Towers to beckon no more

Way Back When

Annapolis: Today, the demolition of three of the 19 giant antennae on Greenbury Point will begin.

November 13, 1999|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

For more than 80 years, the huge three-legged red and white radio transmission towers at Greenbury Point, east of Annapolis, have been as much a part of the local scene as the State House with the golden acorn atop its dome.

Once called the "world's biggest chatterbox" and described as a "steel toothpick," the Naval Radio Transmitting Facility, its formal name, was known around the world by its call letters, NSS.

Visible some 35 miles down the Chesapeake Bay, and for a time the tallest structures in Maryland, the great aerial cobweb of steel cables and wires also served another purpose.

It was an unofficial visual navigational aid that helped mariners steer their vessels home and larger ships up and down the bay.

Today, Controlled Demolition Inc. of Phoenix in Baltimore County, with a noise no louder than a rifle shot, will begin demolishing the first three of the 19 towers that have occupied the 231-acre peninsula since 1918 and range in height from 300 to 1,200 feet. The $4.3 million job is expected to be completed by March.

In all, 16 towers will be torn down. Three smaller ones will be spared.

The radio towers, which provided key defense communications to the Atlantic Fleet's ships and submarines during World War II, the Cold War and later NATO forces, ceased broadcasting in 1996 when the Navy deemed them obsolete.

The government bought the property -- where the Wright Brothers had earlier flown experimental airplanes -- in 1909. It was a Naval Air Station until 1917, when it became the U.S. Naval Radio Station, Annapolis, with the construction of the first towers.

The station made history when microwave signals it emitted were first bounced off the moon. After closing three years ago, some of its functions were switched to facilities in Iceland and Puerto Rico.

Known locally as the "Eiffel Towers," for their similarity in design to the Paris landmark, the towers were held in place by strong cables and linked together by an intricate pattern of delicately spun steel antenna wires.

Because of the sensitive nature of the radio traffic, which had its origin in Washington and traveled via land lines and relay to Annapolis, it was in the form of dot-and-dash Morse Code or radio Teletype. Some messages even arrived by radio-telephone.

Capt. Richard E. Elliott, who was in charge of the facility in the late 1940s, told the The Sun, "We don't know what we send and we don't want to know."

"Day and night, Annapolis broadcasts time signals and weather reports to merchant ships and messages to the Atlantic Fleet from the North to the South Pole," the newspaper reported.

Its huge 500,000-watt transmitter, the world's most powerful at the time, was capable of transmitting signals to Ireland, Pearl Harbor or the Far East.

During World War II, three Choban Kopeks, or Turkish sheep dogs, whom The Sun described as the "world's fiercest watchdogs," were sent to protect the facility from possible wartime sabotage.

The dogs were about the size of German police dogs and brown in color with black stripes. "If you ventured around the radio station at night when these dogs were loose, you simply wouldn't come back alive," The Sun said.

The station was an enormous consumer of electricity, some 750,000 kilowatt hours a month.

Ten-ton weights suspended from the towers helped keep antennas taut during windstorms. When ice formed on the cables in winter, technicians melted it off by turning up the current from 600 amperes to 1,000.

It took aerial riggers a half-hour to reach the top to change aircraft warning lights. The towers often acted as giant lightning rods during thunderstorms, which interrupted radio transmission in the most severe cases.

"Although Station NSS holds the long-distance record for transmission of radiophotos to Admiral Byrd's Little America expedition in 1946, most of its signals are unheard in Maryland," the newspaper reported in 1949.

"Sometimes, however, the dots and dashes are picked up by Annapolitans trying to tune in a soap opera. They are heard at 900 kilocycles or other multiples of 18."

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