WKR Nome - The Final Years

[See the Historic Coast Stations section for photos of WKR]

We are particularly fortunate to have the story of WKR in Nome, Alaska from a man who was there.  Lake Trump, AL7N, was an operator at the station and was there when the station closed.  The photo to the right shows Lake in winter garb in 1979-80.  Here's his story:

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By L. E. Trump

Fairbanks, Alaska

Coastal Station WKR

Nome, Alaska…The Final Years

I was one of the last CW operators at one of the last Marine coastal stations in the State of Alaska.

 When WKR in Nome closed, it ended a chapter in the history of communications that began in the early 1900’s.   Landline telegraph wires connected the far outposts of the Territory during and immediately following the gold rush of 1898.   Spark and CW radio soon supplanted and mostly replaced the landlines across the state.  Numerous coastal stations and cannery radiotelegraph stations had been established everywhere on the coasts that shipping went.   One of these stations was in Nome, Alaska on the south coast of the Seward Peninsula, a small community of about 2000 permanent residents.  Give or take a few hundred.  Originally, the station was part of the US military “Washington-Alaska Military Cable and Telegraph System” (Affectionately referred to as “WAMCATS”).   Callsign in the 1920’s and 1930’s was WXY.  WAMCATS later was renamed the Alaska Communications System or ACS.

The station in Nome evolved through several locations, incarnations and callsigns, burned down at least once in 1929, was under military control (AKN22 at the last of military control) and subsequent civilian control by RCA.   By 1975 it was licensed as WKR on the MF marine frequencies 500 and 472 Kc.  The counterpart and co-located HF coastal and land station held the callsign WGG55, and theVHF marine callsign was WSX73. The station was in the RCA Alascom Public Telegraph Office location on Front Street, in Nome, right on the seawall against the Bering Sea.  The original transmitter site was a mile east of Nome on the tundra about a half mile inland from the coast, and the receiving site was about a mile northwest of town off the Teller highway co-located with an FAA HF  receiving site.

As to what I had been doing prior to my arrival in Alaska…

I had been employed by the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad in Colorado and Utah for about nine years since I graduated from college (Colorado State U) with a BSEE degree in 1965…  I hired on as a telecommunications engineer trainee and worked my way up to where I was doing lots of open wire plant and landline wire carrier engineering, plus VF carrier telegraph, microwave and VHF radio work. 

While I was there in Denver, and mainly “just for the hell of it” I went to the FCC District office and took the examination for a Second Class Radiotelegraph Operator’s certificate.   I had been licensed as a ham since 1957, and had just taken and passed the quiz for an amateur Extra class license.  I had been doing a lot of radiotelegraph message handling on the amateur NTS and TCC circuits, so I was in good shape.  I had also spent months copying along while WCC and KPH on both coasts worked ship traffic on the 6 and 8 Mc. HF bands,  and so had gained  some familiarity with commercial work while I was getting ready for the Commercial exam.    I did not know it at the time, but having that commercial radiotelegraph ticket was to have a profound effect on my later career.

I enjoyed working for the railroad as long as I could be out in the field actually doing things, but it got to the point finally where I was stuck in the head office in Denver all the time.  I was  in a position were I was on call 24/7/365,  had lots of responsibility but little actual real authority without approval  from higher up and I was getting really tired of living in the big city with all the crowding and heavy traffic…In short, I was tired of the ratrace.

I quit the railroad in 1973 and bounced around about 18 months doing different things.  My mother passed away during this time and left her estate to my younger brother and me, my dad had already gone.

I used some of the estate proceeds  to take flying instruction at Vernal, Utah, and ended up with a commercial pilot’s certificate and a small two-seat aircraft that I enjoyed flying all over in.

In May 1975, I decided to sell or give away everything I owned that would not fit in that little airplane and set out for Alaska, “just to see what it was like”.   I ended up in Anchorage, and began looking around for work.

Jobs were scarce in Alaska in 1975, and the Trans Alaska Pipeline was just getting underway…Many people from “outside” had been hired and the labor market was pretty well filled at the time.  The word was “Don’t come to Alaska, there are no more jobs...” Well, I went anyway.  Once I got there, though, it was either get a job and get some income, or tuck my tail and run back to Utah where I’d come from before I ran out of money entirely…..And a place to live and food to eat wasn’t cheap., so I didn’t have much time.  However, I had no real desire to go back where I came from either.

