New Hampshire’s Mount Washington is a small peak by world standards, but the 231 mph wind recorded on April 12, 1934 proved that it ranks at the top for bad weather.
The Mount Washington Observatory, where meteorologists measured the Big Wind, proudly calls itself the ‘Home of the World’s Worst Weather.’ A private, nonprofit scientific institution, the observatory succeeded the U.S. Signal Service, which conducted meteorological observations on Mount Washington from 1870 to 1892. The observatory can also claim to be the first weather observatory in the world. In 1885, it recorded the mountain’s record low temperature: minus 50 degrees Fahrenheit.
The mountain measures 6,288.2 feet, the tallest in the Northeastern United States, but it doesn’t even in the top 1,000 tallest mountains. Everest, for example, is 29,029 feet high, about four times as high as the New Hampshire mountain.
During the winter, the wind speed exceeds 100 mph — hurricane force — on about one every three days.
The Abenaki people called the mountain Agiocochook, or ‘Home of the Great Spirit.’ They believed the gods dwelt at the peak, and didn’t climb to it out of deference. In 1642, an Irish ferry operator named Darby Field climbed the mountain. Massachusetts Gov. John Winthrop described Field’s climb to the top of the ‘white hill’ in his journal. “They had neither cloud nor wind on the top, and moderate heat,” noted Winthrop.
Then in 1869, the Cog Railway opened to the summit of Mount Washington. A New Hampshire-born entrepreneur, Sylvester Marsh, designed and built the railway after getting lost on a hike up the mountain. People thought him crazy, and mocked the “railway to the moon.” Nevertheless, it worked, and President Ulysses S. Grant took a ride up shortly after it opened. “Man looks so small against the universe,” Grant said.
P.T. Barnum also went to the summit of Mount Washington aboard the Cog Railway. He gazed out at the spectacular view and exclaimed, “This is the second greatest show on earth.” (Though one wonders how many other things he said that about.)
The mountain sits at the convergence of three storm tracks from the Atlantic Ocean to the south, the southwest and the northwest. Westerly winds accelerate as they race up the mountainside. And low pressure systems develop along the warmer ocean in winter and collide with the colder Northeast air, causing storms to develop.
Because of its severe weather, Mount Washington has a reputation as the most dangerous small mountain in the world. On that April day in 1934, it indeed presented a danger to the five men hunkered down in the observatory.
The Record Gets Broken
The observatory had three staffers: Salvatore Pagliuca, Alex McKenzie and Wendell Stephenson. They had two guests, Arthur Griffin and George Leslie. The small building was chained to the ground.
When the men went to bed on the night of April 11, pressure was falling and winds were increasing rapidly to 136 mph. By the next morning it was obvious they were in the middle of a super-hurricane. Stephenson checked the instrument that recorded the wind speed and saw it was wrong. That meant the anemometer was iced over.
Stephenson suited up, grabbed a club and opened the door. The wind knocked him down. With the wind at his back, he climbed the ladder, clubbed the anemometer dozens of times and cleared the ice — an incredibly difficult and dangerous task. Then he went back into the station and checked the recorder. It showed a windspeed of 150 mph.
The men recorded frequent values of 220 mph, with occasional gusts of 229 mph. Then, at 1:21 pm on April 12, 1934, they recorded the extreme value of 231 mph out of the southeast. The Big Wind broke the world record.
To experience a similar wind, wrote one observer, you’d have to poke your head out of a 747 on takeoff.
Mount Washington Record Broken
The record held until 2010, when a review of climate data turned up a 253 mph gust on Barrow Island in Australia during Cyclone Olivia in 1996. But Mount Washington still holds the record for highest measured wind speed not resulting from a tornado or tropical cyclone. And the 231 mph gust is still the Northern Hemisphere and Western Hemisphere record for directly measured surface wind speed.
This story was updated in 2021. Images: Mount Washington from Intervale By Harvey Barrison – originally posted to Flickr as White Mountains_12 30 09_81, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10396490. Observatory chained to the ground By No machine-readable author provided. BenFrantzDale~commonswiki assumed (based on copyright claims). – No machine-readable source provided. Own work assumed (based on copyright claims)., CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=697156.