Herald of the Storms: Isaac Cline

Today’s post comes from Ashley Mattingly, an archivist at the National Archives at St. Louis.

Photograph of Isaac Cline. (National Archives at St. Louis)
Photograph of Isaac Cline. (National Archives at St. Louis)

During a time when formal scientific weather forecasting was in its infancy, Isaac Cline was a man with a penchant for predicting disasters.

Born in 1861, Cline was a perpetually driven man who joined the U.S. Signal Corps’s weather service in 1882. In 1891, when meteorologists were transferred to Department of Agriculture, Cline moved to the newly created U.S. Weather Bureau.

Cline had a medical degree from the University of Arkansas in 1885, a Ph.D. from Texas Christian University in 1896, and a passion for the study of weather conditions. He spent years observing and writing about the affects of weather and climate on people’s health and mortality.

In 1895 Cline shifted his focus to the practice of more accurately predicting temperature readings to benefit crop production. He also began to focus on disaster prediction, and during the Spanish-American War (1898) he established a storm-warning system along the Mexican coast to help protect the U.S. Naval fleet from hurricanes.

In April 1900, while Cline and his expectant wife, Cora May Ballew Cline, were living in Galveston, TX, with their three children, he successfully predicted the rupture of the Colorado River dam in Austin, TX, saving countless lives.

That September he predicted another impending disaster: a hurricane headed for Galveston.

Although he was unable to acquire cooperation from the central Weather Bureau office in Washington, DC, Cline followed his instinct and warned people housed along the beach and in lower elevations to relocate to higher ground.

Because the weather preceding the storm had been fair and many of the people in Galveston were enjoying vacations, not everyone heeded Cline’s warnings.

On September 8, 1900, a devastating category four hurricane hit Galveston. Over 6,000 people lost their lives, including Cline’s wife and unborn child. Cline later estimated that death toll would have been double had he not detected the oncoming storm and issued a warning.

Cline’s personal loss can be seen in the documents contained within his official personnel folder.

Weather Bureau Report, May 31, 1900. (National Archives at St. Louis)
Weather Bureau Report, May 31, 1900. (National Archives at St. Louis)

A personnel report for May 1900 lists his marital status, dependents, and next of kin: he listed his wife and daughters.

His report from November 1900 lists his marital status as “single (widower)” and his dependents as “three little daughters…”

Twenty days following the hurricane, Cline was “most highly commended” for alerting people to move to higher ground and for not leaving his post during the storm although “under great personal peril.”

In 1901 Cline and his daughters moved to New Orleans, where he remarried and served as District Forecaster. He was ultimately promoted to Principal Meteorologist.

He continued to collaborate with the Mexican Meteorological Service and served as Supervising Forecaster for the district which included Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Texas.

His passion for improving storm warning systems was a driving force through his career.

Weather Bureau Report, November 30, 1900. (National Archives at St. Louis)
Weather Bureau Report, November 30, 1900. (National Archives at St. Louis)

In 1903 Cline warned the citizens of New Orleans about an impending flood and encouraged the construction of a temporary levee extension, which saved the city from disaster. He also warned of a hurricane that hit New Orleans in 1915, and additional floods in 1912 and 1927.

Although he wanted to continue working, Cline was required to retire after 53½  years of service. He petitioned to extend his career, citing his ability to predict tropical storms and his desire to contribute to the development of the hurricane warning system.

Due to his age and length of service, however, he was forced to retire on January 1, 1936.

Isaac Cline’s official personnel folder documenting his extraordinary career is at the National Archives at St. Louis and is open to the public. Please visit our website to learn more about requesting this and other official personnel files of former civil servants.

One thought on “Herald of the Storms: Isaac Cline

  1. Great article! I have read Eric Larson’s book “Isaac’s Storm” and it was fun to see the real documents associated with Issac. Thanks!

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