I applied to RCA Alascom in response for their newspaper ad for a telecommunications technician.

In the course of the interview, RCA discovered that I had a Commercial radiotelegraph operator’s certificate.  It turned out that RCA needed a licensed radiotelegraph operator at their Nome station that could double as a radio maintenance technician.  RCA was Union Shop, but the Union (Teamster’s Local 959) that organized the contract labor for RCA Alascom could not dispatch anyone that had the required license and general qualifications and experience that I had documented. (This was from the time I had spent on the Railroad in the communications department….My amateur experience may have also figured into this, I do not know). One of the supervisors, a man by the name of Daniel Gorman said, “Boy do we have the job for you!”

How little I knew!

Anyway, RCA hired me immediately, and next day I flew out to Nome via commercial airline (Wien Air Alaska).  I had to leave my little airplane tied down at Merrill Field in Anchorage.  It would be September before I could return to get it.

Here is the story of the last years of WKR as I saw it.

I arrived in Nome June 23, 1975.  The fog was right at minimums for the airline and thick enough to cut there on the coast.  John O’Larey and Dan Hede, two of the technicians stationed at Nome, picked me up at the airport and I began my long association with WKR and the Nome environment immediately. 

The station on Front Street served as the RCA Public Telegraph Office as well as the operating point for the RCA Marine Coastal Station.   The station stood a manned distress watch on 600 meters and 2182 Kc during it’s published open hours from about the first of May when the ice in the Bering Sea permitted shipping into the area,  to late October when the ice returned and all shipping left the area for the winter.   The operators customarily left the receivers on all the time year round anyway and continued the distress watch , out of habit more than anything else.    There were speakers all over the station so any of us could be doing other work while we listened for radio calls  on MF CW, HF and VHF.

In 1975, the console for working WKR, WGG55 and WSX 73 consisted of an old Automatic Electric cord PBX type switchboard, a rack mounted operating desk with a Royal “all cap” mill sitting on it,   a battered J-38 telegraph key and a pair of ancient headphones.   There were two receivers racked above the desk, an old R-390 and a huge Bu-Ships RBA-6 TRF medium and long wave receiver.  There were also controls to switch frequencies on the transmitter out at the transmitter site east of town (500 Kc. Calling and Distress, and 472 Kc. Working), and a peculiar panel with a large square meter in the center of it that controlled the remote Bu-Ships RBA-6 CW receiver out at the receiver site.   There were two lever switches on the console panel, one to run the audio level up and down and the other to change the frequency. The large meter pointer moved across the dial calibrated from about 425 Kc to 525 Kc.   This followed and read out the tuning of the receiver as you held down the lever switch to run it up and down the 600-meter band. 

A large 8-day deck clock on the wall with the silent periods marked on the face, monitor speakers for MF, HF and VHF receivers, and some cubbyholes for paper forms rounded out the installation.  There was no Bug key there when I arrived.  A woman teletype operator took care of the public counter and there was a Teletype Model 28 ASR teletype machine on the TTY carrier circuit to Anchorage.

The radio operator copied radiotelegraph traffic from ships on the mill and then refiled them on the Teletype circuit to Anchorage for relaying to wherever it was destined.    It was common for the operator to move to the TTY machine and directly punch the paper tape for relaying the messages onward when the ship’s signal strength permitted it. 

Transmitter audio was routed via switchboard cords from the operator’s headset so it could be connected to any of the jacks, which also connected mic audio to the HF SSB transmitter at the transmitting site or the VHF transmitters/receivers (Ch 16 calling/distress, and Ch 26 working) which were located right at the Front Street location.   VHF antennas were comprod verticals on a 200-foot tower at the rear of the station.

Two direct-dial long distance voice circuits were brought out to jacks on the switchboard so that phone patches could be connected direct from the HF  and VHF receiver/transmitter combinations to Anchorage for long distance calls to anywhere in the world from the ships, tugboats and fishing vessels in the area.  We could run one VHF patch and one HF patch at the same time.  The radio operator timed the radio patch calls manually on a standard toll ticket using a stopwatch provided for the purpose.  The operator had to listen and monitor all calls placed then disconnect them promptly on completion.  We heard a lot of “interesting” stuff on some of those calls from fishing boats to “back home”!

