didn’t take long for this weather station to gain recognition as one of the most reliable in New York State for making meteorological observations.
In the late 1850s, the Regents abandoned their program assembling New York state weather data, which meant a site change for the keeping of Rochester’s weather record. A number of volunteers submitted reports to keep the record going, but according to the City Historian, no one was more faithful or detailed in keeping a record of Rochester weather than Dr. Chester Dewey, a respected botantist. Dewey transferred his instruments to the University of Rochester in 1850 and continued his observations until his death in December 1867. Not too many cities in the United States can boast about having such an early, yet reliable record of its weather, since most cities did not establish official weather records until 1870, but Rochester can boast thanks to Dr. Dewey’s efforts!
It’s also thanks to the efforts of Dewey and his predecessors than Rochester was designated as one of the five cities in the state to receive an official weather station from the U.S. government. Established by the Army Signal Corps, this official station started keeping records on October 12, 1870. October 12th just so happens to be my birthday, so I soon won’t forget learning this detail! The station was opened in the old Reynolds Arcade and then was moved to the roof of the Powers Block, which at the time was Rochester’s tallest structure. This location proved perfect for measuring wind speed. In addition to an anemometer for measuring wind, the station came equipped with three thermometers and a barometer. It’s a far cry from the sophisticated electronic equipment housed in weather stations today, but that rudimentary setup served a useful purpose and even allowed for some of the first simple weather forecasts to be made! These forecasts were not the likes of what we know of today though. Instead, weather observers at the station downtown would hoist signal flags warning Rochester of threatening storms based on the visual weather observations they made.
When the responsibility of recording the nation’s weather transferred from the Army to the Department of Agriculture, the location for measuring Rochester’s weather changed yet again! In 1890, the station was moved into the Federal Building. It remained there until 1940 upon which time all operations were transferred to Rochester airport. Today, some 70 years later, those records continue uninterrupted maintained by the NOAA and the National Weather Service, but utilizing equipment that’s a little more sophisticated than what Dr. Marsh and Dewey could have ever imagined!
Most of us have heard the old George Carlin joke asking why we measure the weather at the airport when no one actually lives there. It’s actually a very good question though! We take it for granted that the airport now is the official location for taking Rochester’s weather observations. But that was not always the case. Through 1929, records were kept downtown with a sub-station at the airport. As aviation increased, and as the popularity of flying by the general public increased, officials in government recognized the need to assure the safety of airplanes, pilots, and passengers. As we all know, weather conditions make all the difference in the world for a plane to safely land or take off. This realization prompted government officials to centralize weather operations at airports across the nation. In 1940, the downtown station was closed, thus leaving the final resting place for Rochester’s weather station at the airport.
Today weather observations are taken by both man and machine. A system called A.S.O.S. (Automated Surface Observing System) generates an electronic record of temperature, humidity, barometric pressure, wind, and rainfall. While these observations require little to no human assistance, there are some things that still need that special touch that only a human can deliver. In spite of all the progress we have made with technology, no electronic method exists to measure snowfall. Thanks to a special agreement between the National Weather Service, and the Federal Aviation Administration, a human observer remains in Rochester contracted to augment automated observations recorded by ASOS and to measure snowfall.
Equipment and technology has changed dramatically over the years. Yet in spite of the location changes and changes in instrumentation, I think Dr. E.S. Marsh and Dr. Chester Dewey would be proud of the long standing weather record Rochester has maintained over the years. In fact, if they walked the Earth today, I think they may even crack a smile to see that some things, like the measurement of snow, and the scanning of the skies, have changed little since the Rochester weather record began some 180 years ago.