James Edward Church Papers

Identifier: NC96

Scope and Contents

The Church papers represent the life's work and love of James Edward Church, professor of Classics at the University of Nevada and the man known as the "father of snow science." Represented are materials documenting his teaching career at the University, his love of art and art history, and the science of snow surveying and stream forecasting. The collection also contains some of his personal papers, including correspondence and awards. A small grouping of papers of Florence Humphrey Church is included.

The collection was divided into twenty-two series, including personal and scientific correspondence; series representing major organizations to which Church belonged such as the American Geophysical Union, International Commission of Snow, and Western Snow Conference; snow survey activities for Mt. Rose, Soda Springs, Humboldt River, and the Nevada Cooperative Snow Surveys; international snow survey projects for India, Argentina, Russia, and Switzerland; materials related to Church's classes in classics and art history; manuscripts of articles by Dr. Church and other scientists; some personal materials; papers of Florence Humphrey Church; artifacts, mostly related to snow surveying; and photographs.

Dr. Church was a prolific correspondent who kept copies of his outgoing letters as well as those he received. Correspondence is scattered throughout the whole collection but the bulk is located in Series 1 and 2, Personal and Professional Correspondence. "Personal" correspondence is somewhat of a misnomer as the series also includes some letters from colleagues which were not associated with any particular professional project or organization. Nevertheless, Series 1 does provide much information about Dr. Church's personal life through communication with his family, friends, former students, and his activities outside the University. His family letters also provide indirect insight into his professional life through discussion of his oversees adventures. Family correspondents included Florence Humphrey Church (who vacationed with the children in California on several occasions); his sons, Willis and Donald, and occasionally their wives; and his parents and siblings in Michigan.

In addition to formal letters, Series 1 includes Dr. Church's unique series of New Year's cards which were sent to an extensive list of recipients. The earliest card in the collection dates from 1927 and includes a quotation from Knud Rasmussen. The cards always featured either a small piece of Dr. Church's prose or fragment of literature which reflected his activities and philosophy. They were inspirational in nature, although not religious. Occasionally the card had a photographic or sketched image - once the Tahoe Tree House appeared; another featured a portrait of Dr. Church.

Series 2, Professional Correspondence, also includes both incoming and outgoing letters, all from professional colleagues. There is some overlap between correspondence in this series and those that follow, for example, with Series 3, "American Geophysical Union" so researchers should consult all appropriate sections.

Following these two series of correspondence are sections corresponding to the many professional interests of Dr. Church, including professional organizations, individual snow surveys, the Mt. Rose Observatory, and international snow survey projects. These series include correspondence, professional papers, conference proceedings and reports, and material related to administration of the organizations. In addition, there is a series containing materials related to Dr. Church's teaching activities at the University of Nevada. The collection contains an extensive collection Dr. Church's manuscripts, as well as many articles written by other authors in his field.

Some personal materials are included in this collection. Personal letters were filed in Series 1 while other personal materials are in Series 18. They include date and address books; awards, honors and tributes, including Dr. Church's Distinguished Nevadan award; financial records; Ward and Florence's marriage certificate; high school and college school records; early school teaching contracts from Michigan; diplomas; clippings and biographical notes about Dr. Church; information about the Nevada Art Gallery; and some correspondence with Nevada Suffragist, Anne H. Martin.

Mrs. Church played an important leadership role in women's organizations in Reno and at the state level. Series 19 contains records she created or received from the National Federation of Women's Clubs, Nevada Federation of Women's Clubs, and the Nevada State Equal Suffrage Association conference (1895). The series includes a manuscript written by Mrs. Church about her winter trip to Mt. Rose in 1904. A few pieces of Florence's personal correspondence were integrated into Series 1, Personal Correspondence of J.E. Church.

Two last series are significant. Series 21 contains artifacts, primarily snow surveying equipment. Additional artifacts are on display in the lobby of the Church Fine Arts Building on the campus of the University of Nevada, Reno.


  • 1869-1964


Conditions Governing Access

Collection is open for research. Materials must be used on-site; advance notice suggested. Access to parts of this collection may be restricted under provisions of state or federal law.

Biographical Note

James Edward Church

James Edward Church, Jr., was born in Holly, Michigan on February 15, 1869 to James Edward and Mary Eisenbrey Church. He received an A.B degree in Classics from the University of Michigan in 1892, and an offer that same year to teach classics at the University of Nevada in Reno. There he taught courses in the appreciation of literature and beauty in art and nature, and Latin and German. He attended the University of Michigan in 1898-99 to work on a graduate degree and attended the University of Munich from 1899-1901, where he was awarded his Ph.D. The Churches returned to Reno in 1901 where he taught classics and art history until his retirement in 1939.

