Recollections of Paul Copeland
WJG HF shortwave radio station of Memphis, TN is my topic. Many radio buffs
will recall the riverboat traffic in the old days of utility station monitoring.
The base stations would use a call up system list of boats to ascertain their
position several times a day and report other radio traffic on the inland river
waterways. WJG the first inland rivers radio-telephone station was started by
Captain William T. "Pop" Warner in the 1930's to assist the towboat operators on
the Mississippi, and other rivers in range, with their radio needs. The
station was owned by Warner & Tamble which was a partnership between Warner and
Mr. George Tamble. It was started as a joint venture towboat operation "Warner
& Tamble Inc." at port Memphis, TN.
Capt. Warner's remarks from a Memphis News article Feb 28 1974: "We formed in 1928 at Memphis at the foot of Union and became the oldest towboat firm in the city. We were known for several firsts; helped to introduce diesel power to the river craft, a major factor in the decline of the old steamboat. We had the first two-way voice radio and the first telescope cabin boat. We also had the first tow up the Mississippi River to Chicago in 1933. Before that the Illinois River was not navigable above a place called Starved rock. They made a big thing of it in Chicago, at the time my brothers were piloting, we were carrying a load of grain. They raised all of the bridges downtown Chicago in honor of the occasion."
The WJG station was originally located on a barge in the river, next to W&T Officewhich was also a barge. WJG was later moved to a much better location at the orchard on the Captains home location in East Memphis, a quiet location in a nice residential area on Vaughn Road.
I have had the ham radio call sign K4KCS since before the "WJG days." After I got a Second Class Radiotelephone license I worked for W&T there at the orchard from 1956 thru the Summer of 1958. We had mostly dipole and L type antennas, nothing of array design. They were supported by 70 foot power poles, regular pine variety. The transmitter was a real old-timer, a Western Electric job that dated to pre-war days. It was housed in several 6 foot racks, one rack for the antenna tuner, one main RF and modulator and the final rack was for rectifiers. This thing had a bunch of solenoids in the bottom of the RF & antenna racks that actuated large rods that went all the way to the top of each rack with a pair of large silver contacts that selected each fixed tuned channel. It was all operated by an old fashioned telephone dial. You just dialed the channel and it went CLUNK, CLUNK, CLUNK and you were ready to operate. The transmitter rig was about 1 KW input. However, the output power was only a couple hundred watts because of the linear configuration of RF final amplifier (the driver stage was modulated, not the final and it wasted a lot of heat on the plate). I recall the first time I keyed it up from the control room, I was looking thru a glass window to the transmitter and saw the plate glowing red-hot! I immediately got off the foot switch, and the other operator (Jerry De Greggory) said, "What's wrong?" "Man that thing is burning up!" He just laughed and said that the condition was normal!
The Chief Operator when I was there was Jerry DeGregory. Jerry was partially disabled, and walked with a limp. He was an outstanding gentleman. He was very patient with me learning the ropes. I told him I couldn't type very well and he just said "I'll take care of that" and proceeded to show me how to hook up the Bell System TTY machine (both systems we used had Teletype Corp Model 15 machines, just printers and keyboards, no TD or Reperferator), to that the machine would basically key itself - off line - so I could practice. I later took typing in a summer school class at high school, but by that time I could keep those old 60 wpm machines humming pretty well.
I started at the station while in high school, 10th grade and worked the night shift 10 PM until 6 AM, 5 nights a week. I had Friday and Saturday nights off because I was in the HS band and we played for football games on Friday and Saturday nights. Besides, Saturday night was a big social night. I made 25 cents an hour starting out, but this was 1956 and I was 16 years old. I had to work in those days, because my mother had just been widowed and I was the oldest of four kids. Our grandmother lived with us, so there were several mouths to feed. All of this worked out quite well. I had lots of privacy to study, the job kept me off the streets and out of trouble, and I was able to pay for all of my own school expenses and help out the family. Yet I had those Friday and Saturday nights off, with my own spending money, so my social life was pretty good. After a year or so, I was able to buy my own car a 53 Ford, not bad for a 16 year-old kid.