I’ll say here that Telecommunications in Nome had just begun the transition from being routed over the old military WHITE ALICE Tropospheric scatter nework built in the 1950’s to the newer Satellite earth station technology.  Two years prior to my arrival, the RCA Nome earth station with a ten-meter dish antenna was installed at the Nome station on Front street.  It was one of the four original midroute earth  stations in Alaska,  the others being at Talkeetna,  Bethel,  and Put River near Deadhorse on the North Slope near the northern terminus of the Trans Alaska Pipeline then under construction.  

There was little on this new earth station at the time….one group of 12 long distance voice trunk circuits to Anchorage  and several voice channels that carried VF teletype circuits for the FAA,  RCA’s public counter  circuit, the BIA, and Wein Air Alaska.  That was all.   Only four of the long distance trunk circuits served Nome proper,  the other  eight went via the White Alice network backhaul up to The Anvil Mountain  site just north of Nome and served Kotzebue with four, and Unalakleet with the other four.  Calling “long distance” was still an expensive and  relative novelty for the community of about 3000 persons at that time.

Within a few days I was shown the receiving and transmitting sites east and west of town.

The receiver site was co-located with the FAA receiver site near the Teller road northwest of Nome.  The FAA soon decommissioned this site and moved out, leaving us the steel building with standby gasoline generator and a large field full of dandy open-wire fed doublet antennas on high wood poles. 

The remote CW receiver was a Bu-Ships RBA-6, rack mounted above a little panel that had some little brass gears sticking out of the front of it.  The tuning and audio knobs on the receiver were removed and replaced with similar larger brass gears, and little brass chains drove them from the gears on the panel below.  The remote tuning panel had two polar relays in it and two small DC reversible motors that ran the gears on the shafts out the front.  

When the operator in town operated the spring-loaded lever switches, it put one polarity or the other of DC voltage on some cable pairs, which ran the little motors backward and forward to change the receiver audio level or receiver tuning as desired.    A separate cable pair carried theRBA-6 receiver audio back to the console in town and the simplex (center tapped line coils) of this pair carried the earth-return DC circuit that provided the frequency readout via a potentiometer coupled to the tuning gear shaft.

When the receiver was tuned, the varying the current ran the DC meter on the operator’s panel that showed the frequency the receiver was on.

All in all, this was an extremely ingenious setup and it worked perfectly the entire time I was there except for one time when some high voltage got into the cable and burned the motor windings…I rewound them and got it going just fine.    The TRF RBA-6 was a beautiful CW receiver…fantastic sensitivity although a bit broad in selectivity, but that was not usually a problem.  Signals on the 600-meter band were generally very loud and in the clear and easy to copy.  We could hear the Chevron tankers call us when they had cleared Dutch harbor and rounded Nunivak Island easily…When they fired up their A2 rigs they would just about knock off our ears.   Coastguard radio NOX Adak and NOJ Kodiak also came in loud and clear. There was neither fading nor daylight-to nighttime changes in signals on the 600-meter band. 

The CW receiver antenna was a 400-foot wire strung between some tall wooden poles, in a direction parallel to the coastline.  The receiving site was about a mile and a half from the beach.

The HF SSB receivers associated with WGG55 were located at the receiver site,   crystal control fix-tuned CAI CR-18 units,   one for 2182 Kc, calling and distress,   one for 2240 kc marine working, and one on 3385 Kc, which was the BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs) HF frequency with which Nome kept daily health clinic contact with the Eskimo villages in the Norton Sound region.  Audio from these receivers appeared at answering jacks on the switchboard in town via leased telephone cable pairs.  Antennas for these receivers were common coax fed doublets cut for the operating frequency and strung between two 90 foot guyed Rohn triangular steel towers.

The transmitter site east of Nome originally was located in a long wood building, established I think during the war years or perhaps before.  There had been three 300-foot tall steel self-supporting towers at this site.  Their foundations blown up and they were still lying on the ground where they fell.  The transmitter equipment was still largely intact inside the building, just turned off and the equipment abandoned in place.  Several rows of large HF transmitter bays….all with tubes and all still sitting there.  The building itself was in bad shape and about to collapse due to the pilings it had been built on being heaved out of the permafrost underneath.