Dr. Church, called "Ward" by his friends and relatives, married his college sweetheart, Florence Humphrey, on July 2, 1894. They had two children: Willis Humphrey Church, (d.1969); and Donald E. Church. Willis received a bachelor of arts degree in 1923, bachelor of architecture degree from the University of Pennsylvania in 1927, and a master of architecture in 1933. In 1930 he co-authored the book Masterpieces of Architecture in the United States with Edward Hoak (Scribner). Although a brilliant artist/architect, Willis was an alcoholic who spent many years at the Napa State Hospital in California. Donald was married to Pearl Church and was a transportation expert who held a federal government position in Washington, D.C. He had one son, Russell M. Church, a professor in the Walter S. Hunter Laboratory of Psychology at Brown University.

The Churches, along with many other friends in Reno, held a small parcel of land at Tahoe City where they spent summer vacations. Later, they purchased a lot at Cedar Tract Flat, one mile south of Carnelian Bay on Lake Tahoe's northwest corner. Son Willis designed a small house and large terrace around a pine tree on the lot; it became known as the Tree House and is standing today (1998).

Dr. Church later recounted to one of his students, C.J. Thornton, how he (Church) arrived by train in Reno and started toward the University. While walking down Commercial Row past the many bars, a dead man was thrown out in the street right in front of him. Church said he came "pretty near gettin' back to the depot and gettin' back on the train and leavin' after that." (Thornton, p. 40-41).

Despite this inauspicious beginning, Church grew to love the community of Reno. He was particularly fascinated by the Sierra Nevada Mountains, so utterly different from the terrain of his native Michigan. In 1895 he made the first mid-winter ascent of Mt. Rose on a dare and in 1901 spent Christmas vacation in the open at the crest of the Carson Range of the Sierra Nevada. Florence often accompanied Ward on his mountain climbs. The Churches relied heavily on the clumsy equipment of the time, although Mrs. Church made their sleeping bag lined with rabbit skins. Their published accounts tell of treks to the summit of Mt. Shasta in California, exciting rides zipping down a frozen logging flume following the Truckee River, and Ward's winter climb of Mt. Whitney in 1905 with guide Gustaf F. Marsh. Both Florence and Ward were members of the Sierra Club and published their mountaineering adventures in the Club's Bulletin.

Ward's intellectual fascination with the mountains and the snow which provided water supplies for the Truckee Meadows led him to explore the relation between snow and its water content. He and Samuel B. Doten of the Nevada Agricultural Experiment Station established a weather observatory in 1906 on the summit of Mt. Rose to record data on snow deposits, wind velocities, and runoff. Church and his associates built the observatory by hand, carrying all materials to the summit either by horseback or in backpacks.

Church developed the Mt. Rose snow sampler to accurately measure the water content of snow. The sampler consisted of a long hollow metal tube fitted with a serrated collar which removed a core of the snow pack. The core and tube then could be weighed to calculate the water content.

Between 1905-1912, Dr. Church established a system of snow courses around Mt. Rose and Lake Tahoe which allowed samples to be taken regularly at given points. Comparison of the snow and water content figures against the flow of streams in the area allowed him to forecast water availability. The wide-area forecasting of streamflow, known as the percentage or Nevada system, became a standard in western North America. In 1935, Congress created the Federal-States Co-Operative Snow Survey based on Church's method; it continues in use today.

Because of his involvement in and expertise with snow surveying, Dr. Church traveled around the world as a consultant. In 1926-1927 and 1927-1928, he accompanied the University of Michigan Greenland Expedition to observe effects of Greenland's weather on the North American Continent. In 1936, he journeyed to Europe to attend a conference on snow and glaciers in Edinburgh. Prior to the meeting, he visited many northern countries and then went on to Moscow. Unfortunately, he became gravely ill with pneumonia and was hospitalized for five weeks. While there he was cared for by Marian Stone and Bob Merriman, University of Nevada students studying in Moscow. He also received excellent care from Russian medical personnel which made a life-long impression on Dr. Church.

Church returned to Russia in 1945 at the invitation of the Soviet Academy of Sciences. There, he conducted a session of re-building Russia's ice-snow science, visited a collective farm, and made many friends.

