the days before instantly-available color weather radar, Isaac Cline’s story sounded
like a Texas-size whopper.|
Cline had been assigned to Fort
Concho in the spring of 1885 as the officer in charge of the Army’s Signal
Service station. He oversaw the West Texas
cavalry post’s telegraph service, which constituted the only real-time link to
the outside world from that part of the state. He also took daily weather observations.
day that August, he wired his climate report to Washington: Conditions at the
fort were hot and dry. Nothing else going on, Cline walked from the fort to the
small town across the Concho River, San
Angelo. As he crossed the footbridge over the summer-sluggish stream, he heard
a loud roar.
At first he thought it could be distant thunder, but the
sky was clear in every direction. As he pondered the possibilities, a wall of
water nearly 20 feet high suddenly appeared upstream.
Running for his
life, Cline made it over the bridge in time to beat the roiling flood surge heading
in his direction, but a man crossing the river in a carriage was not as lucky.
As Cline watched in horror, a watery cliff crashed into a wagon, sending it and
its occupants tumbling downstream.
That was shocking, but what Cline saw
next was simply bizarre. No matter the tragedy that has just unfolded, men soon
began gathering along the river and pulling big fish from the water.
a two-foot catfish drifted by, motivated both by curiosity and the thought of
fresh fried fish, Cline reached into the water to grab the big whisker fish. What
happened next stunned the young Army scientist both literally and figuratively:
the water was freezing cold.
On a scorching summer day, something had
chilled the water to the extent that it had incapacitated the fish as surly as
if someone had tossed a stick of dynamite into the river. Cline landed his dinner,
but it took him a while longer to learn what had caused the sudden temperature
drop in the Concho.
The Signal Corps officer later found out that a giant
thunderstorm had pounded West Texas
about fifty miles above San
Angelo, dropping hail the size of ostrich eggs. Leaving spheres of ice piled
in three foot drifts, the barrage from above killed thousands of cattle. Hail-chilled
runoff from the intense supercell well beyond the horizon had put the Concho on
the rise and claimed several lives.
Though that 1885 storm proved deadly
for people and fish along the Concho River, only rarely does hail ever kill people.
But of only three known hail fatalities in the United States, two happened in
Texas: One in the early 1930s, the other on March
28, 2000, when one of three victims of a tornado that struck Fort
Worth died after being struck by a grapefruit-sized hailstone.
the highly unusual nature of the weather-caused fish kill he had observed, Cline
wrote on article on the storm and its aftereffect for the Monthly Weather Review,
a government publication. To Cline’s great annoyance, the editor rejected the
story as just another fanciful Texas brag.
Cline was not from Texas, and he had both experienced
the frigid river water and seen the stunned fish. To back up his claim, he checked
the records and located a documented report from the summer of 1877 in which hailstones
as big as oranges had killed a herd of ponies in Wyoming’s Yellowstone Valley.
He also found three other storms reported in 1881-1882 that left high drifts of
stayed at San
Angelo until March 1889 when the Army ordered his transfer to another weather
station: The Signal Corps facility at the busy port of Galveston.
When Congress created the Weather Bureau in 1890, Cline left the Army and became
first civilian meteoroligst. Ten years later, he was the official who tried to
warn the island city of the approaching hurricane that resulted in what still
stands as the nation’s deadliest natural disaster. |
Forty-five years later,
he told that story – along with the Concho catfish tale – in his memoir, Storms,
Floods and Sunshine.
March 24, 2011
Fish Tales | Texas
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