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Old AT&T Radio Station South of Dixon to Close Down

A brief history of local high-power, short-wave broadcasting

My last historical piece talked about Solano City, a big development planned for an area south of Dixon in 1913. Unfortunately, it was a big bust.  

It was only 17 years later, around 1930, that another important development began to take shape south of Dixon which was high-tech for its time – powerful, long-distance short-wave broadcasting stations (that were a success).

There were eventually four of these stations – run by AT&T, the Navy, and NBC/Voice of America. Their transmitters all used many thousands of watts of power, and they employed many acres of “antenna farms” to project their signals overseas. I’ll be writing primarily about the AT&T site near the intersection of Midway and Robben roads because it will close down for good this August. Many kilowatts of power will no longer course through the veins of its thick antenna wires.  

But first, an introduction. At about the same time as the Wright Brothers were developing the first powered airplane around 1900, radio was being experimented with. At first there were crude transmitters that used sparks to generate signals to send Morse code (the Titanic used one to send its SOS in 1912). Also, simple receivers designed for home use depended upon crude crystals to listen to broadcasting stations. That all changed during the 1920s when vacuum tubes were invented that made transmitting and receiving much easier.

By 1925 people were enjoying news and entertainment broadcasts from local stations. But enthusiasts had discovered that radio signals in the short-wave spectrum had special properties – radio signals could bounce off a high level of the atmosphere like a rock skipping across a pond, and actually travel all the way across the United States and even to foreign continents. Suddenly, using short wave, it was possible for a person in California to speak to Hawaii or countries in Asia and even to ships in the Pacific Ocean.

It wasn’t long before companies began to charge for telephone calls between these points, and that’s why Dixon’s main American Telephone and Telegraph (AT&T) transmitting site was built in 1931. It enabled someone to phone in to AT&T on a regular phone line, be connected to Hawaii or Tokyo via radio, and be connected there to another phone line for a long-distance conversation.

Various reasons have been given for the Dixon area becoming a popular transmitter location. One was the cheap, open, flat land that could also be used for animal grazing. Another – in the case of the AT&T site – was proximity to a transcontinental telephone trunk line. A less-obvious reason may have been high soil conductivity – as high as it gets in the U.S. – which results in a stronger transmitted signal.

The AT&T transmitting station (with the call sign KMI) was built near the intersection of Midway and Robben roads on a one-square-mile site three miles from downtown Dixon. A solid two-story building was constructed, connected to acres and acres of complicated wire antennas (eventually, 36 of them) strung between telephone poles. By selecting different antennas, signals could be sent off in specific directions depending upon which country or ship needed to be reached.

It should be noted that AT&T operated a central control facility in San Francisco, which handled overseas telephone calls by remote use of the Dixon transmitter and a receiving station in Point Reyes. At first, only one transmitter running 80,000 watts and a staff of five was needed. More transmitting equipment was added as communications needs increased, but by 1937, ways were found to lower the transmitter power considerably.

Calling Hawaii via the AT&T radio system was expensive during this period. A three-minute call cost $285 in today's dollars. Also, because of atmospheric "skip" conditions, calls there could be made only between 10:30 a.m. and 6:30 p.m.

After the 1941 Pearl Harbor attack by Japan brought the U.S. into World War II, Dixon’s AT&T radio station was used extensively for communications with American forces in the Pacific. As an important wartime facility, it was guarded by Army personnel. After the war, the station was again used for civilian needs.

You might say that this was the golden era of short-wave radio – before undersea cables and satellites handled most of the overseas communications needs.  

Dixon’s Meredeth Amass, a hale and hearty 96 years of age today, was an early employee of the AT&T station, and spent 50 years with the company before retiring in 1989. He first got into electronics growing up in Illinois by building radios alongside his father.