The Indian government requested Dr. Church's help in 1947 in establishing snow surveys which could provide forecasts to regulate its large reservoirs at the southern base of the Himalaya Mountains. This project was fraught with difficulties: there were few statistics on previous snowfall and streamflows, equipment had to be ordered from out of the country, transportation to the proposed survey sites was difficult, and most important, it required the cooperation of India and Nepal (which possessed most of the stream sources) and Pakistan (which had the streamflow). Church utilized a party of young scientists for his expedition. Called his "Church Boys," many corresponded with Ward for the rest of his life. The physical difficulties were great, especially considering that Dr. Church was 78 years old but his sense of humor was not impaired. His diary entry of April 20, 1947, relates: "Rode every foot. Paths as steep, bridges as rickety as ever, and doctors and undertakers remote" (Boardman, p. 14). Dr. Church demonstrated that snow surveys were feasible in India and Nepal and succeeded in laying out a complete snow course to provide high level precipitation records to compare with those of lower hill stations.

In 1948, Dr. Church traveled to Argentina to consult with the government's Division of Water Resources. His initial ten day contract was extended to eleven months and his visit encompassed the entire stretch of the Argentine Andes. Snow surveying in the Andes was, like that of India, an international venture with water sources in one country and their outlets in another. Dr. Church, a peace-loving man, noted:

"Thus, barrier ranges and trunk streams merge national interests like children in a family. My wanderings have become adventures in international peace. At the end of the rainbow I sought snow and found friendship." (Boardman, p. 19)

Dr. Church held many important positions related to the science of snow surveying and received many honors. In 1905, he was appointed meteorologist by the University of Nevada at the Nevada Agricultural Experiment Station. He was director of the Nevada Cooperative Snow Survey from 1918-1926. He was a member of the American Geophysical Union and Chairman of the Research Committee on the Hydrology of Snow. Church was the founder and first president of the International Commission of Snow, organized in 1933. He spoke extensively and was a prolific author of articles recounting his findings (see Special Collections for a list of his articles). He was given an honorary L.L.D. from the University of Nevada in 1937 and, in 1958, received the Distinguished Nevadan Award. In 1980, the U.S. Board of Geographic Names named the north summit of Mt. Rose "Church Peak" in honor of Dr. Church and a marker was erected on the Mt. Rose Highway, commemorating the 75th anniversary of the establishment of the Mt. Rose Weather Observatory.

Dr. Church worked for many years to establish an art museum on the campus of the University. He was opposed in this effort by University Regent Silas Ross, who was able to prevent the establishment of a campus art gallery. Dr. Church was a principal figure in the subsequent effort to found an art museum off-campus, called the Nevada Art Gallery (Terry, pp. 232-233). When a new fine arts building was constructed on campus, the ashes of Dr. and Mrs. Church were interred in the cornerstone and the building named the Church Fine Arts Building (Ross, p. 544).

Quiet and unassuming, he was the essence of the Renaissance Man, with his interests in science, the classics, and art. Dr. Church died in Reno on August 5, 1959 at the age of 90. Sources:

Boardman, Horace P. "Dr. Church's Foreign Travels." Speech presented to the Western Snow Conference, Reno, Nevada, 1948. Dr. Church was to receive a special citation of merit for his contribution to snow surveys and the hydrology of snow at this conference but was unable to be present because of his work in Argentina. Boardman accepted the award on behalf of Dr. Church and recapped Church's travels. Correspondence, reports, and other items within the J.E. Church collection. Gorelangton, Tim. "The Snowman: Dr. James Church Jr.," in Washoe County Historical Society Rambler. Vol. 3, no. 3, Fall, 1979, pp. 68-71.. Ross, Silas E. Recollections of Life at Glendale, Nevada, Work at the University of Nevada and Western Funeral Practices. Reno: Oral History Project, University of Nevada System, 1970. Terry, Alice. Recollections of a Pioneer: Childhood in Northern Nevada, Work at the University of Nevada, Observations of the University Administration, 1922-1964, WICHE, and Reno Civic Affairs. Reno: Oral History Project, University of Nevada System, 1976. Thornton, Clarence J. C.J. Thornton, Entrepreneur: Agriculture, Business, Politics. Reno: Oral History Program University of Nevada System, [1983].

Florence Humphrey Church

Florence Humphrey Church was born in Michigan in 1869. She attended the University of Michigan until her junior year when she left to enter the newly developing Y service as secretary at Bay City, Michigan. In 1894 she married James Edward Church, Jr. and moved with him to Reno, Nevada. She received her B.A. and M.A. degrees from the University of Nevada.

Florence and Ward had two children, Willis and Donald.

