The End of the Tuckerton Tower

By THOMAS P. FARNER | Sep 12, 2013

On April 7, 1917, just hours after President Woodrow Wilson had signed the declaration of war, Secret Service agents entered Tuckerton, N.J., with the purpose of arresting all German employees involved in operating the Tuckerton wireless station. Although the many employees had lived in Tuckerton for more than five years, they were now considered enemy aliens and sent off to a POW camp. The 850-foot tower came under the complete control of the U.S. Navy and was guarded by a force of Marines.

For the rest of the war, most Americans would receive their news from the Western front via the German-built tower, but the byline “by Tuckerton wireless” was soon dropped from most newspapers. With the armistice and the Treaty of Versailles, the tower was awarded to the French as war reparation. But the U.S. Senate refused to ratify the treaty, and President Woodrow Wilson didn’t want any foreign government controlling transatlantic communication.

A quasi-government company was set up, the Radio Corp. of America, known today as RCA. It had big plans for wireless communications and the tower with the new transmission of voice messages known as radio. Days before the company took control, on Feb. 7, 1920, a nor’easter struck the East Coast. According to the Trenton Times, “The government wireless station at Tuckerton, N.J., was completely wrecked by the storm of Thursday and yesterday, according to a message received from there today.

“For nearly two days the detachment of marines and naval men on duty at the wireless station were cut off from civilization because of the record tides. They lost their provisions and were compelled to make a journey of four miles over the ice floes to Tuckerton.”

Shortly after RCA took control and things began to change, on Sept. 26, 1920, the Trenton Times reported, “The residents of the borough of Tuckerton are much excited over the fact that they are to have the largest radio station in the United States. Since 1913 they have had a wireless station there, built by the Germans. … Since the war it has been turned over to a private company, who will use it as a commercial proposition. They are now constructing four additional towers 400 feet high.”

These new towers would change Tuckerton forever.

“The company has contracted with the Atlantic City Electric Company to furnish electricity for lighting purposes and to install the lighting system. The Atlantic City Company, through another company just formed, and known as the United States Radio Supply Company, applied to the Borough authorities for permission to erect poles and string wires, and the Borough Council saw an opportunity to secure electric lights for the municipality and made it a condition of the franchise that the company should furnish the borough with lights for its streets and also for office use.”

Finally, “They have several projects under way one of which is to build a boulevard from the town to the bay for the benefit of out-of-town fishermen. The present method of reaching the bay is by boat through a creek about two miles long.”

The branch of the road leading to the tower would become today’s Radio Road. Work began quickly, as the Tuckerton Beacon reported on Oct. 7 of that year: “Steel is arriving at Tuckerton, already fabricated and ready to put up for the new towers that are to be erected here at the radio station. There will be several of these towers or masts, although they will not be as tall as the present one, erected by the German Company that built the plant. The present tower is 860 feet high. The new towers will be about 400 feet high. The pieces of fabricated iron are being put together on the grounds at the radio station.”

Daily life in Southern Ocean County would be changed forever.

“Another change at the radio station is that Atlantic City will furnish the current used. At present all the coal used at the radio must be carted four miles from the Tuckerton railroad to the plant, making it an expensive proposition to carry on. The borough of Tuckerton will also be furnished with electricity and private consumers served by this same current furnished by the Atlantic City company. During the past week several big machines have been taken to the station and the erection of new apparatus is being rushed as fast as possible.”

The following month, radio station KDKA in Pittsburgh broadcast the results of the presidential election and the modern radio age was born. The tower continued to be run by RCA throughout the Roaring ’20s and in the Great Depression. It was again drafted into service by the government in World War II. The advent of short wave radio made the massive tower obsolete, and in the late 1940s it was shut down. By the mid-’50s, RCA sold the tower and all of its property to a developer. The Trenton Times reported a final attempt to save the historic structure on Dec. 13, 1955.

“Civic efforts to preserve a 763-foot radio tower as ‘The American Eiffel Tower’ have brought a delay in plans to cut down the structure.

“A local real estate development company had said the historic radio tower would be toppled like a tree sometime this week to make way for a 1,800 acre recreational area on the mystic islands near here. … The Little Egg Harbor Township Committee last week asked the Orsand Realty and Investment Corp. to hold back on plans to destroy the tower until civic groups could get together.

“President Lewis Glorsky, president of Orsand, said yesterday he would cooperate. He estimated it would cost $12,000 per year to keep the tower up but added, ‘we will dedicate the land surrounding the tower as a perpetual shrine whether it is preserved or not.’”

Historian Charles Edgar Nash wrote, “December 28, 1955 witnessed the sad end of a nostalgic era in the ‘Middle of the Shore’ region, when the mighty mainmast of the Tuckerton Wireless, one of the first great radio stations in the world, came crashing to earth, twisted and torn. Condemned as obsolete, a cutting torch, in minutes, did what no hurricane had been able to do in almost half a century. Burning through the secondary supporting cable towards the northeast, it threw the whole structure off balance, causing the top 211-foot section of the great shaft to jack-knife and topple towards the southwest. Acres of surrounding meadow shook with the sickening thud of hundreds of tons of steel girders that crumpled and folded like cardboard.”

The Associated Press broadcast this story around the world on its wireless system on Dec. 29, 1955.

“It took many hours of preparation in brisk and windy weather for the demolition. Finally, workers using acetylene torches cut away cable guy lines at one side while a truck pulled away on a cable attached to the other side.

“The faded orange and white structure – as tall as a 76-story building – jackknifed at the center and buckled into the muddy meadows.

“The Mystic Islands are a marshy area among the bays between here and the coast, about 20 miles northeast of Atlantic City.

“Land around the tower will become part of a 1,800 acre resort development.”

Today the lowest section of what was once the second tallest structure in the world is on display outside the Tuckerton Historical Society. While progress usually wins over preservation, maybe the tower will have the last laugh; the massive blocks that once anchored it proved to be too expensive to remove, so today they sit in the middle of residential streets and lagoons, a reminder of when Tuckerton ruled the wireless world and one it appears will be around for a long, long time.

Next Week: Honest Abe American tyrant?

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