Wireless telegraph service begins in Friday Harbor on February 10, 1904.

  • By Lynn Weber/Roochvarg
  • Posted 5/25/2018
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 20568

On February 10, 1904, less than two years after the first transoceanic wireless telegraph message was successfully transmitted, the Pacific Wireless Telegraph Company establishes service in Friday Harbor on San Juan Island in the far northwest corner of Washington. The mast from which the signals are sent is thought to be the tallest wood mast in the United States, but within weeks it has been storm-damaged, and the station is subsequently moved to a new location. Primarily used as a relay station, the facility generates insufficient local business and in 1908 the company ceases operations in Friday Harbor. However, only a few months later, the United Wireless Telegraph Company begins an ambitious project to develop the site into a more powerful station as part of its Pacific Coast network. As long-distance telephone service becomes more available and economical, local business use of the wireless telegraph diminishes and by 1915 the Friday Harbor station is no longer needed because new installations near Seattle are strong enough to provide signal coverage across the region. The final transmissions from Friday Harbor occur on May 25, 1915, and the station is soon closed and dismantled.

The Development of Wireless Telegraphy

By the end of the nineteenth century, telegraph poles and wires traversed the country from the East to the West Coast, but maintaining the system across vast areas of terrain with the ravages of weather and incidents of vandalism was a constant challenge. In Italy, a young engineer was intrigued with the possibilities of transmitting wireless signals in standard telegraphic "Morse code," created by Samuel Morse (1791-1872) decades earlier. At the age of 20, Guglielmo Marconi (1874-1937) began experimenting at his wealthy family's country estate near Pontecchio and by 1895 he was able to send and receive signals at a distance of 1.5 miles. His work excited little interest in his native Italy, but he found support in England where the General Post Office was seeking ways to improve communications between its facilities. By 1897 Marconi had established a private company, and just two years later he was able to transmit wireless signals across the English Channel. In 1899 Marconi also traveled to the United States and, in an inspired publicity effort, offered free wireless coverage for the America's Cup yacht race off the New Jersey coast. In 1901 the first trans-Atlantic messages were sent 2,300 miles from Cornwall on the south coast of England to Newfoundland in Canada.

Companies throughout the United States, especially those in the shipping industry, immediately recognized the value of wireless telegraphy not just to link facilities on land but also to facilitate almost immediate communication with ships far out at sea. Within a few short years Marconi company radios operated by trained "Marconi Men" were quickly being installed on vessels, including steamships operating in Puget Sound.

Entrepreneurs were eager to take advantage of the technology to establish new wireless telegraphic communications businesses, and in 1903 the Pacific Wireless Telegraph Company was organized in Los Angeles. Although it originally operated primarily in Southern California, company officials were soon planning a major expansion and stations were quickly established along the West Coast including at Port Townsend and Fort Casey in Washington. Government agencies, including the U. S. Customs Service, found wireless telegraphic service invaluable, and in July 1903 the collector of customs at Port Townsend asked the U. S. Treasury Department for the authority to contract with Pacific Wireless Telegraph Company to establish a station in Friday Harbor, located north of Port Townsend across the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

Wireless Telegraphy Comes to Friday Harbor

As the largest community (with a population around 400 at the time) in the strategically located San Juan Islands and the county seat for San Juan County, Friday Harbor was a natural choice for a station to extend wireless telegraphy from Puget Sound north toward Alaska. By November planning for the station was well underway. Several sites had been offered, but company officials felt that it was important that the station be near the business part of town. It was therefore decided to seek a license from the county to erect a station at a site on First Street on the bluff overlooking the waterfront, north of the commercial area between the Odd Fellows Hall (since 1979 the Whale Museum) and property then reserved for a future county courthouse, and near the Methodist Episcopal Church (whose pastor was not at all pleased with the thought of this soon-to-be-neighbor). A temporary license was approved In January 1904, with a review scheduled for the April meeting of the county commissioners.

The most prominent feature of the facility was to be the tall mast from which transmissions would be sent and received. Building proceeded rapidly and by late January the local newspaper could report that the mast was completed except for painting, which awaited drier weather. The mast, it was boasted, "is a few inches over 237 feet in height and is believed to be the highest wooden mast in the United States, if not in the world, and it is questionable if any steel mast has ever been erected of equal height" ("World's Highest ..."). In addition, a small office building, 20 by 36 feet, was constructed nearby. Essential apparatus included a six-horsepower dynamo (larger than any others installed by the company) that supplied the electric energy to the storage batteries; a large induction coil consisting of several hundred miles of fine, closely wound wire; two copper spheres (one positively and one negatively charged) a short distance apart; and a sending apparatus using an ordinary Morse key to cause the opening and closing of the circuits between the spheres, which in turn sparked flashes producing the dots and dashes of Morse code. The flashes were transmitted to the masthead and out on radiating radio waves to another station (keyed to the same tension as the sending station) where the flashes of Morse code were received and translated.

