Wireless carriers like Verizon and Sprint may capture our imaginations today, but in the 1920’s maritime stations ruled the airwaves, and station KPH was the wireless king of the Pacific.

Visiting the site of maritime radio station KPH evokes a flurry of emotion as one can see old remnants of vital shipboard communications even during the Pearl Harbor attacks. The moment you enter the receive station at Point Reyes, California, a long row of bending trees takes you into a tunnel symbolizing the commencement of electromagnetic energy.

For almost a century, KPH with the ‘PH’ indicating the San Francisco Palace Hotel where the station was first licensed before being moved out to the Point Reyes peninsula, communicated with ships at sea using high-speed Morse Code and radio teletype. Shipboard operators could listen to 24-hours of “dits” and “dahs” from KPH, which had some of the best Morse operators in the country. The station would handle everything from sailing orders, personnel and cargo decisions to ships in peril calling “SOS”.

Marconi Telegraph Wireless Company built a radio station northwest of San Francisco, California in 1914.The RCA Pacific High Seas Receiving Station, KPH, Point Reyes, California (just north of San Francisco) was built in 1919; it is now used by the National Park Service as an office, but still houses Amateur Radio Station K6KPH. The Radio Corporation of America (RCA) established a maritime radio station in Port Reyes, CA in 1929. Over the years, the facility was owned by Marconi, RCA, GE, AT&T and MCI.  Decommissioned in 1997, it is now an historical site within the Point Reyes National Seashore.

Tree tunnel entering Point Reyes, California station KPH
Tree tunnel entering Point Reyes, California station KPH

KPH served as a lifeline to ships on the high seas for 92 years. The Maritime Radio Historical Society, a group of hams and radiotelegraphy experts, spearheaded the movement that brought KPH back to life. The day we visited KPH, the chief operator for the historical society, Richard Dillman, described his momentous experience as both a frequent visitor and now curator of KPH. “Our fear is that it will die out,” said Dillman. “Our job is historic preservation, keeping alive the tradition and passing it on.” Two years after KPH closed for good, Dillman was so disturbed by the station passing he did not come near the facility for two years. Then in 1999, he braved his emotions and confronted the US Park Service guard on duty and told him he needed to see the station again.

Richard Dillman never worked at KPH.  But he was a station visitor beginning in 1972.  When the station shut down in 1997 he didn’t lose his job and his career like the KPH employees did.  Nevertheless the emotional impact was such that it took almost two years for him to return to the receive site, expecting to see it trashed.   The last KPH manger on duty was a man named Jack Martini. Jack had worked as operator and manager since the 1950s and when he closed the door on KPH no one knew he had left a mysterious token of appreciation inside the fortified walls. When Dillman was allowed to enter KPH in 1999 he walked down the long hallway to the back radio room. As he approached the radio room, he could hear a faint sound of what engineers call “white noise”. Jack Martini had left the receiver on as a symbolic watch over the ships at sea.

“Approaching the operating room we started to hear static then Morse code and ships calling. The hair rose on the back of my neck.  We turned the corner and found… everything as if they had left it yesterday.  All the receivers were on”.

KPH Operating Room in 1964 showing Manager Jack Martini (standing) and Bill Maloney (operator sitting)
KPH Operating Room in 1964 showing Manager Jack Martini (standing) and Bill Maloney (operator sitting)

On the day we visited KPH in June, 2011, Dillman demonstrated the prowess of Morse code and portrayal of the Morse code operator and reminiscence of the life inside KPH. Work at the station was mostly routine, but every once in a while the ordinary was interrupted by an emergency call. On one occasion in October 1980 KPH was one of the stations that received an “SOS” from a burning Dutch luxury liner in the Gulf of Alaska. The ship’s high-tech satellite communications had failed, and the fate of 520 passengers and crew rested on old-fashioned Morse code. KPH Morse code worked, and all were saved by the Coast Guard.

Wireless transmission and ship to shore communication were rapidly growing enterprises during the early 20th century. KPH’s sister, Marshall Station, a few miles to the east was the first United States station to receive news of the attack on Pearl Harbor and transmitted it across the country. During World War II, KPH was used by military and Coast Guard personnel who were stationed in the area to patrol nearby beaches.

The KPH receiving station is 18 miles north of Bolinas on the Pt. Reyes peninsula. The operators work from this location, keying the transmitters in Bolinas remotely, just as was done when the station was in daily service. The receive antennas at KPH still remain with rhombic and fishbone configurations covering several acres of land, each pointed to a particular area out in the Pacific. Three large antenna arrays were designed for Sydney, Manila and Tokyo among others. Radio receivers captured the messages and relayed them via wire line to the RCA Central Radio Office in San Francisco.

The transmitting antennas are double extended Zepps for frequencies below 12 MHz and “H over 2” for 12 MHz and above. All antennas are fed with open wire line. Some antennas are held aloft by stacked telephone poles. These simple arrays of antennas, feed lines and guy wires were larger and more complex than most of the sailing ships of the day. And, like those ships, it took a special breed of man to keep them all aloft in the face of Pacific storms, salt spray and the ravages of time.

KPH rhombic and long-wire antennas directed toward the Pacific Ocean
KPH rhombic and long-wire antennas directed toward the Pacific Ocean

The first transmitter in the Point Reyes area was a 230 kW rotary spark gap, the standard Marconi of the time and it was replaced in 1920 with two Alexanderson alternators each with a power of 200 kW operating at 26 kHz under a call sign KET.

K6KPH on-the-air operations use only the original transmitters, receivers and antennas of KPH. No amateur equipment is employed. As of this writing K6KPH operating frequencies are 3550, 7050, 14050 and 21050 kHz. The transmitters for most of these frequencies are Henry HF-5000 commercial transmitters. But for special occasions the 1950s vintage RCA commercial units known as “K” and “L” sets are used. A Press Wireless CW transmitter was restored by the Maritime Radio Historical Society including new mercury vapor rectifier tubes and all new power amplifiers. On this day the Press Wireless transmitter was clicking out the purest Morse code transmission one could offer.

KPH Vacuum Tube Transmitter
KPH Vacuum Tube Transmitter
KPH from the Google view – a mile worth of antennas near the Pacific shore line
KPH from the Google view – a mile worth of antennas near the Pacific shore line

World War II prompted even more developments in communications such as LORAN (long range aid to navigation) and GPS (global positioning systems) replacing the need for Morse Code operators and ocean-front technical stations like KPH. The Maritime Radio Historical Society opens the station to the public on Saturdays and during Amateur Radio “Field Day” when volunteers operate the antique radios. More information can be obtained at www.radiomarine.org.

By: Chris Horne, W4CKH,  LBA CTO

LBA Technology provides support to medium wave radio stations including parts and antenna systems. Read more about LBA Technology capabilities here.

About The Author

LBA Group, Inc. has 50 years of experience in providing RF asset solutions and risk management for industrial and telecommunications infrastructure assets. The group is comprised of LBA Technology, a leading manufacturer and integrator of radio frequency systems, lightning protection and EMC equipment for broadcast, industrial and government users worldwide; the professional consultancy Lawrence Behr Associates and LBA University, providing on-site and online professional training. The companies are based in Greenville, N.C., USA.

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