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Recollections of Mark Karney

When I was four years old, my dad built a home on the edge of Lorain, Ohio, where the view to the west was soybean fields, farmhouses, barns and woods. Not far beyond, to the north and west was Lake Erie. In stark contrast to the rural landscape, the two VHF radio towers of WMI rose above the trees and dwarfed them. The steady slow rhythm of their blinking lights ruled the night and I am sure they were visible far out into the lake, maybe almost to Canada on a clear day.

I grew up with WMI, because with their proximity and power they were audible on anything that rectified - crystal sets, record players, blank spots on the AM dial and most other amplifying devices. The sound of "Lorain to the Daniel J. Morrell, Lorain to the Daniel J. Morrell, Daniel J. Morrell, Lorain calling," and the calls to other ships were often heard and part of the lifeblood of the community. Many of the ore boats had been built at the shipyards at the mouth of the Black River in Lorain, and their daily arrival and departure with loads of coal and iron ore fed the 6 hungry blast furnaces at the USS Steel mill several miles further up the river. Almost everyone's livelihood depended in some way on this flow of iron ore and coal across the lakes.

I'm sure that WMI was a key player in sparking my interest in radio. I earned my Novice ham license in 1962 and my 2nd Class Commercial FCC license in the summer of 1965 before my senior year of high school.

Since this license qualified me to be an operator at a ship-to-shore station like WMI and since I had been dying to see what was inside that fortress-like brick building and learn the secrets of the long wires that snaked through the woods, I went down to the Leavitt Road main office of Lorain County Radio Corp. and met with Wes Goodell. He was so impressed with my credentials that he hired me on the spot -- it seems they needed someone to mop floors, clean restrooms and mow the lawn. But the license must have had some value as I was hired for the princely sum of $1.35 an hour, a very good wage for a high school kid in the fall of 1965. At that time the most coveted job was to work for McDonalds flipping burgers - they paid $ .90 an hour. I worked at the station until I left for college in August of 1966.

Wes Goodell was chief engineer of Lorain County Radio and was at the Leavitt Rd. office more than at the station. The chief operator was Ray Gerbrand. (He is sitting at the far right console position in the picture on this site labeled as 1955.) Other operators I remember were Dick Rocher, Carl Boughton, Frank Sonye and Bill McClellan. Two women worked as operators also, but I don't remember their names. There were 3 or 4 operators on duty during the heavy shipping months but only one during the winter.

During the winter there was a table set up in the operating room and the operator on duty did assembly work on LEC's radiotelephone equipment, in between weather broadcasts and the infrequent mobile telephone calls. I seem to remember that some of the operators moved over to assembly work at the plant during the winter when Great Lakes shipping was shut down.

In between mopping the floors and cleaning the bathrooms, I cut the grass and brush with a McCormick Farmall tractor. There were rotary blades underneath that could cut anything up to about 1 inch in diameter. I popped the blades off regularly and sharpened them on the big grinding wheel that was attached to the work bench in the room behind the operating room. There probably wasn't a better job for a 17 year old boy between high school and college than to be outside in the summer soaking up the sun and sitting on a tractor all day with no one to bother you and only in the company of nature with time to ponder your dreams for the future.

The company that established and owned WMI was incorporated as Lorain County Radio Corp. in about 1928 and was an offshoot of the Lorain Telephone Company. They started out by providing music to homes over the phone lines, but this soon ended as radio broadcasting took off. The business quickly switched to providing radiotelephone services and equipment to the ships on the Great Lakes, which started in about 1932. The main offices for the company, as well as manufacturing, were located originally in the Lorain Telephone Company building on 9th street in downtown Lorain. They moved to the Leavitt Rd. site later on, probably late 50's or early 60's. The name of the company was changed to Lorain Electronics Corp. in 1966.

The brick building that served the station for most of its life was built in 1940. An aerial view of the building as it was in 1966 can be seen on this site. One of the operators told me that there were fences erected around the station during WWII as a security measure.

Before 1940 the station operated out of a small white frame building that was to the rear of the brick one. This site has a picture of the building from WAS in Duluth and if memory serves me right the building in Lorain looked identical. It is likely that they were built from the same set of plans. I remember spending a Saturday with Wes Goodell cleaning out that building - much of the leftover equipment was loaded into his station wagon and ended up in my basement. He was as happy to get rid of it as I was to inherit it. I don't remember if the building was torn down or if the fire department burned it down for fire fighting training.

