Thursday, March 01, 2018

The KDKA Far Northern Service

The world’s first regular international shortwave service was inaugurated by the Westinghouse radio broadcasting facility at the time when their transmitters were still located on top of the eight story Building K at their factory complex in East Pittsburgh Pennsylvania.  However by this time, radio

production studios had already been transferred from Building K into the William Penn Hotel at 530 William Penn Place in downtown Pittsburgh.  

            In his memorable volume on the early history of shortwave broadcasting in the United States, Michael K. Sidel tells the story of how the historic medium wave station KDKA in Pittsburgh began the world’s first truly international shortwave service.  It was in the summer of the year 1923 when KDKA itself was not quite three years old at the time, that George A. Wendt of the Canadian Westinghouse Company in Hamilton Ontario suggested that KDKA should introduce a program service for residents in the Canadian far north. 

            During the Summer of 1923, the northern posts of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police had been issued with shortwave receivers that could tune in to the program service from shortwave KDKA-8XS in Pittsburgh.  The Westinghouse Far Northern Service was introduced during that same 1923 Summer, and it was on the air medium wave and shortwave each Saturday evening. 

            The programming for the new Far Northern Service was compiled with readings from listener letters, news and entertainment music and it was beamed to the Canadian Arctic areas which included police outposts, personnel in service with the Hudson Bay trading company, the extensive French

Revillon Freres fur trading company, and isolated Catholic mission stations.  It is reported that KDKA received a flood of appreciative letters from northern listeners after the harsh northern winter was over and the mails had begun to flow again during the Spring of the following year 1924.

            Brief radio histories covering the development of the Far Northern Service state that station KDKA-8XS broadcast a special message to a Hudson Bay trapper in northern Canada on January 17 during the harsh northern winter of 1924, stating that his wife was recovering satisfactorily after a
successful emergency operation.  However, there is much more to this interesting story than just a
simple one sentence historical report.  This is what happened. 

            During the year 1906,  22 year old James S. C. Watt migrated from the Scottish Highlands to Canada East, where he soon afterwards accepted an appointment with the Hudson Bay Company.  Around that same time a high school girl, Maud Maloney, caught his attention.  Maud, born on the Gaspe Peninsula on the southern coast of the St Lawrence Estuary in Canada in 1894, was the tenth child in a blended family of Irish-French background with 16 children.  She was fluent in both French and English, and she subsequently became familiar with the northern Algonquin language at a  conversational level.

            As time went by, James Watt accepted a transfer with the Hudson Bay Company to Fort McKenzie in Province Quebec; and Maud accepted employment in the early part of World War 1 as a telegraphiste at Clarke City PQ, a little west of the north entrance to the Gulf St. Lawrence Estuary.   Subsequently in a simple ceremony, Presbyterian James Watt in his late twenties and the very practical eighteen year old Catholic girl Maud Maloney were married, and they took up a long term residence in Fort McKenzie.

            Although the small trading post settlement of Fort McKenzie was located in the north of
Province Quebec, yet it was accessible only after an arduous ship voyage along the coast of Labrador followed by a long inland walk of 200 miles due west.  The Watt family lived much of their life in Rupert House at Fort McKenzie. 

            On one occasion, it became necessary for Maud to undergo an emergency operation and she traveled to a hospital in North Bay, some 175 miles due north of Toronto in Ontario, for the occasion.  The operation was a success, and practical Maud wanted to inform her husband, still way up at Fort McKenzie, that all was well.    

            She had some friends make contact with station KDKA, “way down south of the border”, and Frank E. Mullen included this good will message into his evening Farm Service broadcast.  It was known that James Watt would listen on shortwave to KDKA-8XS each evening for news, information and entertainment.  The grateful and lonely northern resident subsequently thanked KDKA by mail,
stating that yes, he did indeed hear the welcome information about his wife.

            Three and a half years later, Maud was on another voyage along the Labrador coast, on the
return journey to Rupert House Fort McKenzie.  Traveling with her were their two children, two and half year old Hugo and six months old Jacqueline, together with a nine year old orphan girl Alice McDonald.

            On July 22, 1927, the new ship Bayrupert, on only its second voyage north, struck the
underwater Clinker’s Rock and it was split open.  The wireless operator tapped out an SOS in Morse Code, and in response a steam tugboat came out, took all aboard, and dropped them off on nearby Farm Yard Islands.  Soon afterwards, Maud and her three fellow travelers were taken by the ship Kyle back to Newfoundland, where they waited out the season until shipping began to move along the mainland coast once again during the Spring of the following year.

            Both Maud and James befriended the local peoples of the north, and their service to them has become legendary.  Maud herself is honored with the informal title, the Angel of Hudson Bay; books have chronicled her exploits, adventures and service; and movie films have catalogued in dramatic style her endeavors in the Canadian Arctic.  

            Let’s go back to the year 1924 again; and on August 4, the Canadian government asked KDKA to maintain radio contact with the Canadian Coast Guard supply ship CGS Arctic during its annual cruise to isolated outposts in the Canadian north.  New radio equipment was installed on the CGS

Arctic in Quebec before she set sail for the frozen north, with William Choat Toronto amateur operator 3CO, as the ship’s radio operator.  The ship CGS Arctic was actually registered in Newfoundland which was not yet a part of Canada at the time, and its radio equipment was licensed with the callsign VDM.             

            As requested, shortwave 8XS at the KDKA facility in Pittsburgh did maintain regular
communication in Morse Code during the nearly three 3 month long 1924 voyage of the CGS Arctic VDM from Quebec, up to the northern outposts and then the return to Quebec.  One of the amateur
radio stations contacted by William Choats at VDM during this voyage was the pioneer English amateur radio operator Gerald Marcuse G2NM.  It will be remembered that Marcuse began the transmission of his now historic program broadcasts on shortwave three years later, and that was the beginning of international shortwave radio programming from England.    

            Back during that era, the KDKA-8XS Far Northern Service was presented usually in English, though on occasions Bishop Turquetil spoke to the northern Canadians in one of the Eskimo
languages.  By the year 1938, the KDKA Far Northern Service was on the air in five languages:
English, French, Danish, Icelandic and Eskimo.  The broadcast of the KDKA Far Northern Service for the 1939 Winter season began and by that time their shortwave service had undergone a double
callsign change, from W8XS to W8XK and then to the regularized WPIT.

            Interestingly in December 1933, the Canadian Radio Broadcasting Corporation CRBC
introduced their own northern service under the title Canadian Northern Messenger which was based upon the successful American Far Northern Service from KDKA which was by that time now ten years old.  But that’s a story for another occasion.