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The Chicago, Duluth & Georgian Bay Transit Co.
aka - Georgian Bay Line

SS North American - SS South American - SS Alabama

Steamer SS South American in a canal

The SS South American was one of the last Great lakes ships to use CW
Photo courtesy of Tom Drake

Wikipedia has good general information on the history of the Georgian Bay Line and its three ships: The SS North American, the SS South American and the SS Alabama. This page will concentrate on these ships' radio operations and is included here as representative of Great Lakes ships in the CW era. Much of this information is from Thomas Drake, W4IWH who was a radio officer on the NA in the late 1950s, and who has maintained a strong interest in the history of these ships.

These passenger carrying ships were required to have CW capability and were users of CW long after the US and Canadian freighters had moved to radio telephone. CW capability was maintained at several of the shore stations to permit communication with the foreign ships that entered the lakes via the St. Lawrence Seaway.

Historical articles on the Great Lakes cruise ships South America (SA) and North America (NA) state that these ships had a double wireless systems. Based on scanning the Radio Service Bulletins, double wireless tends to imply 2 independent wireless stations. It also appears that each wireless station had to be licensed separately.

The December 1915 Radio Service Bulletin states that the SS North American was granted a license to operate on 300 and 600 meters. The equipment was Composite System and the owner of the station Goodrich Transit. The call letters were KRU.

The initial station license for SA (WEO) and NA (WEN) were before 1915 and not listed. 1913 was first year of service for NA and 1914 was the first year of service for the SA.

In January 1915, the SA entries (changes to existing licenses)

(KVW) Range 150 miles, system Marconi 240 meters; no regular hours, rates, 4 cents per word, 40 cents minimum per radiogram.

(WEO) Range 125 miles, system Marconi 120 meters, continuous service, 2 cents per word, 20 cents minimum per radiogram.

January 1915, the NA entry (change to existing licenses) Range 150 miles, system Marconi 480 meters.

In December 1915, the SA entry (change to existing licenses) KRU (new station), system Marconi 300, 600 meters meters, no regular hours

Image of the front cover of the Daily Radio News published on the SS South American

The image on the left was supplied by Tom Drake. The fine print indicates that it was published and sold by the ship's wireless operators.

In December 1915, the SA entry (changes to existing licenses) KVW was eliminated.

Initially, the wireless was on D deck (A Deck is top) at the rear of the ship in the Social Hall. In 1922, wireless offices were added to the SA and NA on top of the ship behind the smoke stacks. On the South American, at least, this wireless office was later replaced with a larger office which was present in the 1930s to 1967. The bulletins state that tube receivers were added to SA and NA at that time by Radiomarine.

Radio Service Bulletin, April 1, 1924, No 84 lists Great Lakes Ships that have been equipped with Vacuum tube receivers by RCA Radio Marine. The South American, North American, and Alabama are included in this list. No call letters with SA and NA while Alabama listed with call letters.

The May 1, 1924 (no. 85) lists the Great Lake ships operated by RMCA. Includes SA, NA, Alabama.

The number of wires in the Morse flat-top antenna changed over time. There probably is a correlation between the frequencies used and the number of wires in the antenna.

The SA and NA did not carry an auto alarm receiver. In 1934, many of the officer positions were staffed by 2 (6 hr on, 6 hr off) rather the usual 3 (4 h4 on, 8 hr off) to save expenses during the depression. Therefore, only 2 mates, 2 assistant engineers, 2 radio officers, etc. were required instead of 3.

The NA and SA were equipped in 1934 with Sperry gyro compasses and RCA radio direction finders in addition to the CW and AM radio equipment. Radar did not appear until after World War II.

Following the sinking of the Titanic and starting in July 1912, wireless was made mandatory. The wireless on the NA & SA in conformed to many of the 1912 laws (mentioned in FCC documents). That is:

1) Auxiliary power under supervision of wireless operators had to be present.

2) Direct communications between wireless and captain, pilot house, and engine room with a special wired telephone circuits.

3) Backup transmitters and receivers in case there was a failure of primary units.

4) Two licensed operators (20 WPM code, technical expertise, etc.) were required.

5) While underway one of the licensed operators must be on duty to maintain 24 hour watches. An operator was not required in port. Use of radio in port was often discouraged.

6) Spare parts for simple repairs.

The call letters of the ship was displayed with 4 code flags vertically behind the pilot house at required times.

The Radio Officers Page lists some of the radio operators who served on Georgian Bay Line boats.

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