The two towers I mentioned earlier are indicated on the topographic maps, were 285 feet in height and erected in 1953. They handled the VHF communications for the ships as well as mobile telephone service. One of the VHF towers was for transmitting and the other for receiving. The equipment was made by GE. The towers came down in the 1980s.

There were two other towers to the north of the VHF towers shown on the map, in front of the station building. These were the vertical transmitting antennas for the MF marine band channels. The feedlines to the MF towers were hardline. There was a tank of nitrogen in the workshop that kept the lines pressurized and the moisture out. For the higher frequencies, there were other transmitting antennas including a couple verticals, dipoles and a rhombic.

Receiver front ends were located in the shed beneath the south tower about 1000 ft. behind the building and far away from the transmitting antennas, and were connected to long wire antennas, at least one of which was a beverage antenna as it was terminated on the far end. This antenna went south into the woods from the South tower which was as far away as they could get it from the transmitting antennas.

WMI also had a remote receiver site on Oak Point Road in Lorain about a mile or so west of the Meister road station. There were no towers at the Oak Point site, the antennas were long wires. I don't remember exactly where the site was on Oak Point Road, as I was only there a couple of times. It was just a couple of long wires going into a building about the size of an outhouse.

In both cases the receiver front-ends were remotely located, and the IF from each receiver strip (one per channel) was sent down a conventional phone line (I think it was around 50 kHz.) to further amplification and demodulation in electronics in the rack at the main station. The switching between the Meister Rd. and the Oak Point receivers was automatic based on signal strength. These two sets were part of a diversity receiving system; but if a receiver, line or antenna went down at either location, the other functioned as a backup.

Since the life and welfare of almost everyone sailing on the Great Lakes could be dependent on communication with WMI, they took their responsibility very seriously. The station was manned 24/7, 365 days a year. The 2182 calling and emergency frequency was constantly monitored and MAFOR weather reports were broadcast four times per day - the reports came in from the weather bureau via teletype. All equipment had a backup.

Central to the operation, of course, were six operating positions that could each control all of the transmitters and receivers. There was a series of seven meters across the top of each operating position corresponding to the MF and HF channels. When the operator heard a call come in, he or she could look at the meters and figure out what channel the call was coming in on. Controls for the VHF transmitters and receivers were added to the operating positions in the '50s. Each operator had their own microphone and headphones which they kept in their locker - The mikes were carbon and looked like the old "candlestick" telephones from the 1920's. The operators were responsible for taking calls from ships and making calls to ships that came in via phone lines. They also had to log and time each call for billing purposes. Calls that came in from mobile telephones over the VHF system were also handled by the operators.

Each of the authorized frequency pairs had its own transmitter and antenna. The transmitters were in the wall, in front of the operators and had a power output of 800 watts. They were custom designed and built by the Lorain County Radio staff, except for the transmitter in the center, between the two doorways, which was Western Electric WE-14C multi-band unit that could operate on any of the channels that the station was licensed on. The exciters and lower power electronics were in drawers in the lower part of the rack. Like most Western Electric equipment, it was an elegant piece of engineering. There were long electromechanically driven vertical rods that moved up and down in the back of the cabinet and switched the different coils and capacitors in and out of the circuit as the bands were changed, and this was done by simply dialing a number on a telephone dial from any of the six operating positions. Lorain County Radio was a subsidiary of the Lorain Telephone Company, so a lot of telephone technology was used throughout the station.

The transmitters were plate modulated with both the transmitter and modulator using power triodes. When the transmitter was in operation, the plate of the final amplifier tube would glow a faint cherry red, and the brightness would vary with the modulation as the operator talked. You could faintly hear the operator's voice from the transmitter when you were close to it. It was probably the vibration of the laminations in the modulation transformer.

There was a good stock of spare parts and modules. The transmitters and modulators all used the venerable 833A power triode and the WE-14C transmitter was modified to use the 833A as well, so that it was only necessary to stock one type of power tube. The engineers of this station were clever and innovative. Finally, in the back room was a diesel generator that could power the whole facility in case of commercial power failure.

In the late 1950's I remember seeing a large weather balloon hovering over the woods near the station. I later found out from Wes Goodell that they had been experimenting with balloon-suspended antennas. I was also told by one of the operators that they occasionally had a problem with hunters embedding buckshot into the multi-pair telephone lines that carried the IF frequencies from the receiver front ends and audio and control signals for the VHF radios.

