Coastal radio station’s centennial summons artifacts

11/07/2013

Long before satellite technology allowed people separated by thousands of miles to connect with a few taps on a smart phone, West Marin proved to be the ideal grounds for a key Pacific Coast radio station.

In anticipation of the 100th anniversary of the R.C.A./Marconi transmitting and receiving stations, the National Park Service and the Bolinas Museum are partnering to gather memorabilia, photos, memories and whatever else people might have that hails from or harkens back to the stations’ past. Park archivist Carola DeRooy said they are particularly interested in equipment predating World War II, which is scarce, since much of it was replaced a long time ago. They are hoping collectors will hear word about their efforts and contribute to the exhibit planned for next June.  

The Marconi Wireless Telegaph Company of America built both West Marin stations in 1914. Guglielmo Marconi, the inventor and businessman who helped revolutionize communications across the globe with his pioneering discoveries in the power of radio, formed the company in 1899, two years after starting a British counterpart. American Marconi needed a new location for high-powered station on the Pacific coast, which at the time was key for maritime transmissions. The company found that Point Reyes provided lands free from interference; its proximity to San Francisco also enticed the corporation. 

The stations had to be placed at a distance so that they did not mangle each others’ signals. They also helped usher the towns into the new century; at the time of their construction, Bolinas lacked electricity and had dirt roads; during construction, carriages sometimes got stuck in muddy paths, according to a 1998 history of the stations by former Point Reyes National Seashore historian Dewey Livingston. 

The Bolinas station sent the first trans-Pacific radio transmission, in Morse code, to Honolulu. “In those days that was the farthest a message had ever been sent,” Ms. DeRooy said.

After World War I, as the United States government became anxious about non-American control of wireless communications, Marconi America dissolved and the Radio Corporation of America was born, a merger of Marconi and General Electric. 

During an expansion in the 1920’s, a new receiving station was built on the McClure Ranch south of Abbotts Lagoon and a new transmitting building was built in Bolinas. (The Marshall property, now the site of the Marconi Conference Center and the Barinaga Ranch, was sold after World War II.)

The importance of the emerging radio technology—for which Mr. Marconi won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1909—was highlighted in the 1920’s by a fire on a passenger liner 600 miles off the coast. The Point Reyes station received S.O.S. calls and alerted ships in the area, resulting in the rescue of all 261 on board.

But as it goes with all technological innovation, eventually the revolutionary wireless radio signals were rendered obsolete. Inverness resident Lee Richardson, who says he is the last remaining living technician from the receiving station, saw the beginning of the change to satellite technology.

Mr. Richardson worked as a rigger, building antennas in Point Reyes and Bolinas for six years. “It looked like a forest out there, but none of the trees had leaves on them,” said Mr. Richardson, now 84.

He left his job to work for another seven years inside the Point Reyes station, where he was primarily charged with ensuring signals remained strong for companies like Bank of Tokyo and United Airlines, which were guaranteed a healthy amount of power. 

There were two divisions at the receiving station: those who worked downstairs communicating with ships at sea, and those, like Mr. Richardson, who worked upstairs to maintain signal strength and keep the seven-foot receivers in tune. “There were about 6,000 knobs in that room to turn,” Mr. Richardson said. “After a signal travels 6,000 miles, it gets a little weak.”

Stress levels ran high when solar flares, or large explosions of energy, would occur and disrupt radio signals. “Every radio in the room went off frequency” during a flare, he said. 

When he began working as a receiving technician in the mid-1970’s, Mr. Richardson said there were 23 other technicians. When he quit seven years later—declining a transfer to Guam or New York—there were only five technicians, a product of the emergence of satellite technology, which R.C.A. adopted but failed to manage well. “Towards the end it was just boring because there was nothing to do,” he said.

The stations officially closed in 1997, and the station manager at the time, Jack Martini, spent the next two years taking inventory. The final commercial Morse code message was sent on July 12, 1999. 

The park service now owns the stations, although the Maritime Radio Historical Society operates them for tours and keeps equipment in working condition, and Commonweal leases many of the former buildings and land in Bolinas.

 

The Bolinas Museum and the National Park Service are looking for anyone with possible contributions. Those interested can contact the Bolinas Museum’s history curator, Elia Haworth, at  elia@bolinasmuseum.org or (415) 868.0330, or Carola DeRooy at (415) 464.5125 or carola_derooy@nps.gov.