World’s Tallest Radio Tower Brought World War Intrigue to Tuckerton, Ocean County

History Lecture Recounts Suspected German Espionage in 1917
By RICK MELLERUP | Jul 11, 2018
MESSAGE FOR THE KAISER: Built in 1912 at the end of present-day Radio Road in Little Egg Harbor, Germany’s Tuckerton Wireless was shut down once the U.S. declared war in 1917.

Who knows how many Americans realize that 100 years ago the United States was at war? After all, when about 25 people on the street in Beach Haven in the summer of 2012 were asked for a SandPaper article what war the U.S. had been involved in 200 years previously, very few could answer the War of 1812. There seems to be a flaw in the way history is taught in the U.S., and maybe math as well.

So for those who don’t remember their high school history, in 1918 the U.S. was heavily involved – with well over 4 million troops in Europe – in World War I, the “War to End All Wars,” “The Great War.”

It is easy to imagine that even a world war wouldn’t very much affect what was then a remote and rural Ocean County. But it did, in many ways. German U-boats prowled the Atlantic off the Jersey Shore; nearby Fort Dix (at first Camp Dix) was created and became one of the premier U.S. Army basic training centers in the country for decades.

Nicholas Wood of the Ocean County Cultural Heritage Commission, filling in for his boss Tim Hart, who was absent due to a family emergency (note to Hart – Wood did an excellent job!), discussed two aspects of Ocean County and WWI in his 75-minute lecture/slide show at the Long Beach Island Historical Museum on Monday evening. The presentation was obviously designed to include all of Ocean County, north and south. The first half of the talk was centered around “General Hospital #9,” located in Lakewood. It was a large, occupational rehabilitation hospital designed to get wounded soldiers of the action in Europe back into the work force as quickly as possible, giving them a reason for living and, just as importantly, saving money from the U.S. budget that would have paid for the disability pensions of wounded soldiers who the government said would otherwise have led “a useless parasitic life” (jeesh, and you thought Vietnam vets had a rough go of it). The second half of Wood’s presentation discussed the once-famous but now mostly forgotten Tuckerton Radio Tower, built in 1912 by the German government.

The tower was 820 feet high, making it, at the time, the second tallest structure in the world, behind only the Eiffel Tower. It was one of the first and most powerful transatlantic radio stations ever constructed. It survived until 1955, when it was torn down and sold for scrap metal and today lends its name to Little Egg Harbor’s Radio Road.

Wood didn’t spend much time talking about the tower itself, because a lecture by John Yates of the Tuckerton Historical Society set for Monday, July 30, at the museum will discuss it in more detail. Instead, Wood concentrated on the tower’s German manager, Emil E. Mayer.

The history of General Hospital #9 was very interesting. It was situated, for example, in the posh, 500-room, Lakewood Hotel, built at huge expense by Nathan Straus, a co-owner of Macy’s, because, as a Jew, he hadn’t been allowed in Lakewood’s other hotels. The U.S. government rented the hotel for $50,000 a year.

But while 75-minute lectures are allowable, newspaper stories that take 75 minutes to read aren’t, so we’ll concentrate on Mayer’s story, which involved alleged spying, and the spread of anti-German sentiment from Tuckerton across the bay to the streets of Beach Haven.

Young Engineer

Watched Carefully

The Tuckerton Radio Tower was a huge project, both engineering-wise and financially when it was constructed, using mostly local labor. It could send telegraphic signals all the way to a similar tower in Hanover, Germany, a distance of 4,062 miles (one signal reached Sydney, Australia, 9,000 miles away), and cost approximately $1 million – a huge sum back then – to build. Its concrete anchors, which can still be found in the Mystic Island neighborhood of Little Egg Harbor Township, were 12 feet high and reached 12 feet into the ground. The tower/radio station had its own generator because Tuckerton wasn’t electrified until 1923. Interestingly, the tower was mostly financed by bonds sold in France, an investment, as Wood quipped, that French buyers would soon regret.

Rather amazingly, Emil Mayer was only 27 years old when he was sent from Germany to Tuckerton to oversee the final construction of the tower and then to manage it. He was obviously a telegraphic/engineering genius, and that genius got him into trouble after WWI broke out in Europe in 1914.

Although the U.S. didn’t enter the war until 1917, the administration of President Woodrow Wilson started to carefully monitor the tower operation. One of the first actions taken by Great Britain when the war started was to cut the transatlantic cables stretching from North America to mainland Europe. So the tower became the only means of Morse code communication – what Wood called the internet of its time – between Germany and the United States. The tower’s signal was broadcast, meaning it could easily be intercepted. But figuring out what was a simple message sent by some of the country’s many German citizens to relatives in their homeland and what was a coded message sent by a network of German spies was far more difficult.

Mayer was the featured speaker at a luncheon meeting of engineers in New York’s famous German restaurant Luchow’s. After the meeting, he was observed talking to a U.S. Navy officer on the Brooklyn Bridge, still respectably dressed as he would have been at his lunch. But a short time later he was observed dressed in rather shabby clothing, talking to another officer. Mayer was also seen sketching the ships at the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

So surveillance on Mayer was intensified, with the Navy sending an agent to follow his activities in Tuckerton. The counter-intelligence agent took a room at the Carlton House, located on the northeast corner of Route 9 and South Green Street, where a recently closed Chinese buffet stands today. The U.S. government also enlisted the services of Tuckerton’s railroad station keeper and postmaster, who carefully noted what sort of people visited the town or mailed letters to the German workers at the radio tower site.

The surveillance spread. Mayer visited Frederick Ostendorff, a noted Philadelphia restaurateur who had a summer home in Beach Haven and who also owned the Beach Haven Garage. Soon agents were not only watching Ostendorff, but breaking into his home – still standing at the southeast corner of Coral Street and Beach Avenue – looking for a short wave radio. They didn’t find one, but the agents were on the right track. According to Wood, Ostendorff moved back to Philadelphia after the war and became known as a dedicated socialist and then a supporter of Adolph Hitler.

President Wilson asked Congress for a declaration of war against Germany on April 2, 1917; Congress complied with that request on April 6. Mayer was almost immediately arrested, charged with “supporting the enemy” and suspected of espionage, and taken – in handcuffs – to a holding station on Ellis Island. He was later transferred to Fort Oglethorpe in Georgia, where he sat out the remainder of the war.

Southern Ocean County was definitely affected by the war. The principal of Tuckerton’s Giffordtown Schoolhouse, now the Tuckerton Historical Society’s museum, ran into trouble when students were told to write a paper on how horrible Germany was. German parents objected strongly. Wood read from a letter from the principal to the U.S. Government in which she asked for government protection!

The Monday evening historical lectures at the LBI Museum, which start at 7:30, will continue through Aug. 27. Next Monday’s talk, by Reilly Sharp of the Barnegat Historical Society and Ron Marr of the LBI Historical Association, will be a nice follow-up to Wood’s presentation. After all, it is titled “World War II on LBI.”

rickmellerup@thesandpaper.net

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