Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Return to Florida: Early Wireless and a Mysterious VOA Relay Station

Beginning in the year 1962, the Florida Keys have been home to two separate mediumwave stations that have served as relay stations for the broadcast of programming on behalf of the Voice of America.  Over the years, both stations have been on the air from more than one location; one station is still on the air to this day, and the other disappeared soon after it was taken into service. 

            In our Wavescan opening feature here today, we present the complete outline of this temporary station that was on the air for no more than four years.  To begin today’s story, we go back in time more than a century to the early wireless era, and we travel to a small isolated and uninhabited island far beyond Key West in the Mexican Gulf.

            This small island is shown on a detailed map as Garden Island, and it is one of the 7 islands under the collective name of the Dry Tortugas.  This cluster of small and low coral islands was discovered and named by the Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon in 1513, and it is the second oldest surviving European name in the United States. 

            The islands were home to a large colony of sea turtles, hence the Tortugas; and there was no available fresh water, hence the Dry.  This seafaring area has seen its shipwrecks over the passing centuries, and legends tell of huge cargoes of gold and silver still lying on the sea floor, spilled booty from unfortunate Spanish galleons. 

            Garden Island was chosen as the location for an American armed fortress that was given the name Fort Jefferson.  Work on this massive structure began in 1846, and though it housed as many as 2,000 people at one stage, it was never totally completed.

            Fort Jefferson is the largest masonry structure in the United States, and 16 million building bricks were incorporated into its construction.  The outline of the fort is in the shape of an irregular hexagon, maybe a squashed hexagon if you please, and it occupies much of its host island, Garden Island.

            In the year 1902, a tall wireless mast was installed in the northwest corner of the fort, between two dormitory buildings in the bend of the corner of the hexagon.  Wireless equipment was shipped in from 70 mile distant Key West and the station was inaugurated for Morse Code traffic two years later under the informal callsign RF.

            The naval wireless station RF was described back then as a successful venture, but it was too costly and too difficult to operate; absolutely every item of life support for the wireless personnel had to be shipped in from Key West.  The station was officially closed in 1909, though it had been non-operational for a while before that.

            Now comes the story of the Voice of America relay station which was located on island X, as “Alice Brannigan” told us in Popular Communications several years ago.  At the time, the location for this station was not publicly revealed.

            During the year 1962, there was trouble brewing in the Caribbean, between the United States and Cuba.  In order to provide an authoritative radio voice into Cuba, the United States government decide to install two high powered mediumwave stations in the Florida Keys; initially one on Island X, and another on Marathon Key.

            Some time after mid year (1962), equipment for a portable mediumwave station was obtained from various areas in the United States, including a 20 year old Westinghouse transmitter that had previously been on the air under the callsign WBAL in Baltimore, Maryland.  Restoration on the old 50 kW Westinghouse Model 50G, or more completely, Model 50HG1, was undertaken in Rockville Maryland.

            The total equipment was loaded into 5 semi-trailers for the onward journey towards Miami, but on the way, the weight of the massive power transformers was too great for the trailer tires, which exploded.  The heavy convoy carrying all of the electronic equipment eventually travelled into Florida and then over the Ocean Highway and arrived in Key West, where it was transferred onto two navy boats, twin LCMs.

            At dusk, under the cover of darkness, the two LCMs headed out into the Caribbean for the 70 mile voyage to the unannounced secret location X, which we now know was Fort Jefferson on Garden Island, where they arrived before daylight, at 4:30 am next day.  That was in October 1962.

            The station was set up in the fort and it was ready to go on air with 50 kW on 1040 kHz.  Initially the program feed was via a terrestrial microwave link from Key West, but the 70 mile single hop was just too distant, and reliability was inadequate.

            However, work on the installation of the VOA sister station on Marathon Key was nearing completion, though at that stage the output at Marathon was only 900 watts due to uncompleted work on the antenna system.  However, a communication receiver was brought in to Garden Island by helicopter, and from that time onwards, VOA programming from VOA Garden on 1040 kHz was an off air relay from VOA Marathon on 1180 kHz. 

            There were times though when Garden Key took an off air relay from Radio Swan/Radio Americas on Swan Island in the Caribbean.  That station, Radio Swan/Radio Americas, was on the air in parallel on both mediumwave and shortwave, with 50 kW on 1160 kHz and 7½ kW on 6000 kHz.

            After less than 3 months of active on-air service on Garden Key in the Dry Tortugas, the VOA relay station on Garden Key was closed in December (1962) and much of the equipment was removed and re-installed at a new location on Sugarloaf Key.  However, the antenna towers and grounding system were left intact on Garden Key.

            The new location, Sugarloaf Key, was about ¾ of the way from the Florida peninsula towards Key West.  This highly irregular coral key was named perhaps for a particular hill on the island that looked like a loaf of sugar, or maybe it was because a particular variety of pineapple that was grown on the island was named the sugarloaf pineapple.      

            In January of the next year (1963) the Garden Key station was installed on Sugarloaf Key, though a new highly directional 3 tower antenna system beamed on Cuba was erected.  This new location was shown in current VOA scheduling back then, and it was also listed in the WRTVHB for three years in a row 1964, 1965 and 1966.  We might also add that VOA headquarters in Washington DC verified listener reception reports for this station which had been somewhat regularized on Sugarloaf Key.

            After three years of on air service from Sugarloaf, this mediumwave VOA station was closed during the year 1966, and the aging equipment was mothballed.  The official statement declared that a hurricane demolished the antenna system and rendered the station inoperable.  A subsequent report 10 years later stated that the transmitter was still serviceable, but it would appear that it was never in use again.  

            That was the story of the first VOA mediumwave station in the Florida Keys; at island X Garden Key in the Dry Tortugas and then at Sugarloaf for somewhere around 3 years in total.  Next time when we return to the radio scene in Florida, we will tell the story of the other VOA  mediumwave station down there in the keys, VOA on Marathon.
(AWR-Wavescan/NWS 391)