In one corner of this old building sat the RCA CW transmitter.  It was a beautiful but ancient BC365 in a black crackle finished cabinet about the size of a refrigerator.    It used RCA type 805 triode tubes, one oscillator, one IPA and four in parallel as the PA.  Power supply used 866 type Mercury vapor rectifiers.  It was not crystal controlled and licensed for 500 watts, I do not think we ever got that much out of it…it was pretty well tired out.  It coupled to a single wire end fed antenna several hundred feet long supported on wood poles out back of the site through a bowl insulator fixture that went thru the wall.  The control circuits accessed this site via a lead aerial cable on a pole line that went into town a mile or so away.

Considerable effort went into keeping this old relic on the air.  We were continually going out to the site and working on it, as one thing would fail and then something else.   Tubes for it were getting hard to come by as well.

Over in another corner of this building there was a large wood crate containing a brand new modified BC transmitter. I do not remember the make, but the type was LFT 1000 D2…It even had the crystals in it for 500 and 472 Kc for the Nome site.  It had a pair of 4-400A tubes for a PA, and a 6146 driver with a 12BY7 crystal oscillator. It was pretty much all set up and ready to use.  It was in a cabinet about six feet high and maybe three feet square.

The Plate HV, filament transformers, and the Plate choke were missing.  They were never found.

Apparently, This equipment was purchased by ACS and had been abandoned there when RCA took over the operation from the military. 

Not too long after I went to work there, about 1977, we got a call from RCA Ketchikan wondering if they could get parts from us to fix their own BC365 CW transmitter at the WKN station down there.  We did not have any, but decided we could maybe “retire” our old BC 365 and ship it to them, if we could get the new transmitter we had at the site licensed to use.   

About that same time, some “entrepreneurs” decided they needed the lead sheathed aerial cable that carried our transmitter control and audio circuits from town to the transmitter site and had gone out one night and cut down all the poles and stole almost the entire cable… We assumed they dragged it to some remote place, cut it up and shipped it out on a barge for scrap. Subsequent investigation never revealed the culprits' identity.  RCA had to lease some cable pairs from the telephone company and lay a temporary cable from the road to the transmitter site to get us back on the air.  Fortunately, this occurred at the close of the navigation season, so we had some time to get this done and it did not affect operations much if any.

Meanwhile, we had another stroke of good fortune… The FAA had an old four-course Range site about a quarter mile further east of our transmitter site.  The old range courses had been decommissioned, but the site was still in use as an NDB on 239 Kc.   FAA was about to decommission this NDB and install a new one with a new tower across the road from the old Range site.  We got RCA to negotiate with the FAA to take over the old range site when they were finished with it, and we plotted to move our “new” transmitter that was lying in its crate at the old site into the Range site two-story transmitter house with its 135 foot base fed tower adjacent. 

We soon had a new license from FCC with a waiver to increase the transmitter power of WKR to 1000 watts and use the new type-accepted CW transmitter that we had laying there in it’s crate.  We located a source for, ordered up a new replacement plate transformer, plate choke and filament transformer for the LFT1000D2, and set about getting it moved over to the new site.   A fellow by the name of Chuck Rule came to Nome to help me with this job, as the other technicians had bid out of Nome and left.   

The company gave us the “carte blanch” to get this stuff up and running any way we could.   Only I and another operator by the name of Maynard Ward were there in Nome to cover the radio watch and other maintenance duties.

We hauled the new transmitter over to the Range site in our pickup, uncrated it, and literally jacked it up through the floor stair opening into the transmitter house second floor.   We installed the new transformers and chokes, and connected AC power and control circuits

We left the four peripheral 135-foot lighted towers around the range site standing because the site was on the approach path to the Nome airport and we had to maintain the tower obstruction lighting.   

One of these towers (the southwest one) we used as a base-fed vertical antenna for the CAI SSB HF transmitter.   We modified the tuning house and coupled the SSB rig to that 135-foot tower.   We strung four “top hat” wires from the top of the center tower down to the bases of the other four towers. We put some huge insulators in these spans so each top hat wire off the center tower was 50 feet long.  The LFT 1000D2 had two switched output circuits so we could tune each one to the base fed tower for each of the two frequencies 500 and 472 Kc.  I was in hog heaven doing all this…hell; I had the biggest ham setup around to play in!

Once we got everything tuned up the new transmitter performed flawlessly.  It was a beautiful rig. We had a good signal that was heard all over the Bering Sea.

On license renewal in about 1982, FCC combined the marine HF and VHF licenses with the MF grant and the callsign for all services at the Nome coast station.   The assigned callsign was WKR from that time on.