They shut down some of the bus lines fairly early in the evening, and the bus line I went to work on was one of them. Consequently, the bus I rode stopped short of the station about a mile, and I had to walk the remainder of the way. No problem, it was a nice neighborhood, and I always carried an umbrella in case it rained. The traffic was pretty slow most of the night, so I had plenty of time to study and read. Along about 0400 things would begin to heat up and I'd have to get busy and do my job.
The morning shift would come in around 0530 or 0545 and get ready for the morning traffic. There were usually two operators on the day shift, one operating the teletype machines and telephone and the other sending and receiving the traffic. The first couple of hours were really hectic, as the boats would call in giving their morning positions and reporting any important incidents, placing grocery orders (usually with Waterways Marine) and arranging for barge pick ups and drop offs. All this had to be relayed back and forth to the home office of that particular towing company; they usually did it by teletype but some of it was relayed by telephone. We had two teletype machines, one a Western Union which charged by the word and a Bell System and they charged by the minute.
WJG Disk Jockey Duties: Sometimes the night shifts were interesting. Being listed in the Telephone Directory at the broadcasting column meant we'd get requests for music from people, who usually had too much to drink. But, most of the time, midnight shifts were pretty uneventful.
As mentioned, frequency selection was by telephone dial and we just dialed up the channel we wanted to transmit, waited for the necessary "clank-clank sound from the solenoids and went on the air. Judging by the color of the plate and the panel meters, that rig wasn't very efficient on the upper frequencies.
I was in Memphis in 1999 (as best I can remember) and went by the old station on Vaughn Road. The old frame building was still there. The antenna poles were still on the property and the old transmitting and receiving equipment was still in the building. Pop Warner had long expired and I assume that the property had been sold. They had a bumper crop of pecans on the land though! This site was abandoned when a new owner took over the station license, and subsequently moved the station location to the south side of Memphis. They also converted to SSB at that time.
I went back a couple of years later (2002), after W8SU's interest had re-stoked my interest, with the intention of trying to get some pictures of the transmitter building, antenna supports and pecan orchard for him. I found out that the pecan orchard had been cut down and the antenna supports and transmitter building were gone, and there were a bunch of houses in their place. I think the new house owners may have left one or two of the pecan trees, but obviously the orchard itself was gone.
Gear on the towboats:
During the last six months I was a W. & T. employee, I spent time on the river repairing boat radio and radar equipment. I only filled in when needed as a repair technician - Jack Estes and Jimmy DeHart did most of the work on the boats. Most of the gear was Radiomarine Corp. of America, older sets had (3) 807 finals and plate modulated by push-pull 807's, the receiver section had mostly octal based tubes in it. The newer sets had (3) 6146 finals modulated by a pair of 6146's and the receiver had been updated to 7 and 9 pin miniature tubes. These RCA sets were well constructed and shock mounted to the deck on large rubber military type shock mounts. All sets were xtal controlled using large crystals that had ovens built in to the crystal housing. The thermostat was external to the crystal, mounted on the chassis next to the crystal sockets. Some of the older sets had motor generator supplies, but most of what was observed had rectifier type power supplies. The radios were rated at the 100 Watt level.
Antennas and radar on the tow boats:
Most of the antennas on the boats were just wires, inverted "L" Marconi, etc. Few were verticals, of the 17 and 24 foot variety, such as what we used in the U.S. Navy. Radar sets were two varieties, Decca that were compact and sharp units and older sets made by RCA. The RCA's were tube type whereas Decca were solid state, except for the maggie. The Decca were great little sets. The RCA units were OK but I thought the Decca was far superior in operation and reliability. My radar endorsement on the 2nd Phone ticket came in right handy at times and is one of the reasons why I did that job and the other operators stayed at the station only.