The first trial message was successfully sent to Port Townsend on February 8, 1904, and the station opened for public business on February 10. Earlier that winter the San Juan Islander, the local newspaper, noted that an article in The Seattle Times raised concerns about the efficiency and consistency of the Marconi system based on an anecdote concerning failure of messaging to an offshore ship. In response, it was pointed out that the transmission in question had been partially blocked due to interference caused by wooded hills on the mainland, and several letters had appeared in the Times in support of the Marconi system from companies such as the Western Union Telegraph Company and the Times-Mirror newspaper of Los Angeles. There had also been some concern among those advocating for the development of long-distance telephone service for the San Juan Islands that a wireless telegraph would diminish interest in the telephone, but both endeavors had their advocates, and the wireless telegraph had the advantage of being the first installed. The editor of the San Juan Islander was an enthusiastic proponent of the new service:

"The establishment of a wireless telegraph station here will remove to a great extent the disadvantages of our insular location by affording us means of quick communication with not only the state's but the world's centers of trade and activity" ("Telephone and Telegraph").

The ink was barely dry on newspaper articles extolling with pride Friday Harbor's tall mast when disaster struck. Those making the decision on where the mast should be placed and the strength of its structure and installation did not have sufficient experience with winter weather on San Juan Island, where extremely high winds, especially across open and exposed areas, are common. Just weeks after its installation, a severe storm snapped the much-touted mast 80 feet from the top, causing major damage not only to the mast but also to the stabilizing guy wires and their connections at the ground and the concrete foundation. "It is a very serious mishap and naturally the employees of the company here are unable to say what effect it will have upon future operations. It is possible that service will be reestablished from the top of the remaining portion of the mast, or that another and shorter mast may be erected upon a higher land elevation," the newspaper speculated ("Wireless Station Disabled").

The owners and engineers of the Pacific Wireless Telegraph Company quickly decided that a fresh start in a different location was the best option, and a new station and more modest 200-foot mast were established south of Friday Harbor on 320-foot Bald Hill on Griffin Bay (recognized by more recent residents as the site of the island's former gravel pit near Jackson Beach). By April the new station was in business again, and a note from the Anacortes American published in the San Juan Islander declared:

"Friday Harbor is certainly to be congratulated upon her wireless telegraph station. This, together with the daily boat service which we are shortly to give the people of that community, will put the two cities on friendly terms and make them the kind of neighbors they should be" (Islander, April 16, 1904).

The San Juan County commissioners noted that since the temporarily licensed site on First Street had been abandoned, the license was revoked and, they reminded Pacific Wireless, it needed to remove the broken mast from the property.

A Struggling Enterprise

By 1905 the island's wireless station was established as an important service provider in the community. The proprietor of the Tourist and Bay View hotels felt it was such an asset that in April that year he had a direct telephone line established from the Bay View Hotel to the Pacific Wireless facility and advertised that he could provide commercial and other travelers the ability to take care of communication needs either through the telephone service he offered or by telegraph directly from the hotel. By June, however, this special service had already been discontinued (for unpublicized and unknown reasons), although a direct telephone line was still being maintained to the customs house for government use.

A more direct blow to the finances of the company was the announcement in 1907 that the government was going to discontinue its subsidies to Pacific Wireless for service at both Port Townsend and Friday Harbor. Without government support and without sufficient local demand for telegraph services, the future looked bleak. Early in February 1908 the company manager visited Friday Harbor to meet with businessmen and told them that the company needed a guarantee of $75 per month of business in order for service to continue. As incentive, he offered to recommend a reduction of rates to 25 cents for 10 words and 2 cents for each additional word, as he recognized that the then-current rate to Seattle of 50 cents for 10 words and 3 cents for each additional word was being undercut by the increasingly popular telephone service. Despite his best efforts at persuasion, however, he came away from the meeting without the guarantee he sought, and within weeks the station had closed and the equipment had been shipped to Port Townsend.

United Wireless Telegraph Company

Competition among wireless telegraph services was strong, and the facility abandoned by Pacific Wireless soon was being investigated by another firm that felt the location of the station could provide an important link in its own growing chain of stations along the Pacific Coast. The United Wireless Telegraph Company of New York had an ambitious goal: a wireless service linking the entire West Coast from Colon, Panama, to Nome, Alaska, and from there all the way to the Atlantic Coast. Stations were already being established at Los Angeles, Catalina Island, San Francisco, Portland, Astoria, and Victoria. The construction superintendent and his assistant arrived in Friday Harbor to test transmission strengths and found the site to have excellent potential for an exceptionally powerful station suitable for long distance transmission.

