Chatham's Marine Radio Station Has Unsung Place In History
by Tim Wood
First of two parts
The large brick buildings along Orleans Road are hard to miss, standing out from the usual Cape Cod architecture like the proverbial sore thumb. Just as jarring is the field of antennae that sprout from the Forest Beach marsh, dominated by a 300-foot steel tower that seems poised to lead its smaller brethren on a march across the waters.
Although part of the town's landscape for decades, the marine radio facilities in Chathamport and South Chatham were, with a few notable exceptions, largely ignored by the community. "People knew it was a radio station, but people just weren't interested in it," said Thomas R. "Tim" Pennypacker, a former selectmen who recalled, as a youngster, donning a pair of earphones at the station to listen as his father, a ship's radio operator, tapped out a Morse Code greeting from the Indian Ocean.
Had people been interested, they would have discovered what was at one time the world's largest, best-known and busiest marine radio station, a communications center that participated in more than its share of historic and newsworthy events, from Charles Lindbergh's round-the-world flight to the last moments of the Hindenburg. With the town now poised to purchase both the South Chatham transmitting site and the Chathamport campus where messages were received, decoded and sent on to their intended recipients, that history may become a factor in determining the future of the properties.
The Chatham station was a direct descendant of the facility built along the outer beach in South Wellfleet by Guglielmo Marconi in 1901, which handled the first two-way wireless trans-Atlantic communication between President Theodore Roosevelt and England's King Edward VII on Jan. 18, 1903. Even then, the erosion that would eventually destroy the South Wellfleet site was evident (what remains is now part of the Cape Cod National Seashore). The Marconi Wireless and Telegraph Company of America set about finding a more stable location to handle increasing demand for wireless communications, then in hot competition with submarine cable companies.
Radio operator Francis Doane.
Photo courtesy of Lewis Masson
A site was chosen along Ryder's Cove, at the junction of Orleans and Old Comers road. It was sheltered, and its location 30 miles from the mainland -- and surrounded by water -- ensured no interference with transmission signals. Construction by the J.G. White Construction company began in 1914, costing a total of $300,000.
The original station included not only the 15 buildings still standing today, but six massive, 350-feet high steel masts that stretched in a line nearly as far as Harwich. The largest of the masts, located at the station site, towered 447 feet above sea level and was a landmark for fishermen and boaters until it was taken down in 1954. The other masts were dismantled in late 1919 and shipped to other marine radio stations in Tuckerton and New Brunswick, N.J.
During World War I, the military took over the Marconi facilities for security reasons. After the war, government officials, including then secretary of the navy Franklin Roosevelt, worried about allowing foreign ownership of such important communications facilities and forced Marconi to sell its U.S. assets to the Radio Corporation of America, a consortium formed in 1919 by General Electric, Westinghouse Electric, American Telephone and Telegraph, and the United Fruit Companies.
The role of the Chatham station -- which took the Wellfleet facility's call letters "WCC" for "Wireless Cape Cod" -- changed in the early 1920s. Originally designed for point-to-point communications with radio facilities in Germany, Norway and Sweden, it took over ship-to-shore communications in 1921; point-to-point activity was transferred to new RCA facilities on Long Island. Also in 1921, RCA installed the first commercial marine vacuum tube transmitter at the Chathamport station, significantly expanding its range, which now covered the entire Atlantic Ocean, the North Sea, the Indian Ocean, Mediterranean, Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico.
But the power being pumped out by the transmitter caused interference problems, so the transmitting facilities were moved to Marion and connected to Chathamport via an overland line. Occasionally, ice forming on the wires caused problems, according to William Ryder, who worked at the transmitting facilities when they were moved to South Chatham in 1947. Station personnel would be sent out to knock the caked ice off the wires or repair breaks. "The worst thing we feared was sleet on the wires," he said. That problem ended in 1937, when a newly-developed microwave system replaced the land lines. It continued to plague the transmitting antennae for many years, however.
After 1930, communications traffic increased dramatically. During its heyday, the WCC employed more than 30 people, most of them radio operators. Working around the clock, they handled as many as 1,000 messages a day; as many as 10 operators would be on duty during busy periods, some transcribing and sending up to 100 messages in an eight-hour shift.
All of WCC's communications were in International Morse Code, with telex coming along after 1950. The station handled all sorts of messages, according to Lewis Masson, a former Royal Air Force radio operator who came to WCC as a "wire man" in 1957. His job was to take messages transcribed by radio operators and posted on a circular stand and transfer them onto a punch tape -- later a computer terminal -- for transmission to their final destination, either through Western Union or RCA. He can still recall the call letters of ships and spoke enthusiastically about the collegial atmosphere among the workers in the operations center.