They moved to San Francisco, and Amass became a radio amateur (radio ham) while taking electronics courses at Cogswell College. Afterwards, in 1934, he found a year-long job at the AT&T control center in San Francisco. He mentions that overseas voice communications were scrambled by AT&T so that anyone with a shortwave radio couldn’t listen to private conversations. Amass then served five years in the Navy during World War II, and helped listen in to enemy communications for a time and also trained personnel in the use of airborne radar.

After the war, he was assigned to work at AT&T’s Dixon transmitting station (KMI) after one of the staff was electrocuted after he’d carelessly opened up the cover on an operating transmitter. Amass and his co-workers’ job was to maintain the transmitters and antennas and to provide generator power should the PG&E power fail. When use of the station was at its height, as many as 30 transmitters were being used. With all the hot, high-power transmitting tubes being used, air conditioning was essential and “it was always noisy,” says Amass. He says some of the staff got bored, but because he was a died-in-the-wool radio man, he found the job interesting. At times he was in charge of the station.

Typically, the station had one person on duty all the time, with three eight-hour shifts working every day of the week. Later, the transmissions were controlled from Florida. AT&T operated two similar transmitting stations (WOO and WOM) on the East Coast.

By 1978, numerous undersea cables and communications satellites began to seriously bite into the long-distance radio business. The new mediums were more expensive to install and use, but they were more reliable. Radio communications can be upset by solar and atmospheric conditions and there can be fading and static.

Amass also repaired people’s radios and TVs from his home in Dixon as a second job.  He retired from AT&T in 1989, and the company closed down their station at Robben and Midway roads in 1991. When I interviewed him recently, he didn’t know that another company had bought and operated the facility after he left.  

That company was Globe Wireless, which began broadcasting from the former Dixon AT&T facility in 1993. I visited the operation recently, took some photos and spoke with the sole operating engineer, Abe Lewkowicz, who lives in Dixon. He explained that the building now is mostly empty after its glory days have passed, but Globe still runs four transmitters, each outputting 4,000 watts of power. The digital transmissions from Dixon send data which originates in Half Moon Bay (which also serves as the receiving station). Globe also has another transmitting station in Palo Alto. Through this arrangement, Globe transmits to ships in 70 to 80 percent of the Pacific Ocean, according to Lewkowicz.

Lewkowicz had an interesting story to tell about copper thieves who attempted to steal antenna wire from the facility. Apparently they didn’t succeed, but even if they had, their wire would’ve been hard to sell, because it was only copper-coated steel wire, called copperweld.

Unfortunately, Globe has Lewkowicz winding down operations at this site, and has sold the land to a nearby rancher. The building will pretty much be an empty shell by August, 2013. But Globe will continue on at another former AT&T broadcasting site near the intersection of Flannery Road and Hwy. 113, about nine miles from downtown Dixon.

Two other transmitting sites along the appropriately named Radio Road (about five miles from Dixon) still operate. The first is the Navy facility, operated under contract by the Rome Research Corporation. On a two-square-mile plot, the Navy broadcasts to its ships and submarines in the Pacific area. There are several very high towers used for broadcasting, and one especially is dedicated to very-low-frequency transmissions. New signage at this facility designates it as the Naval Computer and Telecommunications Station (NCTS). The former Navy personnel quarters at the site are now used for migrant farm worker housing.

Just to the east of the Navy facility is another transmitting site built during World War II for the Office of War Information. Essentially, it broadcast programming in foreign languages to advance American interests in the Pacific region, and probably to counteract Japanese radio propaganda. The station was operated by NBC radio personnel under contract. After the war, the station was operated as a Voice of America station. For a time, it broadcast in Spanish to countries in Central America. VOA transmissions ended in 1993, and it was said that in 1998 Globe Wireless bought it. However, Globe apparently leased the facility to Aeronautical Radio, Inc. which presently uses it to communicate with aircraft flying over the Pacific Ocean and South America.

Now you know a little more those buildings with their antenna farms south of Dixon.      

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

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