In June 1908, work on the station was already well underway. The site had been leased for 10 years, and it had been decided that the building and mast (the larger portion of which was simply a tree) left by Pacific Wireless would be used until new buildings (including an operating building and a dwelling for the operators) and two new 200-foot masts were constructed. By July service had begun and construction of the new masts and buildings was progressing. The new masts were constructed in seven sections each about 30 feet long and composed of square timbers. The bottom section was embedded to a depth of nine feet in concrete for strength and stability. The mast was 15 inches square at the bottom and six inches square at the top of the highest section. Strong guy cables were attached at each joint of the tall masts and extended to eyebolts embedded in the ground. When finished the masts and wires could easily be seen from Friday Harbor.

Two operators were hired for the station, which was proposed to be in operation 24 hours a day. The men worked in two shifts, 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. and 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. At first, however, 20 hours per day of operation was more usual until a third operator was hired two years later. The operators used earphones through which they heard dots and dashes of Morse code as the signals struck the system of wires above them, and the operators sent messages using a telegraph key to stations as far as 1,500 to 2,000 miles away.

Once again, the proprietor of the Bay View Hotel had a direct telephone line installed from his "poolroom to the wireless station, which enables the public to get into communication with the station at any time" ("Friday Harbor in ...," October 22, 1908). United Wireless was expanding rapidly and saw public recognition of the importance of its service in Friday Harbor as an opportunity to encourage investment in the operation. Just a month after the station went into business, advertisements began to appear in local papers: "A few hundred dollars invested in United Wireless Telegraph stock now may make you independent in a few years. For particulars see Coffin at Friday Harbor" ("San Juan Island," August 29, 1908).

The growing importance of wireless telegraphy for shipping was recognized in March 1909 when Congress passed legislation requiring all ocean-going ships of 100 tons burden or more to be equipped with wireless apparatus. There was abundant local evidence of how efficient wireless telegraphy could be. In June the Puget Sound Tugboat Company's Tyree, coming from Victoria, was sent to Waldron Island to tow a barge of sandstone to Grays Harbor on Washington's Pacific shoreline. The pilot was able to send a telegraphic message to the deputy collector asking permission to come to Friday Harbor and clear customs. The tug was 12 miles away when the message was sent and the answer received in five minutes. The tug arrived and was able to be on its way to Waldron in slightly more than an hour. In another instance a steamship was able to report to the Bald Hill station a forest fire just beginning on Squaw Point on the north coast of the island.

Growth and Decline

In the next few years, the Friday Harbor station was expanded to become one of the strongest and best-equipped stations on the West Coast. The power was increased, a third operator was added to the staff, and it was handling a substantial amount of business, especially as a relay station and part of a large network. "The location seems to be peculiarly favorable for capturing fugitive vibrations and many messages which stations to which they were destined failed to receive have been caught by the Friday Harbor station and relaied [sic] to the one for which they were intended" (Friday Harbor Wireless"). The station even became a point of interest for tourists to the island, and it was reported that those "who have charge of the station, receive a visitor with courteous hospitality and kindly impart all desired information relating to the station, and wireless telegraphy in general with the best imaginable grace" ("Friday Harbor Wireless"). A late winter storm in 1911 again brought down two sections of the tallest mast, but it was restored and operational within days.

Governmental interest in the wireless telegraphic services continued to increase. In 1911 new legislation was passed requiring all oceangoing steamships that carried 50 or more people including the crew and that served 50 specified ports had to be equipped with wireless equipment and carry a skilled operator. Vessels already having a wireless had to register by wireless 100 miles at sea with the U.S. Navy wireless station on shore to inform the navy which ships were properly equipped. And, in 1914 as war in Europe seemed more inevitable, the United States Radio Censor, a navy lieutenant stationed at Bremerton, visited Friday Harbor to emphasize that all stations in Alaska, Washington, and Oregon were under orders to enforce "the neutrality laws until after the close of hostilities in the European war" ("Wireless Stations Under ..."). Operators were alert to the possibility of war-related communications, and in April 1915 a mystery message from the Friday Harbor station was received by puzzled operators up and down the coast and on vessels far out at sea.

"Out of the quivering mass of electric dots and dashes tingling on the great aerials extending from the tower ... the mystery was solved .... It was first thought to be the code message of a German warship, but finally discovered that it was ... [the] chief operator of the wireless station ... making an effort to tell his friends that he was the proud father of an eight-pound baby girl, ... 'It's a girl, 8 pounds, It's a girl, 8 pounds. K. P. D.,'"("Whole North Pacific ...").

By then the Friday Harbor station was, in fact, becoming far less important to the company as the technology continued to improve and the range of transmission increased. A powerful new station near Seattle could now handle all of the relay business, and since relay work accounted for the majority of the Friday Harbor transmissions, there was little reason to continue operating from the island. There was simply not enough local business to justify maintaining the equipment and staffing at Bald Hill and, in May 1915, United Wireless Telegraph Company closed its operations in Friday Harbor and dismantled its installation there. For just 11 years Friday Harbor had been a vital part of the expanding world of wireless telegraphic services, an early participant in this important revolution in communications. Its involvement, while brief, should not be forgotten.


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