TAHOE/TRUCKEE, Calif. — I first came across the Storm King moniker in the 1980s while researching 19th century newspapers for information on Sierra winter storms. In the late 1800s it was common for editors to capture the reader's attention with headlines like “Railroad Battles Storm King.” The headline would be followed by a riveting account of heroic railroad crews fighting against the violent Storm King, who wielded weapons of heavy snow, deadly avalanches, extreme wind and biting cold. When wild weather overwhelmed the railroad, news articles would describe train blockades, derailments, and other calamities. Depending on the newspaper, sometimes the stories were accompanied by advertisements touting the “Storm King” brand of weather-proof boots and jackets for those who worked outdoors.
Years later I discovered the story about James Pollard Espy, the first official meteorologist to the U.S. government, who the press had dubbed “The Storm King.” According to one account, during his long, esteemed career, Espy became known as the “Old Storm King,” as much for his argumentative style as his significant scientific accomplishments. Born in 1785, Espy taught school in several states before settling in Philadelphia in 1820, where he transformed the city's Franklin Institute into the nation's vanguard of weather science. By 1836, Espy developed a theory that storms were caused by moist air heated by the earth's surface. It rises in a column that eventually cools, condenses and forms clouds. The so-called latent heat trapped within the air is released by condensation, which often leads to clouds, wind and precipitation. (Espy's concept of convection is now accepted as part of modern meteorology.)
These were challenging times for scientists attempting to study the physical processes and internal dynamics of weather systems. At the time, unpredicted storms often caused catastrophic loss of life and widespread damage, and pioneer weathermen were scrambling to figure out how improve forecasting. Even the rudimentary concept of the counterclockwise circulation of low pressure systems in the Northern Hemisphere was not proven. Scientists didn't know how storms formed or traveled. Prevailing thought held that storms traveled in the direction the wind blew. Even the brilliant Benjamin Franklin was at a loss to explain why winds during a storm blew from the northeast even as the low pressure worked its way northeastward from Philadelphia to Boston.
While Espy was developing his theory, William Redfield, a self-taught American weather aficionado, had been working on his own research. After visiting the aftermath of a hurricane that ravaged New England in 1821, Redfield observed that in one location fallen trees were toppled by a southeast wind, while trees further north had been blown down by winds from the northeast. That evidence convinced Redfield the tropical storms that sometimes walloped the East Coast were in fact massive whirlwinds that rotated as they surged up the Atlantic coast. For the next decade, he analyzed ship logs, interviewed shipmasters, and studied wind patterns. In 1831, his thesis containing the details of a storm's anatomy was published in the American Journal of Science. James Espy, however, vociferously disagreed with Redfield, arguing (incorrectly) that instead of winds rotating in a circular manner, they rushed in at great speed toward a storm's center where the rising column of air was strongest. Their heated debate went on for years.
William Redfield's postulate would later be verified with the establishment of the telegraph system, which enabled operators to report real-time information. By 1860, there were 500 stations across the United States telegraphing data to the Smithsonian Institute, which began producing America's first daily weather maps, and the science of forecasting had begun. Ironically, Redfield and Espy died without realizing each of them had contributed vital parts that led to a more advanced understanding of weather and storms. Perhaps more ironic is that as a weather enthusiast growing up in Philly, I never knew about Espy, the “Storm King from Philadelphia.”
— Tahoe historian Mark McLaughlin is a nationally published author and professional speaker. His award-winning books are available at local stores or at www.thestormking.com. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.