Wednesday, August 10, 2022

London Calling at the Pole Farm

On any given summer day, an 800-acre expanse of grasslands and forested tract on Lawrence Township’s Cold Soil Road is alive with buzzing insects and chirping birds. Ninety years ago the tract was alive with state-of-the-art radio technology that transmitted telephone calls to Europe, South America and the Caribbean. 

Locals dubbed it the Pole Farm for the ever-increasing number of oversized telephone poles that sprouted up to meet increasing demand for international telecommunications service. Today the poles are gone and the site is part of Mercer Meadows, a unit of the Mercer County Park System.

The Pole Farm’s quaint appellation belies the magnitude of its stature as the American Telephone and Telegraph Company's Long Lines Overseas Telephone Radio Transmitting Station. More than two dozen steel towers, and then hundreds of towering poles were erected between 1929 and the 1960s to support antennae that transmitted telephone calls via shortwave radio to points across the Atlantic.

These days, we take international telephone service for granted; with the advent of web-based services, many of us skip the phone for video anyway. In the early 20th century, however, telecommunication was limited to places that had been physically wired into the system. Thus, North America could talk to North America, and Europe could talk to Europe, but there was no way for people in the Eastern Hemisphere to talk with those in the Western Hemisphere.

Enter the wonders of radio, which was becoming commercially viable for voice signals in the early 1920s. Bell Labs engineers first devised a way to transmit converted phone signals to London and back via long-wave radio signals, but that was on an expensive single circuit. If AT&T had any hope of selling international telephone service to the public, it had to be both cost effective and available on demand.

The answer came in shortwave radio, which overcame the issues of long-wave but brought its own limitations. (Big science alert here!) To beam powerful signals long distances, specialized radio antennas would have to be located precisely, built under exacting conditions and suspended by large arrays of towers. Bell Labs engineers again got to work, determining what kind of equipment the service would need and where it would need to be located to operate optimally. Their solution also had to address the very real problem that the wavelengths of shortwave vary in how well they work, depending on the time of day. If the service were to be reliable, engineers would have to overcome the limitation with a better antenna.

Beyond the knotty radio transmission challenges, AT&T needed two pieces of land - one to build a transmitter and another to build a receiver - far enough away from each other to assure that the arriving and departing signals didn't interfere with each other. Building them in sparsely populated areas would assure that there wouldn't be much if any other radio traffic to interfere. The transmitting station needed to be relatively close to U.S. Route 1, where the primary East Coast telephone system trunk line was located.

Netcong in hilly, rural western Morris County proved to be a suitable location for the receiving station, narrowing the possibilities for a transmitting station to the south. Lawrence and Hopewell Townships proved to be just the spot, with appropriately level farmland that was largely cleared. AT&T’s land acquisition team quietly began negotiating with 14 farmers in 1928, moving quickly in the hopes that deals would close before local chatter would prompt property owners to raise their prices. Word got out in the local newspaper, and while AT&T initially denied being in the market for farmland, it eventually admitted the transactions and closed the deals.

Following the purchases, AT&T quickly got to work on the infrastructure, both here in New Jersey and the first two international locations, London and Buenos Aires.

The Lawrence Township facility included two radio transmission buildings complete with an innovative water cooling system for the powerful vacuum tubes that generated the necessary shortwaves. To the outside world, the most remarkable feature of the facility was the v-shaped configuration of 180-foot-high steel towers – 26 in all – which supported a series of wire-mesh antennas. Placed about 250 feet apart, the lines of towers extended about a mile in each direction, aimed to beam signals to London and Buenos Aires. Somewhat like shades that could be rolled up and down, the mesh curtain antennas were precisely tuned to accommodate the complexities of shortwave technology at a given time of day or night. Machinery hoisted the various curtains on Roebling cable at the appointed hours to ensure reliable telephone service 24 hours a day.

