WLC Recollections of Ken Cubilo, W8WLC
Although WLC is now gone the wonderful memories of working there in the mid-70’s to
1981 will live forever in my mind. When I was there we worked a 7-day rotating
shift usually 9 to 10 hours long. One op per shift handled both SSB and CW traffic
as well as FM. Due to the shortage of ops we were never allowed to take a vacation
but with the long weekend after the midnight trick everyone seemed to be all
Every one of the operators at WLC got along very well with each other. Heck, they even took this young dumb kid writing this, under their wings and treated him with respect and patience. Joe was kind of a prankster, and he used to break in the new ops by going to the service bench and firing up an old Heathkit signal generator on 500 KHz and calling WLC. I won’t repeat the test of the message here, but it was a beauty. To be considered for employment with WLC you had to have in hand, or get within 30 days of hire, a 2nd class radiotelegraph license and be able to touch type. It wasn’t easy going from a state of the art electric typewriter to the old Underwood mills WLC had.
We monitored 500 KHz, 2182 KHz and FM channel 16 as well as handled traffic on 2154, SSB channels 409, 418 and 826 as well as FM channels 26 and 28 depending on which remote tower the comms were coming in on. For CW we used 482 KHz and a 4 MHz channel.
The operating console had 3 operating positions and the whole thing was homebrew. I know Frank Sager had done a lot of design work on it and had it recorded in a large notebook of hand-drawn schematics. The console contained all the control switching for the various local and remote FM transmitters (Soo, Charlevoix and Tawas City) as well as audio paths and all kinds of neat tricks Frank had developed. Also in the console at the main operator position were an old Hallicrafters VHF monitor receiver used to receive a WXFAX transmission from the weather service (which were then retransmitted on the SSB channels to the ships that had the decoders installed to receive the pictures and charts), a couple of Harvey Wells receivers for the 500 KHz telegraph and working frequency and a old Superpro 600 receiver for the 4 kHz telegraph. Later a Motorola transceiver was added for use on the 2 KHz SSB frequencies and a back-up for the other transmitter.
Adjacent to the operating console was the 500 KHz transmitter. I believe this ran 5 KW but could be wrong. The transmitter was modified old sparky and was known as the old girl and sometimes the word used for a young female dog. It did not have much isolation between it and the antenna resulting in frequency swings due to high winds or icing. Frank had made a frequency meter of sorts comparing the transmit frequency to the power line frequency of 60 Hz. If the output frequency was too far off then no traffic lists were sent.
I still remember fighting the old MG set in the basement that supplied the power for the old girl and the 4 MHz CW transmitter. The transmitter beacon was controlled by a round fiber wheel cut with notches for the dits and dahs of the message and turned by an old record player which in turn caused a microswitch to open and close. Operating a switch on the console caused the beacon to stop and enable the operator to work the station.
Behind the operating console enclosed in a screened in area were the SSB and AM transmitters. The SSB transmitter was a CAI exciter driving the same companies RF amp which consisted of a single 3-500Z tube at 600 watts output power. This was a very dependable setup except for an occasional timer relay. We also had one of the crystal ovens malfunction and cause the output frequency to drift. Luckily Joe Hassett and I were able to catch this problem right away. Also in this room were several Wilcox transmitters. These guys were a work of art with their mercury vapor rectifier tubes and 813’s for PA’s. They ran a KW input power. When AM was phased out most of these were dismantled by the ops for ham radio parts. I sure wish I had hauled out a complete assembly for 160 Meter AM use, but, oh well, hindsight is always 20-20.
The channel 26/28 FM transmitter for Rogers City was located in a building a few hundred feet away, and not shown on the web page, was the WLC receiver site. This was located about 1 mile down the road on Calcite property in the area known as Swan River. This site contained several turnstile receiving antennas for the SSB frequencies. There was a small building that contained several CAI receivers and a back up generator. It seemed every time we had a major lightning storm we would lose at least one protection diode from one of the receiver’s. Kind of a pain but better than losing the whole front end of the gear. Every week the op on first shift would go out there and check the site over and run the generator.
What was it like to operate at WLC? Well, I remember one night a salty just entering the St. Lawrence Seaway called, his signal was 2 by 2 on the 500 KHz telegraph, and he wanted to send a 450 word message containing payroll and other information. I told him ok but to run break-in in case there was a problem. Well, the guy starts sending before I tell him I am ready, and is doing a 35 WPM clip that’s ok but the heavy QRN is taking out 2-3 words every crash. I couldn’t break him and the message took about 2 hours to pass and verify. This op had one serious headache after that.
Once messages were received they were sent via a telex machine or wx teletype as to destination. A few were delivered via telephone. Some things that we take for granted now were not so simple back then. For example: An overseas telephone call could tie up an operator for over an hour - no direct dialing back in those days. Severe thunderstorms were a real treat as well, the best you could hope for was a lull in the action so you could get out of the control room and hide in the adjacent room until the fireworks stopped.
WLC saved many a large and small ships bacon. I know on some of my watches we interacted when a tug sank losing all on board over in the Lake Michigan area. I also secured permission and dispatched the tug Calcite to rescue a small boater and his grandson who were being tossed aground due to high winds and waves. I also intercepted quite a few SOS signals from 500 KHz, but no action on our part was required. Bill Pettee had a small craft rescued off the Caribbean coast via 4 MHz SSB, and Harvey Peltz had quite a write up on WLC in the Detroit News.
I was told by Joe Hassett that I was the one who sent the last CW message on WLC. However given my pre-senior memory I might have been the one to receive the last message!. Joe kept a Heathkit HW-12 in the office, and sometimes on the midnight tricks we used to operate that rig on the ham bands driving one of the spare 500 KHz longwires. The DX was amazing. I used to listen to the east coast stations killing each other in a pile for European stations, and I could get thru the pile- ups on the first call. Oh, to have a antenna farm like that now.
One more thing: I do know that in the early days they almost had to shut down WLC due to the spark transmitter causing shocks and scaring people in the Calcite office. Later they donated that transmitter and some copies of the logs to the maritime museum at Bowling Green State University in Ohio.
That’s about it for the memories for now. I am very thankful that I had the chance to work at WLC and be a part of radio history.
Ken Cubilo, W8WLC ---- March 2003
Reconstruct the e-mail address: kencubilo-at-grics-dot-net