Most of the station's traffic was with ocean liners and commercial ships and consisted of radiotelegrams about arrival and departure times, cargo and other details. But the station also handled personal messages and provided hotel reservation and gift services as well; you could even subscribe to magazines through WCC. There were various classes of radiotelegrams; the most expensive, charged at a per-word rate, were those requiring rapid delivery via telegraph or telephone. When he began on the job, there were about a dozen "special handling" clients whose messages had to be delivered immediately, Masson said.
WCC's Place In History
"Whenever you saw that, you had to get on the phone and deliver it right away," he said.
Less urgent communications included night telegrams and sea letters, which were sent via mail after being transcribed. The station also provide news and weather updates, all by Morse Code, as well as pioneering a free medical service, known as MEDICO. If a ship at sea had a medical emergency, it could contact WCC, which would track down the nearest doctor and relay medical treatment. The service saved more than one life, said Masson.
The station employed the top men in the field, most of them drawn from the ranks of the military, and most inveterate radio buffs. William Ryder had built radios while growing up in Chatham and received encouragement from the men who worked at the station. He worked as a radio operator in the merchant marine before returning home to work at the South Chatham transmitting facility. "For me it was made to order," he said. "I was glad to get back to Chatham."
Lee Baumlin, a Harwich resident who still repairs old radios in his basement, worked at the station from 1962 until his retirement in 1992. He often worked the "500 positions," monitoring the 500 kilocycle frequency used for international distress calls. Operators had to monitor a number of marina radio frequencies, tuning the delicate instruments by hand. While many of the operators could transcribe or send Morse Code at 40 or more words per minute, he said they usually had to slow down for operators at the other end. He could recall taking as many as 100 messages during a shift.
"I figured it out once," he said. "The number of messages we handled in a day, there weren't enough minutes in the day. I don't know how we did it."
While Morse Code may seem antiquated in today's high-tech communications environment, it remained important right up until the station's closing in 1997. Baumlin said the operators in Chatham were the cream of the crop; even manufacturers of equipment brought them there to be tested. Most of those who worked at the station still have their old keys.
"Good quality code is like music to your ears," Baumlin said.
A good operator could tell a lot about a person just by the way they sent code, said radio operator William Pyne. "You could almost tell a person's nationality by the way they sent," he said. But, he added, "It was an occupation you had to like. Not many people could hack sitting there eight hours a day."
The station handled communications for many historic events. The most famous include Richard E. Byrd's two expeditions to the South Pole, the first around-the-world voyage by the Graf Zeppelin in 1929, Lindbergh's 1933 flight, and Howard Hughes' 1938 trans-global flight. The station also relayed weather information to Amelia Earhart and her navigator, Wiley Post, during their ill-fated attempt to fly around the world.
The station was also the last to communicate with the Hindenburg moments before it burst into flames above Lakehurst, N.J. in 1937. There are conflicting stories about this episode, however. In a 1980 letter, former station manager Ed Hammons wrote that radio operator Francis Doane, who was on watch at the time, said the station was not in direct communications with the airship before the accident, but had obtained information over a land line at the request of a German station. The German station reportedly refused to believe the message about the accident when it arrived in moments after the Chatham transmission.
What is certain is that the Hindenburg passed over Chatham at other times. Several months before the crash, it flew so low over the station in a thick fog that radio operators feared it would crash into the tall antenna. Fletcher Davis recalls his father calling him on the phone the afternoon before the accident to tell him to step outside and look up as the Hindenburg passed overhead.
Francis Doane figured in another important event: the highjacking, in 1961, of the ship Santa Maria in the South Atlantic by Portugese rebels. At first, the rebels maintained radio silence, ignoring the Morse Code messages directed as CSAL, the vessel's call letters. After Doane came on duty after midnight on Jan. 23, a reply finally came in from the Santa Maria.
"That was a big deal," Masson said. "They guy who held up the ship said he would communicate only with Chatham." The next week, some 8,000 words passed between the ship and WCC. It was one of the most frantic weeks ever at the station.
Along with the sources cited above, information for this story came from the March 4, 1986 issue of Sparks Journal, published by the Society of Wireless Pioneers, courtesy of William Fishback; RCA Marine Coastal Station Information, published by RCA, March 1968; and the National Register of Historic Places filing form for the Marconi-RCA Wireless Receiving Station.