The tower shown at the right is the historic Weather Bureau storm signal tower on the waterfront at Southport, North Carolina. Dozens of these towers were built after 1898, when President McKinley ordered the Weather Bureau to implement a hurricane warning system for ships. The towers were known officially as coastal warning display (CWD) towers.
A single red pennant was flown for a small craft warning and two red pennants for a gale warning. For hurricanes the signal was two square flags, red with a black square in the center. At night, the signals were carried by three lights: red, white, and red. (Only two of the three lights survive on the Southport tower.) Red over white was a gale warning, two reds a storm warning, and all three lights together warned of a hurricane.
A more elaborate system of flags was used originally to indicate the current weather forecast, even if no storm was expected. Dave Martucci has posted a description of that system on the web site of the North American Vexillological Association. Use of the forecast flags faded after 1925, as radio stations took over the role of disseminating local weather forecasts.
The storm warning system and the CWD towers are obsolete today; the National Weather Service deactivated its Coastal Warning Network in 1989. The NWS web site has a description of how the system worked. The NOAA History web site has a photo dated about 1910 of one of these towers on the Delaware Breakwater at Lewes.
The city of Southport restored its tower as a memorial to Jessie Taylor, the woman who flew the signal flags from the tower from 1900, when it was built, until she died in 1962. As you can see, the tower now flies the Stars and Stripes. It stands in front of the Fort Johnston Officers Quarters, a historic building dating from about 1800.
In September 2005, the North Carolina Maritime Museum's branch at Manteo, just inside the Outer Banks, acquired Manteo's 1904 CWD tower and reinstalled it on the town waterfront (photo at lower right). By November 1, the museum had fully restored the tower, reinstalling and reactivating the original lights. Forecast flags are displayed daily, and storm warning flags are flown whenever they are appropriate.
How many more of these storm warning towers survive? Lighthouse Digest recently had a photo that included a very similar tower at the Coast Guard Station in Portsmouth, NH. There is a surviving CWD tower at Providence RI, and shown below is the tower at the Five Mile Point lighthouse in New Haven CT. But it is likely that many of the towers were removed after they were no longer needed. If you know of a surviving tower, I'd be happy to hear about it. Photos are also welcome.
Posted August 31, 2003. Checked and revised July 5, 2008. Site copyright 2008 Russ Rowlett and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.