Capt. Joseph Brooks of Kennebunkport earned his nickname “Old Probabilities” by pioneering in the field of weather forecasting. His persistence in the face of skepticism, even among his co-owners at the Portland Steamship Packet Company, preserved profit and lives.
Capt. Brooks was of Portland, Maine. It was 1837 when he took Sarah Coes as his wife. She was the daughter of Kennebunkport sail maker, Benjamin Coes, who around 1795 had built the Federal house on Pearl Street now known as Tory Chimneys. Brooks worked in Portland and later in Boston, but he would call Tory Chimneys his home until his death in 1894.
Born in Auburn, Maine, in 1806, Brooks was an intellectually curious individual. In an interview conducted for the press in 1882, he related an early memory that illustrates his determination to learn. Proudly calling attention to a coverless copy of the New Testament, he told the reporter that he had used it to teach himself to read at the age of 12. He found the tattered bible on a beam in a sail loft where he worked as a child. “He rubbed the dust from it, put it in his pocket and in due time absorbed its contents into his mind and heart.”
He became especially interested in weather prediction in 1841 after attending a lecture given by Professor James P. Espy, the United States Government’s first official meteorologist and author of “Philosophy of Storms.” Espy theorized that storms advance eastward across the country and that a storm reported in New York could be expected on the Maine coast within a period of one to three days. Advances in telegraphy soon made it possible for weather reports to be received in good time for astute mariners like Brooks to pay heed to their warnings.
In 1844, when he co-founded the Portland Steam Packet Company, operating two propeller-steam freighters running opposite directions between Boston and Portland, storms were the greatest financial challenge he had to face. His insurance burden cut deeply into his profits. Within a few years commodious new side-wheel passenger steamships with cabins, finished in cherry and mahogany, were added to the line. They ran at night between Franklin Wharf in Portland and India Wharf in Boston and coincided with railroad schedules at either end. Brooks even had a piece of the Grand Trunk Railroad Station business before all was said and done.
Before 1850, against the better judgment of his business partners, Brooks had employed agents in New York, New Haven, Springfield, Boston and Portland to make observations of the state of the wind and weather and to send their findings to him every day over telegraph wires. If the weather looked bad in the morning up to three additional reports were made each day.
Brooks soon got a test case that brought them all around to his way of thinking. He later recalled the incident to a Boston reporter.
“On a certain Monday in the month of February 1852, I sent a telegram (telegrams on this subject passed daily between the Boston and Portland offices of the company) to the agent in Portland at 12 o’clock noon, to the effect that a heavy snow storm was raging in New York but that the weather continued fine in Boston. At four o’clock in the afternoon another telegram was sent, stating that the storm had reached Springfield, and the Boston boat would not leave her dock and that if the St. Lawrence (then a new boat) left Portland, she would find herself in the midst of the storm before the passage was half completed, Now sneers and jeers were in order. The Portland agent came to the conclusion that storms in New York had nothing whatever to do with the weather in Boston and Portland, or in between those points and sent his ship to sea.”
The St. Lawrence left Portland with a full freight and 307 passengers. The howling nor’easter Brooks had predicted met her off Portsmouth, N.H. Conditions grew worse and worse and by the time she reached Boston Harbor she was in serious trouble. She was adrift for three days losing her rudder and most of her cargo, but fortunately all her passengers were spared.
In fact, during the course of 37 years under the management of Brooks, the Portland Steamship Packet Company transported millions of passengers and not one was ever hurt or lost. The line had the best safety record by far, even though they carried much less insurance than any of the other companies and retained a higher percentage of their fares. By the time Brooks retired to Kennebunkport his system of using weather observations to reduce losses had been widely adopted by most Steam Packet Companies.