The High Life

Weather observers at Blue Hill Observatory and Science Center in Milton have performed uninterrupted climate research for the past 130 years, recording the highest seasonal snowfall just last year.

By John Galluzzo • Photography by David Winthrop

There are colder places, and there are hotter places. The weather observers at Milton’s Blue Hill Observatory may not record record extremes for rain or snow or wind (though sometimes it feels like they should), but the story that has flowed outward from the peak of Great Blue Hill in Milton for the past 130 years has never been dull. Nor has it ever been, or can it ever be, taken for granted.

“Blue Hill Observatory has the longest continuous climate record in the United States and is an important location for climate research because of it,” says observer Rob Millette. “We are able to track a variety of weather data dating back to the 1800s and continue the same processes that they used to record weather data when the observatory started.”

He’s not kidding.

“We’re, in many cases, using the same exact techniques and in some specific cases the same exact instruments that were used when this place first opened,” says Chief Observer Brian Fitzgerald. “For instance, we have the oldest working mercury barometer [to our knowledge] in the western hemisphere, which was actually purchased by our founder, Abbott Lawrence Rotch, back in 1887.” Rotch, who was often the sole U.S. representative to the International Meteorological Committee meetings in Europe, brought the barometer home from London. “We’ve been using it every single day since January 1, 1888,” says Fitzgerald. Newer barometers (which Blue Hill also has) give constant real-time updates on the air pressure but the official reading comes from the ancient hand-built tool Rotch so proudly brought across the Atlantic.

Rotch, himself, was a meteorology progeny. Born in 1861, he was just 23 when he had the idea to build the observatory on Great Blue Hill. Scanning the coast from Maine southward, he realized that the hill, at 635 feet, was the highest point within 10 miles of the ocean along that stretch. He had been gathering weather data at his home in Boston since his teens, becoming a “weather geek” just as the science of meteorology was beginning to grow. But he had one thing most of his geeky brethren did not—a mass of personal wealth, dating back to Quaker merchant ancestors on Nantucket. Rotch not only delivered the barometer, he built the observatory with his own personal funds and the help of his brother, who was an architect.

The building was completed by the end of 1884. Weather data recording started on February 1, 1885, and it has never stopped.

That’s not to say that there have not been threats to that effect. “The observatory’s only had four operators in 130 years,” says Don McCasland, program director for the observatory. “It started as a totally private thing with Abbott Lawrence Rotch,” says McCasland, noting that upon Rotch’s death, operations were passed on to Harvard University. “Harvard ran it until 1959 and the National Weather Service took over in ‘60 and ran it until 1999. Then we took over.”

The “we” of which McCasland speaks is the Blue Hill Weather Observatory Club and Museum, which was founded in 1981 in order to preserve the historic process of manual weather data recording at Blue Hill. “There was discussion about moving the data recording to Norwood Airport and Logan Airport and shutting down Blue Hill Observatory,” says McCasland.

The timing couldn’t have been better. The observatory was approaching its centennial anniversary, and the club focused its efforts on getting it named a National Historic Landmark. Working with the Metropolitan District Commission in the 1990s (part of today’s Department of Conservation and Recreation), the club secured funds to refurbish the entire building. The problem was that the grant specified that the building must be open to the public for tours. “The National Weather Service wasn’t interested in doing that, and neither was the state, so the club said, ‘We’ll do it!’” says McCasland. “We officially took over on May 1, 1999.” The nonprofit organization now pays two fulltime employees, Fitzgerald and McCasland, who run educational tours and, most importantly, keep the long compilation of weather data rolling in.

Three observations are made each day, at 7 a.m., 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. In years past, observers worked into the evening hours. But they also used to live on site. That is no longer the case at Blue Hill, though it is at New England’s other famous observatory atop New Hampshire’s Mount Washington, which was where Fitzgerald worked before taking the job at Blue Hill.

“The beauty of this job is that I get to go home at the end of the day,” says Fitzgerald. “Observers at Mt. Washington do weather observations every single hour of the day, 24 hours a day. And when you’re on shift, you’re there for eight days at a time; living there and working twelve hour shifts.”

Rotch knew that while his observatory was only 635 feet above sea level –one-tenth of the elevation of Mt. Washington –it had something special about it, in that its weather is affected by the ocean. He designed the observatory to be free of governmental control; a place of unfettered experimentation.

“The observatory was home to the first research on cloud climatology, the first aerial weather observations by using kites and the headquarters for the American Meteorological Society. There was also much advancement in radio communications including the first radiosonde, an upper air observation platform that radios its information back to the observatory,” says Millette, who notes that the observatory’s research collaborators have included Harvard University, the National Weather Service and the United States Air Force.

On any given day, the observer on duty, or an intern in training, must focus on getting three observations recorded. “If we don’t have enough volunteers for the day I have greeted visitors and given tours myself if I have completed enough of my work,” says Millette. “But for the observer, the observations must take precedence to all other work in the observatory.” For Fitzgerald, Millette and longtime observer Bob Skilling of Hingham, who held the chief observer position for many years, that’s not really a concern, as they know they won’t stray from their duties.

Skilling started observing and logging the weather at his home in 1960. After a two-year stint in the army from 1962 to 1964, he applied for a part-time civil service position at the observatory, and got it. He’s still logging data today from the same seat. The weather observation part of the job is in their blood.

Looking back through history, it’s easy to consider what may have been Blue Hill’s most significant weather moment Was it the great storm of November 1888? The Portland Gale of 1898? The Hurricane of 1938? The Blizzard of 1978?

“Last winter will easily be one of the weather moments I will never forget,” says Millette. “We broke several records and the run up to finally breaking the seasonal snowfall total was a great time for forecasting. The amount of snow that fell from the end of January through February was simply unprecedented and something I may never see again.” Fitzgerald agrees.

“It was really something to have experienced last winter, which was challenging and really exciting on a lot of different fronts,” says Fitzgerald. “The winter as a whole was just so outside the norm. We had something like three separate blizzards where we had significant snowfall, limited visibility and extremely gusty winds. All that combined to break our station record for the most snowfall in a winter season. So here I was, my second winter here, and we had the snowiest winter of all time since our records began on February 1, 1885.”

The data train keeps rolling, with a daily weather summary shipped out (emailed) to Boston-area broadcast meteorologists, governmental meteorologists working for the National Weather Service in Taunton, past observers, volunteers and anybody in the world who wants to be on the mailing list. Monthly analyses are computed and followed by annual summaries. Long-term trends can be traced back to 1885.

Students of all ages pass through the building, following meteorological scavenger hunts, taking readings from instruments and generally learning about weather in its many forms. And just about daily, as he leads schoolchildren and others in the educational programs, Don McCasland hears somebody invoke what small museums call the 60-mile rule: “I had no idea this place was even here!”

Not only is it here, and has been here for 130 years, but as long as McCasland, Fitzgerald, Skilling, Millette and the many members and supporters of Blue Hill Observatory are standing by, it will be here for a long time to come.

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