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Heliograph routes of the 1890 Practice

Northern Shoveler, San Antonio NM, February 10, 2011

On May 15th, 1890, and the Army's Department of Arizona had just completed a major heliograph practice, the largest the world had ever seen.

The date was May 15th, 1890, and the Army's Department of Arizona had just completed a major heliograph practice; it was, in fact, the largest the world had ever seen. I call it the "Volkmar Practice", after the man responsible for it, Col. Wm. J. Volkmar, the Assistant Adjutant General and Chief Signal Officer for the Department of Arizona. Although the practice lasted only sixteen days, preparations for it took months of reconnaissance and preparation. Involved in the long range signaling maneuvers were twenty-five heliograph stations stretching from Whipple Barracks near Prescott to Fort Stanton near Ruidoso, New Mexico. My guess is that close to two hundred men were involved, both cavalry and infantry.

Best known of these men today was, perhaps, John J. Pershing, a young lieutenant who was in charge of the Fort Stanton heliograph station during the maneuvers. "Black Jack" Pershing was later named General of the Armies of the United States; only George Washington was ever similarly honored!

Another man, long since forgotten, but deserving special recognition was Corporal Daniel Williams of the 10th U.S. Cavalry, one of two "Buffalo Soldier" regiments. He is singled out because of his race, he, apparently being the only known black signalman placed in charge of a heliograph station. This occurred during the practice at the very busy Fort Cummings station when its officer in charge fell seriously ill and had to be transported to Fort Bayard for treatment. Williams was commended in a report of the station activities written by the officer. I hope to present this evidence to the Bureau of Land Management in New Mexico for consideration of the unnamed hill manned by Williams' detachment being named for the corporal. Fort Cummings is now a national park, and the hill is in sight and within easy hiking distance from the fort.

The heliograph is a remarkable instrument using one mirror, and frequently two, for flashing coded signals over great distances. The sun is its light source, and its projected rays are interrupted into short and long flashes. These "dots and dashes" are made by the opening and closing of a shuttered screen as with a signal light on a ship, or by quick movements of a mirror hinged on its sides. Code, similar to the Morse Code of today, was used. The instrument can transmit as far as the eye can see. For greater distances, intermediate mountaintop stations are necessary. For example, communications between Ft. Whipple and Ft Verde (at Camp Verde) required two intermediate stations: Bald Mountain (we now call it "Glassford Hill") and Squaw Peak.

The distance, between Whipple and Fort Stanton was well over 400 miles, and required eight intermediate stations: Bald Mountain, Baker's Butte, Mt. Reno, Mt. Graham, and Bowie Peak in Arizona, and Camp Henley, Fort Cummings, and San Andreas in New Mexico. Branch lines were made to Forts Bowie, Lowell, and Huachuca in Arizona and Bayard in New Mexico. Some of the mountain stations had no names, so names of nearby encampments or forts were used.

From Whipple, Glassford, and the "talking mirrors" by James H. Riddle, January 16, 2000

clipped March 25, 2009

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