In 1897 Florence's mother, Mrs. Phebe Humphrey, also moved to Reno where she lived with the Church family until her death on May [1], 1933 at age 85. Phebe was a native of St. Clair, Michigan, born on May 28, 1848. Mrs. Humphrey was a member of the Women's Christian Temperance Union, the Women's Relief Corps, the Elderberry Club, and several women's "circles" at the Reno First Baptist Church. Her husband Willis, who died in 1896 or 1897, was for many years the assistant adjutant general of Michigan and held the commission of captain in the Civil War. He was the author of a history of the Civil War, called The Great Contest.

Florence was deeply religious and she and Dr. Church were active members of the First Baptist Church. Florence was a leader in civic and community affairs and was a moving force in women's suffrage campaigns in Nevada. She was founder and president of the Nevada Woman's Faculty Club, vice-president of the University of Nevada Alumni Association, president of the Reno Twentieth Century Club, and vice-president of the Nevada Suffrage Association and Women's Christian Temperance Association. She was president of the Nevada Federation of Women's Clubs and their national director, founder and vice-president of the Intermountain and Coast Federation of Women's Clubs, and active in the Mary S. Doten Mother's Club.

Florence often accompanied her husband on his winter camping trips in the mountains and wrote of her experiences in the Sierra Club Bulletin.

Florence died on Feb. 5, 1922. The Reno Evening Gazette (Feb 6, 1922, p. 8) reported that she was stricken with paralysis in the fall of 1921 while watching a football game and was confined to her bed until her death. Her ashes, along with those of her husband, were entombed in the cornerstone of the Church Fine Arts Building. Her mother lived on after her and helped Dr. Church care for his children and household.


Nevada State Journal. February 6, 1922, p. 4. Nevada State Journal. May 2, 1933, p. 6. Reno Evening Gazette. February 6, 1922, p. 8. Reno Evening Gazette. May 1, 1933, p. 10. "In Memoriam: Florence Humphrey Church, 1869-1922." Nevada Historical Society Papers III (1921-1922): pp. 185-187.


73.125 Linear Feet (80 boxes)

Language of Materials








James Edward Church, Jr. (1869-1959) was a Ph.D and classics professor at the University of Reno, Nevada. Collection contains Church's personal and professional correspondence to and from people and organizations connected with snow surveying, notes, reports, manuscripts (published and unpublished); also personal mementos, diaries, maps and artifacts. Also included is Florence Humphrey Church's correspondence with the Nevada Federation of Women's Clubs.


Arranged into the following series: 1) Personal Correspondence; 2) General and Scientific Correspondence; 3) American Geophysical Union; 4) International Commission of Snow; 5) Western Snow Conference; 6) Other Conferences; 7) Mount Rose Observatory and Agricultural Experiment Station; 8) Soda Springs Snow Survey Project; 9) Nevada Cooperative Snow Surveys; 10) Humboldt and Little Humboldt River Projects, Nevada Cooperative Snow Surveys; 11) California Cooperative Snow Surveys; 12) Other National and Canadian Snow Surveys; 13) International Snow Survey Projects; 14) Hydrology; 15) Classics Studies and Art History; 16) Church's Manuscripts; 17) Other Manuscripts; 18) Personal Materials; 19) Florence Humphrey Church Materials; 20) Postcards, Scrapbook; 21) Artifacts; 22) Photographs

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Donated in 1959 to the Special Collections Department after Dr. Church's death. Letters to H. P. Boardman, stream flow forecasts, and articles about Church's work received from David Doughty in July 1992.

Related Materials

For office records of Western Snow Conference, see Special Collections manuscript collection NC442.

Separated Materials

The collection contains several hundred photos illustrating Church's professional activities, especially snow surveying. These photos have been transferred to the photo archives of the Special Collections Department as collection number UNRS-P2004-18.

Donors to J. E. Church Processing Project

The Special Collections Department would like to thank the following individuals, businesses, and organizations for their financial assistance in 1963 for the initial processing of the J. E. Church papers:

INDIVIDUALS: F.R. Albert L. Harold Anderson Manes Barton John Dierdorff Fred Fletcher M.M. Ilch Joseph F. McDonald Fred Oldendorf Wilbur D. Simons Ed Slingland Paul A. Yetter

BUSINESSES: California Electric Power Company California-Pacific Utilities Company Idaho Power Company Pacific Gas and Electric Company Pacific Power and Light Company Public Service Company of Colorado Sierra Pacific Power Company Utah Power and Light Company Western Snow Conference

Guide to the Papers of James Edward Church
Susan Searcy, with assistance of Becky Richards
February 1998
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
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Repository Details

Part of the University of Nevada, Reno. Special Collections Department Repository

Mathewson-IGT Knowledge Center
1664 N. Virginia St.
Reno Nevada 89557-0322 USA
775-682-5724 (Fax)