When one would listen to calls from WMI, you could only hear the WMI side and there would be a beeping signal transmitted while the other party talked. I read that this was their privacy feature that they received a patent for. I don't know any details but I assume they were communicating in full duplex mode. I think that there were also tones sent out to alert a specific ship that there was a call for them. The tones were generated by a spinning metal drum with holes machined into it.

On August 5, 1966, my last day of employment before I went off to engineering school, I climbed the North Tower to replace the bulb on the top beacon. The tower was triangular and you climbed the ladder up the center. You may have noticed that most water towers and other towers with ladders usually begin the ladders ten or fifteen feet off the ground to discourage unauthorized climbers. The people who erected WMI's towers didn't know about this and started the ladder at ground level. The result being that they ran out of ladder about 15 feet from the top of the tower, so I had to climb the rest of the way on the tower superstructure.

From the top of the tower the whole system of commerce was visible. Spreading across the whole northern landscape was Lake Erie and the ore boats, the lighthouse that marked the entrance to the Black River could be seen to the northeast, the steel plant to the east with the red smoke billowing from the open hearth furnaces, and below me the radio network that linked it all together. I sat there for a while taking it all in.

I had carried the two large bulbs up in a box hung around my neck and managed to replace both of the bulbs in the top beacon despite the fact that one of them was shattered. I also accomplished my prime mission of shooting some great pictures from the top of the tower including the ones that appear on this website. I climbed down the tower, said goodbye to Wes Goodell, and went off to begin the journey of adult life.

Probably one of my most vivid memories is of Carl Boughton doing the afternoon weather broadcast. Of all the operators, Carl probably took the most time to explain things to me and cultivate my interest in radio. I'd usually close out my Saturdays in some type of discussion with him as I was finishing my work and getting ready to go home. Our conversation ended and it was time to leave when he started the afternoon weather broadcast. Carl had the deepest voice of anyone I knew, and as the pendulum clock on the wall came to the top of the hour, he would make an announcement on channel 51, 2182 kHz, which went something like this:

"SECURITY, SECURITY, SECURITY. This is WMI Lorain, the afternoon Great Lakes weather forecast will follow immediately on channels 10, 39, 60 and 26 VHF."

Then he would key all the transmitters, you'd hear all the relays pull in and the slight flexing of metal as the power was applied to the transformers. In his great booming voice, he would then announce: "Good afternoon, this is WMI, Lorain with the afternoon Great Lakes MAFOR weather forecast."

The sound of his voice changed as all the transmitters were keyed and I would hear the eerie sound of his voice live and at the same time echoing from all the transmitters, mixed with the faint hum of straining power transformers. As I walked between the transmitters and out the back door of the station, the live voice faded and I heard only the sound from the transmitters - as his voice entered the magic realm of radio and flashed out across Lake Erie and the other Great Lakes to the Ore Freighters, pleasure boats, and Coast Guard cutters. It is a sound that I still remember well 40 years later.

************About the author************

I was licensed as a ham operator in 1962 with the call WA8ATM. My current call is N9JWF. After WMI I went to the University of Detroit and received an Electrical Engineering Degree in 1971. During my college years I also earned my First Class FCC Radiotelephone license.

I currently own and operate a recording studio and video production company in Barrington, Illinois. The ships and the Great Lakes haven't let go of me as I have engineered and recorded 14 albums for Folksinger, Great Lakes Historian & Songwriter, Lee Murdock. I also have been known to collect a bit of old radio stuff.

Most of my radio activity these days centers on VLF Natural Radio. I have been writing the Natural Radio column for The Lowdown, a publication of the Longwave Club of America since 1999, and am owner of the VLF_Group on Yahoo Groups.

At the time of this writing, I know that at least one of the operator positions is preserved in the Black River Historical Society Museum in Lorain. I haven't seen it, but found this information from their website. Several years ago we were in the Duluth area and I saw equipment and operator consoles from WAS in a museum in Two Harbors, Minnesota - but it appears that it's no longer there. I'm still trying to track down what happened to that equipment. I'm also trying to find information on the Western Electric Multi-Band transmitter used at WMI.

Mark Karney, N9JWF --- Spring 2007

Reconstruct the E-Mail address: mark1-at-norwest-dot-net

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