SOS Sounded For Historic Radio Towers

By: Tim Wood

One of three 100-foot-tall steel lattice antennas that are part of the Marconi-RCA Wireless Receiving Station National Historic Register District is threatened by erosion along the Ryder's Cove shore. The town is seeking $300,000 in Community Preservation Act funds to stabilize the shore and another $40,000 to restore and protect all three towers. TIM WOOD PHOTO

Erosion, Age Threatens Marconi Antennas

CHATHAM – Driving along Ryder's Cove on Route 28, it's impossible to miss the three tall, steel lattice antennas once used by the Marconi-RCA ship-to-shore radio station. Home to ospreys during the spring and summer, the structures are an imposing reminder of the power the station once had to send and receive signals from halfway around the world, keeping in touch with ships at sea for more than 70 years.

Built in 1921, seven years after the rest of the station, the 100-year-old towers are still apparently structurally sound, but there is concern that they may not be receiving the maintenance necessary to keep them that way.

One of the towers, especially, faces an uncertain future unless something is done to arrest erosion along the Ryder's Cove shore.

All three towers are considered contributing structures to the Marconi-RCA Wireless Receiving Station National Register of Historic Places District.

The town, which owns the Marconi property, had an initial assessment of the towers done in 2003. A $10,000 appropriation to update the assessment was approved in 2019 but has not been done. A new $40,000 request for community preservation funds has been filed to complete the updated structural engineering evaluation of the towers and implement protective actions, which includes installing bollards or railings around the towers to protect them from being hit by vehicles, which has happened to tower 3, located next to the Ryder's Cove town landing parking area. Specific repairs or upgrades needed won't be known until the engineering assessment is completed, according to Principal Projects and Operations Administrator Terry Whalen. 

The town is also asking for $300,000 in Community Preservation Act funds to stabilize the shoreline to protect tower 2, located near the Ryder's Cove shore. The tower's footings are about 20 feet from the high tide line.

“It is, I'd say, not in jeopardy today, but if nothing is done in a few years” the tower could be in a “dangerously precarious” position, said Coastal Resources Director Ted Keon.

A comprehensive look at the Ryder's Cove landing facilities a few years ago showed the need to replace the bulkhead and ramps as well as raising concerns about erosion of the shore north of the landing, Keon said.

“It is by far the most actively used facility in Chatham during the boating season, frankly year round,” he said. Other waterfront infrastructure needs took precedence, however, but plans call for revisiting the project in the coming months.

The $300,000 would cover design, permitting and construction of appropriate stabilization of the coastal bank in front of the tower. The initial request was for $100,000, but Keon said consulting engineers recommended the higher figure.

“Given the proximity of the structure, the type of erosion and what's going to provide the protection in the long term, it's likely that we're going to be pursuing what's referred to as a hard structure,” such as a bulkhead, he said. “The cost of that alternative is not inexpensive.” Permitting will be “fairly involved” because Ryder's Cove is located within the Pleasant Bay Area of Critical Environmental Concern. The lion's share of the cost will be construction, however, which Keon estimated cost be $220,000.

Erosion at the location is “more or less steady,” with higher rates during storms, said Keon. “It's modest but it's close enough that we've got to pay attention to it,” he said.

Protecting the towers falls under the historical preservation category of the Community Preservation Act, but the town is requesting that 80 percent of this year's CPA funds be directed to affordable housing, which could leave little for other projects, said historical commission chair Frank Messina.

Because the towers are contributing structures to the National Register District, there may be other funding opportunities, he said.

“There is potential matching funds from a number of historic preservation associations, including [the Massachusetts Historical Commission],” he said. The community preservation committee is “going to be between a rock and a hard place this year” with funding requests, said Messina. “It's just the reality.”

Historical Commission member Don Aikman suggested that the funding could be spread over several years. While the project could conceivably done within a single fiscal year, the permitting will could take considerable time, Keon said. He said he will discuss funding options with Finance Director Alix Heilala.

“I don't think it will jeopardize the integrity of the towers just by waiting another year,” he said.

The towers are the last remaining structures that carried the rhombic wire antennas used by the station to receive radio signals. They should be protected, said historic commission member Jane Moffett.

“It's a major historic site [that] brings a lot of tourism to town,” she said.