COBWEB CORNERS: Communicating from the Peak

By Mel McFarland

       In the 1870s and '80s, when the military had a weather station at the summit of Pikes Peak, there were problems getting the information down. The men took weather readings every four hours. The reports were relayed to an observer in Colorado Springs each day using mirror flashes, like in the Civil War. That information then went to Washington, DC. This system, however, did not always work well due to limitations caused by Mother Nature.
       In 1884, these limitations caused a major crisis. Normally, five or six men were stationed at the summit, and they nearly ran out of food as a series of storms kept them close to the station. The normal resupply was cancelled due to the weather. In addition, they had no way to let anyone in Colorado Springs know, much less go hunting for any game!
       The crew survived but, once the situation was over, they contacted headquarters in Washington, D.C., to reach some solution to their problem. The weather and isolation was not unique to just this weather station! There were many suggestions about how to get their reports sent in. The next summer a crew was sent here to try some of the various ideas. The Navy had used flags for short distances, and had tried various forms of signal lights. But these were useless when the mountain was in clouds! It was concluded that a telegraph would be the answer. It took a while but eventually a line was built up the mountain. The soldier assigned to get supplies would follow the line and make repairs if needed. The poles were kept short and close enough to the ground for two reasons. The first was to make repairs easier, and the other is the biggest problem the line had, lightning. The higher the pole the more likely to get hit by lightning. The next problem was anchoring the poles, as the surface of the mountain is mainly rocks, and permafrost in the ground limited how deep a pole could be set. This problem also kept later attempts at telephones from working well. Even today, the main mode of communication is radio.
       In the days of the telegraph, the line was even used to help guide the soldiers returning with supplies when the occasional storm came along. A blizzard on Pikes Peak even happens in the middle of the summer, as even modern tourists have learned!