Technology changed quickly in the years following 1982.    RCA installed more long distance trunk circuits.  Soon there were 100 direct long distance direct-dial trunks serving Nome itself and an increased number serving other communities of similar size.     The White Alice system turned down and all the mountaintop stations were decommissioned and abandoned. 

Shipping changed markedly.  Chevron took their tankers off the Nome Bering Sea run and Crowley Tug & Barge took over the fuel oil and gasoline hauling.  WKR lost nearly all the CW business they had then, save for an occasional freighter or Canadian drill ship going around to the McKenzie fields in northern Canada…  The end was in sight.

RCA sold the Alascom Company to Pacific Telecomm in 1979 just prior to this period.

The Nome Public Telegraph Office counter was closed and the HF SSB bush traffic dwindled with the establishment of smaller earth stations and improved long distance telephone service all over the Southern Seward Peninsula/Eastern Norton Sound area and in fact all over Alaska.  BIA discontinued their HF radio operation, and Alascom no longer had the daily HF bush radio schedules we once had with Gambell and Savoonga on St. Lawrence Island,   Wales and Little Diomede Island,  since “normal” long distance direct dial telephone service was now universally available. 

A half hearted attempt was made to remote the operation of WKR to our sister station WKQ in Juneau…but the problems of working a live real time CW circuit over a satellite hop or double hop with over a second of delay made this unwieldy at best.   The WKQ operators did not like hearing their own sending come back to them a half-second or more later.  It was a mess.

Pacific Telecomm installed some new Harris CW transmitters and receivers, but they did not work out very well…The Harris receiver was nice but it was deaf on 600 meters compared to the old RBA-6 receivers and CW signal reception was poor.  The CW transmitter used a Ledex switch driven antenna coupler box mounted outside on the antenna tower, and it continually gummed up due to the cold and otherwise failed to work properly.  The system’s complexity was its downfall.

Finally, in 1984, Pacific Telecomm made the decision to abandon the CW marine radiotelegraph service over all of Alaska.  Loss of revenue was the main nail in the coffin.  CW stations WKR, WKQ and WKN all closed for good.  The HF and VHF marine service followed close behind as Pacific Telecomm wanted out of the Marine Radio business entirely.  The distress watch on 2182 and 500 Kc ceased.

One day a crew of installers arrived at Nome.   They disconnected the beautiful faithful LFT1000D2 transmitter and shoved it out the second story window of the transmitter house into a dump truck.

Those faithful RBA-6 receivers and other equipment at the receiving site joined the LFT1000D2 in the Nome landfill, flattened by bulldozers so they could never be reused anywhere.

I went out and got drunk.

Installers cleared all marine radio equipment from the Nome station.   The new Harris equipment sold to the highest bidder somewhere far away   I swiped the large 8-day deck clock and kept my own bug.  One of the company officials wrote and said he wanted the telegraph key from Nome…I sent him the beat up J-38.  I hope he was satisfied.

Eventually the Company destroyed the receiving site and sold off the land.  The transmitter site was just abandoned….It deteriorated and last I saw it (2006) three of the five towers were on the ground.

I missed the radiotelegraph work, and after WKR closed, Nome just was not the same for me anymore.  I spent all my time flying around to fourteen villages in the area maintaining their small earth stations and was getting pretty tired of it all.   My longevity was in jeopardy from all the bush flying as well. 

I finally bid out to Fairbanks in 1987 and moved my family there.  

 

Here's "the rest of the story" from Richard Dillman, MRHS Chief Operator:

I was on watch at KSM and also monitoring the amateur calling frequencies for K6KPH.  I had just signed off with an amateur station on 14050kc when I got a call from AL7N.  You can always tell when it's a former professional op at the key and there was no mistaking the professional touch at AL7N.  This was confirmed by the absence of the usual ham chit-chat.  AL7N was brisk and to the point: QTC NTS QRV? meaning that he had radiogram traffic for the National Traffic System and asking if I was ready to copy.  I quickly turned to the mill, sent a QRV (I'm ready to copy) and off we went.  At the end it was dit-dit and he was gone.  A real pro.

Since then we maintain a watch for AL7N on 14Mc as his outlet for radiograms to the lower 48.  It's alawys a pleasure to work him.  Plus he and his wife have done us the honor of visiting us during one of their road trips.

Thanks, OM, for your story and for all your support.

RD