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.
One 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
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.
When 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.
Realizing 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.
But 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 giant hailstones.
Cline 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
When Congress created the Weather Bureau in 1890, Cline left the Army
and became Galveston’s
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.
© Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" March
24, 2011 column, modified May 6, 2015
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