World's first snow surveyor

Steve Hale, acting as "Dr. Church," checks the snow at Mt. Rose Ski Tahoe. 

Photo by Mary Thompson 

"Nature will tell you things if you but question her and open her eyes," University of Nevada Professor Dr. James E. Church, the world's first snow surveyor.

 by Mary Thompson, outpost staff

In 1906, a professor from the University of Nevada, Reno devised the world's first snow surveying equipment that would measure water content; an important gauge for the arid western United States.

It was a butter sampler that gave Dr. James E. Church the idea to drill a core sample from the snow and weigh it for water content calculations.

Acting in character as Dr. Church, U.S. Forest Service Natural Resource Specialist Steve Hale tells the history.

Dressed in flannel, with snowshoes strapped to his feet, "Dr. Church" was seen in the Saturday afternoon sun taking snow samples at the Mount Rose Ski Tahoe.

"Have you seen a group of students wandering around here?" he asked. "I hope they're not lost, it's a long walk up from Callahan's ranch (in the valley)."

Posing as the professor who died more than 50 years ago, Hale explained that it was an argument with loggers that inspired Church to measure the snow.

An insatiable need for lumber to support nearby mining operations in the last half of the 19th century turned Tahoe's thick pine forests into a field of stumps.

Loggers contended that cutting the thirsty timbers helped increase the Tahoe Basin's snowpack.

Hale said Church disagreed, claiming that Tahoe's giant conifers had no negative affect on the water content.

He called the fight over the water the "Tahoe Wars." His steel invention that weighed the snow's water content helped him win the battle.

Adjusting his wool cap, Hale pulled out a metal stake much like the one used by Church at the beginning of the 20th century.

Picking an untouched patch of snow, Hale wrenched the stake into the snowpack. The sample was set on a scale.

By weighing the cylinder, Church was able to determine the water content and predict run off in the spring. He was also able to prove that the loggers were wrong.

"The water content is about 22 percent," Hale said, reading his measurement Saturday. "It's kind of like Sierra cement &emdash; now that's a catchy phrase."

Church, who taught Latin, German and fine arts at UNR, was not a scientist by education.

Science was a hobby that blossomed from his love of the outdoors.

In 1896, Church was the first white man to stand on top of Mount Rose's lofty 10,800-foot summit in the winter months. A traditionalist, he used snowshoes instead of skis.

During his travels to the top, he started recording the snow conditions and developed the "Mount Rose Snow Sampler."

Almost 100 years later, it's still in use.

"The calculations are more mathematical now," Hale said. "But they still use (Church's Snow Sampler) to test the data &emdash; his calculations were about 90 percent accurate."

Hale's performance as Dr. Church is part of the Ski with a Ranger program at Mount Rose Ski Area. Ski with a Ranger is free and offered Saturdays throughout the winter at 1:30 p.m. at the bottom of Lakeview chair lift. Other program topics include wildlife, fire and archeological presentations.

On the Web

Tahoe snowpack in inches

Toiyabe National Forest

Posted March 27, 2000
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