Work was completed in Lawrence and London in 1929, right on schedule, with Buenos Aires coming online in 1930. Technological advancements soon improved efficiency and capacity, enabling the site to handle more calls on a single radio channel and bringing the cost of a call to $30 for three minutes. Meanwhile, some of the farmers who once owned the land had made deals to lease it back, and continued to raise crops in the shadows of the towers. One could say the property was bearing fruit for everyone.

An example of the layout of a single rhomboid antenna,
illustrated on the Pole Farm's concrete map. 
Just three years after the massive towers were erected, AT&T introduced the rhombic antenna – a five acre-wide diamond-shaped array of eight poles, each 80 feet high, holding up the antenna wire. These smaller, less expensive arrays spelled the end for the giant curtain antennae, which were dismantled in 1939. Further advancements brought the twin rhombic antenna (think one diamond next to another). It’s the proliferation of those, over time, that led locals to dub the tract the Pole Farm. With farming still going on around and amid the antennae, it probably didn’t take much imagination for an onlooker to conclude that the tract’s big crop was oversized telephone poles.

By the mid 1950’s, the site was the largest facility of its type in the world, handling more than a million calls a year. The site’s remaining woodlots and orchards were cleared to erect even more antennas, totaling more than 2000 poles by the 1960s. Old farmhouses, previously converted to housing for AT&T workers, were either moved offsite or demolished to create more space.

In the end, the technological progress that had given birth to the Pole Farm was what ultimately what created its demise. The successful introduction of transatlantic telephone cables and then satellite telecommunication proved to offer more reliable, less costly service. AT&T relegated the Pole Farm to backup status in the 1960s, removing antennae as they were taken out of service. In the final years, the facility that once provided groundbreaking voice communications to world capitals was now left to serve small markets in countries most Americans couldn’t easily locate on a map.

AT&T fully decommissioned the Lawrence Overseas Telephone Radio Transmitting Station on December 31, 1975. By the end of 1977, virtually every standing structure on the Pole Farm had been demolished – everything but a single pole from the Tel Aviv rhombic. Farmer Charlie Bryan had requested that it remain standing as a lightning rod to protect his home and barn nearby.

Other traces of the Pole Farm’s infrastructure are largely gone, through you might find the stray cable or concrete footing among the ground foliage as you stroll along the wooded paths. The county has memorialized the two transmitter buildings with steel arches that approximate where their entrances would have been. The site of Building Two, not far from the parking lot, includes a large concrete map of the antenna configurations that once stood on the grounds. One can walk from Bogota to Berlin, to Moscow, to London, to Willemstad, to Bermuda, imagining the conversations that flowed through those radio waves.

Turns out, too, that the Pole Farm is a remarkably lovely place to visit on a summer afternoon. In the two decades since Mercer County bought the property, 435 acres of the former farmland has been converted to native grasslands. It’s great habitat for Short-eared Owls and Harriers in winter, and Grasshopper Sparrow, Bobolink and Meadowlark in summer. The Washington Crossing Audubon has pegged the fields as outstanding for butterflies if the county leaves the grasses and wildflowers unmowed for the summer.

Level gravel paths make the entire place very welcoming to anyone on foot, bicycle, stroller or wheelchair. As you walk or roll or run, consider that some of the very routes you’re taking are the service roads that linemen once used as they maintained the antennae that connected the world’s voices. Stop to look closely in the woods, and you might even see vestiges of the poles, guy lines and concrete footings that stabilized the antennae. Interpretive signage along the paths offer photos of the structures that once stood there, along with portraits of some of the people who kept the station humming. A leisurely visit will leave you marveling at what once stood there.

While I’ve covered a lot, there’s so much more to the Pole Farm, from nature to history to technology. Lawrence Township historian Dennis Waters’ very informative presentation for the Mercer County Park Commission, available on YouTube, dives a bit deeper into the technology, the people who worked at the site, and the post AT&T history. It’s definitely worth watching.

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