CHATHAM – A year after it was automated and all but shut down, the Marconi-RCA Wireless Receiving Station was listed on the National Register of Historic Districts after being nominated by the town's historical commission, with the blessing of then-owner MCI International.
That was 25 years ago last month. The commission and local preservationists' recognition of the importance of the ship-to-shore Morse code station, first opened by Guglielmo Marconi in 1914 on the shores of Ryder's Cove, led, five years later, to a grassroots movement that resulted in the town's purchase of the 11.3-acre main campus in Chathamport as well as the transmission facility at Forest Beach in South Chatham.
Next week, a new video tracing the history of the station, the effort to preserve it and its conversion to a museum and education center, will debut with a special free showing at the Chatham Orpheum Theater. “Preserving Chatham's Wireless Radio Heritage” will be shown for free on Saturday, Sept. 14, at 9:30 a.m.
The video is the brainchild of Roslyn Coleman, longtime volunteer and former member of the Chatham Marconi Maritime Center board of directors. It includes interviews with many of the key people involved in the preservation and acquisition of the property, including Norman Pacun, chairman of the historical commission who led the National Register effort; Jim and Maraide Sullivan, who formed the Friends of Forest Beach to save the station's South Chatham property from development; Bill Farris, the station's last manager; and Lewis Masson and Harris Pintof, who worked at the station from the 1950s to the 1970s. Many were captured during the Marconi Center's 2018 summer speakers series, said Coleman.
Her goal was to highlight the civic leadership that rescued the Chathamport and South Chatham properties from development.
“It's amazing how much talent we have here, and how people use that talent on behalf of the town,” she said.
The challenge, she said, was cutting 15 hours of “good stories” down to a reasonable length. To do that, she enrolled in Matt Barnes film club at Monomoy Regional Middle School. With the help of Barnes and the students, she learned to edit the video and add production value to tell the Marconi Station story in a compelling and visually interesting way.
“It's really an amazing story that we have saved that property,” Coleman said. Some 90 people who played a part in the story either appear or are mentioned in the documentary, she added.
The station was once the busiest commercial ship-to-shore station on the east coast, sending and receiving as many as 1,000 messages a day to ships at sea the world over. After being built by Marconi, it was operated by the U.S. Navy during World War I; with the government reluctant to have the station controlled by a foreign entity, it was taken over by the Radio Corporation of America after the war. It handled communications or messages for a number of historic events, including Richard Byrd's expedition to the South Pole; it provided weather information to Amelia Earhart and handled one of the last transmissions of the Hindenburg before it burst into flames over Lakehurst, N.J. During World War II, it was once again taken over by the Navy and intercepted German submarine communications, which were relayed to Washington and London and contributed to the breaking of the Enigma code.
Technology spelled the end of the station, which once employed more than 30 radio and teletype operators, maintenance staff and administrators. MCI WorldCom acquired RCA Global Communications in 1988, and in 1993 automated the station to relay signals to another wireless station in Point Reyes, Calif. In 1999, MCI put the South Chatham land on the market for $2 million and the Chathamport property for $4 million. The Sullivans led the effort to have the town purchase the property, making connections with MCI officials and ultimately facilitating the purchase of a total of 90 acres of land in South Chatham and Chathamport for $950,000. The fact that the land on Ryder's Cove was already a National Register Historic District no doubt had a big impact on the outcome, Coleman said.
“If it hadn't been for the National Register designation, they would probably be house lots,” she said.
The Chathamport land includes 10 buildings that were determined to contribute to the National Register listing. Four are bungalows that were once used for staff family housing and now serve as an innovative affordable housing rental program run by the town. Two others are larger homes that are leased to private individuals on a long-term basis. The Marconi Maritime Center, which began as an offshoot of Pleasant Bay Community Boating, lease the two largest buildings: the former “hotel,” which housed bachelors who worked at the station and the former operations center. The latter is now a museum dedicated to the history of the station and wireless communications. The hotel also houses exhibits and is also used in the group's successful STEM program, which holds summer classes and also works with local schools.
“It's been a fun thing to watch over all these years,” Coleman said of the evolution of the property. She had a front-row seat; as a member of the town's finance committee, she had access to the property, and her involvement with the boating group in its early days helped steer the program toward education.
The contributions of the volunteers and regular townspeople involved in the story is told in the documentary “from the lips of the people who made it all happen,” said Coleman, a retired educator.
Admission to the Sept. 14 screening is free, but tickets must be reserved online at chathamorpheum.org/sept-special-events.