The Lost Mercury:
The electronics service job paid a lot more than the desk operator, and as long as I was on one of the boats they fed me and gave me a place to bunk. We caught the boats on the fly and rode them up or down stream until we repaired the electronic problems. We usually transferred to another boat going the other way and worked on the next radio problem. I carried two of the large tube caddies plus a toolbox. Once I spent about 5 days on the river straight, fixing towboat equipment coming and going and forgot where I had parked my car (1950 Mercury), my special street rod, with high compression heads, dual exhausts, (3) two barrel carbs on a high rise manifold with a fairly hot cam, Baby Moon hubcaps. Wow I thought, that car would either be gone or stripped when I finally found it. I had left it parked at a small town landing above Memphis, called Gold Dust. Guess what? It was still there and untouched! Boy did I breathe a sigh of relief. That would never happen today!
The most modem towboats I worked on were operated by the Arrow Towing Co of Sheffield Alabama, on the Tennessee River, however they operated mainly out of the Mississippi River. Some of their boats were M/V Aztec, Toltec etc. and were built by Ingalls Shipyard in Pascagoula, MS. They were in the 6,000 to 8,000 HP range that these days are a bit small for the tows.
Many Captains & Mates were Cajuns!
Boy did I get a lesson in French pronunciation and spelling with those guys! Unofficially we helped out the crews and families. That actually was a personal favor to the Captains. It consisted of repeating the boat's position and possible ETA at various landings or towns. We normally charged for position checks but these simple repetitions were done so that the crews' dependents or girl friends could tune in the channels on their short wave home receivers and figure out when to pick them up at the landing. When families called the ships home office, more than likely it would be a long distance toll, we enjoyed that service.
Every now and then, something interesting would happen, abandoned craft or the
time one of the Tow-Boat Captains spotted an object floating in the river! It,
of all things, was a CASKET bobbing up and down in the river. This one was of
the old fashioned type that was sealed with lead and had a glass viewing-window
in the lid! Kinda gruesome to discover at 0300. Seems that river had done its
thing and changed course a bit, taking out a section of land that had an old
cemetery on it. Eventually Old Man River washed this casket down into the water
and it had floated to Memphis, where the river captain spotted it. They put a
boat over the side and hauled it in and I contacted the Sheriffs Office. The
casket had a name and date on it. That should have been an easy one to solve.
A few weeks after the coffin incident being found, another sad happening really shook us all. It seems that a family had a picnic at one of the boat landings above Memphis on the 4th July Holiday. The family reported their young son 4 or 5 years of age missing, wandering off and a big search ensued. He was dressed in a little cowboy suit. The sad news was, the little boy had fallen into the river and drowned, and his body was recovered about halfway between Memphis and Helena by the crew of a towboat. These guys, hardened "river rats' every one, were quite shaken by this, as most of them had kids of their own. They wrapped the youngster's body in canvas and unloaded his remains at Memphis. The Sheriffs Office handled the effort, I gave the story to the news media.
I was shaken quite a bit by this incident, not only by the actual event, but because the newspaper had printed the story and credited me as a HAM RADIO OPERATOR - which of course I am - and I had great fear that the FCC would fine me - and possibly take away my licenses! (for operating my ham equipment on commercial frequencies). I called the paper and explained that I was a commercial radio operator and worked for Warner and Tamble station WJG and I did this during the course of my work shift, not on my off hours as a ham radio operator. They later printed a followup story and properly credited me and WJG.
I think this will do it for me. I hope this has been of some help to you. This is an interesting project since it covers my very first job in the radio- communications business. I hope the information I have supplied is accurate. If it's not, it's because my memory may have failed me somewhat (senior moments?).
Paul Copeland 2002 - Updated Summer 2006
Reconstruct the e-mail address: pcopeland1 at earthlink dot net