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Recollections of Ray Heimberger W8TT

Archivist Note: This page was constructed using material Ray submitted via several e-mail messages.

Photo of Tom Drake and Ray Heimberger with two young lady passengers on the SS South American

I am retired, but still occasionally get called for ship work, on salt water. The only Great Lakes ships that I worked on were SS North American and SS South American. The SS Alabama had been retired by the time I worked for the Chicago, Duluth and Georgian Bay Transit Co. I started out as Second on the North, and during the second year I stayed briefly at Anne Cottage on Mackinaw until the South pulled in and joined that ship. I was on during the years of '57, '58, and '59. Capt. Harold Nelson was Master on SS South American (WGCW) during the time that I was on as Chief R.O. and was on the South (S/A) in the events that I mention below. Over the years I went to a few crew reunions in Holland, Detroit and Mackinaw. But the person who was organizing them became ill and couldn't continue. The Georgian Bay Line continued to carry CW (Radiotelegraph) operators long after other Lakes ships had stopped using anything but AM and FM phone. Mr. Lucking (Georgian Bay Line) thought that CW was, not just historical, but an added safety feature for the Wireless Cabin on the N/A and S/A, North and South. And it was. The North and South used all RCA equipment except for Motorola FM.

The picture above was taken when I was Chief Radio Officer on the Georgian Bay Lines SS South American during the 1958 summer cruise season. Another RO, Tom Drake, is at the top. The names of the two young lady passengers are unknown. They just wanted their picture taken with some of the ship's officers.

In the early days, CW was very valuable. It had a great range on 400-500 kHZ. As we know from the Titanic history, Titanic's signals were heard all up and down the Western Atlantic, by ships much too far away to attempt a rescue. While on the North and South Amer. we would chat on a 400 kHz CW frequency with the operators at NMD, the Coast Guard station at Chesterland, OH, (East from Cleveland). South American would dock at the Cleveland East 9th Street pier about 6AM on Sunday morning. One Sunday morning I called NMD on 500 kHz. He replied "R UP". But, another station also answered and asked "QRU?" I replied, "NIL TU". The other station was NMV, he was also loud and clear. When I went back to NMD Cleveland I asked, "Who is NMV? He answered me." The other station who answered was Jacksonville, FL. The point is that 500 kHZ has great range.

That helped me a few times on the Great Lakes. As I mentioned, mid-Lake Superior was a dead spot for HF Phone communication and even VHF FM. One time, headed across Lake Superior, after leaving Duluth, MN, my wireless shack phone rang. It was Captain Harold C. Nelson. Capt. Nelson said, "I've been trying to raise a Coast station on every HF and VHF channel. I can't raise anyone. A passenger who boarded at Duluth had a heart attack and passed away. I want to make arrangements to put he and his wife off at the Soo, when we go thru the locks. Please keep trying and give me a call when you reach any coast station."

A few minutes later I called him and said, "Soo Coast Guard wants to know if we have a Doctor aboard who can issue a death-certificate?" Capt. Nelson replied, "Yes, we have a Doctor. But, how did you get Soo Coast Guard so quickly?" CW of course. I called WLC Rogers City on 500 kHZ, and asked them to put in a land-line call to Coast Guard at the Soo. We made the arrangements easily. So, CW's advantage, of course, was that it could get through when nothing else could!

Someone asked me if I ever sent and S.O.S. The answer to that is "NO.", but I came as close to it as I ever want to, during the first Persian Gulf war, on MV Cape Edmont, KGTE. I had to send an "XXX" and "PAN" on Phone. The Chief Engineer said that it might have been necessary to send an S.O.S. during that incedent.


WLC - Rogers City, MI:

I worked at WLC during the 1960's, thru 1970. Most of the operation then was FM and SSB/AM phone, although WLC was one of the last Lakes coastal stations to continue with CW. WLC had a large old MOPA transmitter in an iron cage, with a pair of 100 TH tubes and a Wilcox receiver.

WLC was The Central Radiotelegraph Company. A part of the Bradley Steamship Line in Rogers City, MI., and on the Calcite Plant property. When I worked there it was a part, a very small operating Division, of the U.S. Steel Corp. The WLC logo was "We're Lakes Central". If you put a point at Rogers City, and drew a circle around the entire Great Lakes, Superior and Michigan, to Ontario, Rogers City is equidistant and near the exact center. That was it's advantage in the early days of radio, and it handled traffic for all of the shipping lines, and U.S. Steel ships, wherever they were located. The Calcite Plant at Rogers City is the worlds largest limestone quarry, approximately five (5) miles in diameter. WLC was on the grounds and in a little house near the Lake Huron beach. On a warm night, with windows open and only the screen door closed, you could hear loud sounds of pawing and snorting. When you shined a light you would see a large number of wild deer around the building. The Limestone Div. occasionally gave permits for deer hunting.

I worked in operator rotation with Bob Mix, who was on duty the night that the Edmund Fitzgerald went down. He said that he heard the communication with the Arthur M. Anderson, but not a sound (of radio communication) when the Fitzgerald went down.

WLC had VHF FM satellite stations along the Lake Huron shore, which were remotely operated from Rogers City. After the loss of the Fitzgerald, WLC installed remotely operated FM stations near the mid-part of Lake Superior. Mid Lake Superior was acknowledged by many as being a radio dead-spot for communication, and a lot of different reasons have been given. But, I know, that when you got in the middle of Superior, you couldn't hear either Duluth or VBB at the Soo Locks, or raise anyone else on any of the marine phone bands.

Frank Sager was Station Manager while I worked there. His Call was W8BMF - licensed about 1921. He passed away a number of years ago. I ran into a Ham who was related to him and inherited Franks Ham equipment. Frank was from Warren, Ohio and, I believe, laid to rest in Warren. Don't recall Bob Mix's Ham Call, all of us there then were also Hams as WLC was still CW as well as Phone. Sent traffic lists, weather, and msgs on CW to foreign vessels. No HF CW at Rogers City. Rogers City Opr/Techs then were Joe Hasset (W8PMF??), Harvey Peltz, Bill Petty, Bob and myself. Don't remember all of the Ham calls. Many have passed away. Bob Mix passed a number of years ago. I talked with his wife a few times in Rogers City.

Most of Rogers Traffic then (1960's) was Phone, FM and HF AM. Some CW, 400-500 kHz only. I was there when we installed the HF SSB transmitter/receivers. The only remote FM sites then were Charlevoix and upper Lake Huron. Mid-Lake Superior sites were added after loss of the Fitzgerald. I am surprised that Rogers City adoped (so many of the) WMI (sites). There was a station at Buffalo (WBL) and WAD at Port Washington, WI. In the early CW days there were other Great Lakes stations, Mackinaw Is., I believe, was WHQ, to work Georgian Bay and other shipping lines. Operator at Mackinaw was a fellow named (Ed) Tillotson. The old shack and fallen antennas used to be there at the top of the hill. Duluth used to be a separate station.

Ray Heimberger - W8TT
November 2005

Reconstruct the E-Mail address: RKCK5-at-aol-dot-com

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