The Big Tower

What do hams dream of? When the lottery ticket is verified and the Brinks truck pulls up, what fantasies are realized? Shiny new flagship transceivers from Sevierville or Osaka, one per band, with washing machine sized amplifiers?

Sure, all that and more. But I think the persistent dream is of a place. A quiet, secluded place, far from neighbors and covenants, TVs, computer gizmos and line noise. It’s on high ground—really high. It has a sturdy cabin for the ham shack. But most important is the tower. It’s not some spindly thing held vertical by a prayer, with multiple guy cables singing under tension. Not something that only a circus daredevil would climb. This tower is substantial. It stands confidently on four massive legs. It has a platform at the top that you can walk around on.

And it’s tall. VHF signals beam to distant destinations unimpeded by trees, ridges, and boundaries drawn on maps. And HF signals roll out, filling the vast space you see from the top. E and H fields expand and contract and launch themselves toward Asia and Africa and Europe, toward tiny oceanic reefs—places you vaguely remember from geography class and exotic places you saw in this morning’s paper.

What’s all this got to do with reality? Funny things happen. The dominant communications company in this country decides to abandon a vast network of microwave towers in favor of satellites and tiny fibers. Towers built with no expense spared are suddenly surplus assets that produce no income. As a late joiner, I’m not sure of the exact sequence of events. I know that at the Little Rock Hamfest, John Evans and Charles Shingleur approached me, grinning like schoolyard pranksters and spouting some tall tale about buying an AT&T microwave tower. Naturally, I made some excuse and backed away quickly.

I heard about it again a short while later. As you’d expect, Dennis, W5RZ, was in the thick of it and the probable ringleader. It was a long shot, but we might be able to get this tower site. Hams were doing it around the country, as reported on the ARRL web. But even though it could be cheap compared with its original cost, it was too much for one or two guys to take on. Could a half dozen or so local hams be found that like competitive operating? Guys that wouldn’t mind throwing in on something undefined and with an uncertain payback? I’ve heard that if you want to scare someone, offer him exactly what he wants. All kinds of fears emerge: liabilities, hidden legal icebergs, escalating costs and conflicts that turn your former buddies into adversaries. But the sight of that tower was too much for seven dreamers: the three I mentioned, plus Jimmy Poole, Jon Caery and the ever-adventurous J. Setcer. And of course your reporter is the seventh.

You know by now what happened. Verbal commitments from the seven were given, an offer was made and then increased, and the tower was ours. What’s it like? We have an acre of land and a good access road. There’s a 600 square foot building, built to last with three-phase power and air conditioning. There’s even a 30 kW generator (as yet untested). The tower is 112 feet tall. It’s built like a fire tower, but has a ladder instead of stairs. There are four large microwave horns, two on top and two about halfway up. There is a large platform of steel grating at the top with a railing all around. We understand that these sites were constructed to withstand, to a certain extent, the physical stresses of a nuclear attack.

The place is northwest of Dover. We think the peak we’re on is called Colony Mountain, but we’re not even sure of that. The group now informally just calls it The Big Tower, or uses the initials B-A-T. (Don’t ask.)

Where are we now and where are we headed? If I were a cartoonist, I could draw seven guys thinking about the same tower, but the thought balloons above their heads would show seven different images. (My wife sees it as seven little boys with their secret hideout/clubhouse.) But we have a fairly consistent vision of HF beams and wire antennas and of VHF/UHF antennas at the top. A serious, contest style installation is the goal. We’re going to exploit this thing from 160 meters to 70 cm and maybe beyond.

Getting all this stuff installed on a tower this tall will take a little time. But progress is being made. The building has gone from creepy to positively homey. Damage from previous vandalism has been repaired and improvements including carpeting have been installed. It says something about the enthusiasm of this group that strenuous tasks like welding, weed cutting and painting went on during the hottest days of summer. Operating positions are now being mapped out and partition walls planned. We can’t wait to have our friends up to check the place out.


It's been about a year. A lot has been done and there's a lot left to do. But if my picture were current, you'd see a Force 12 C3 on a tower section at the top, and a second section ready for a VHF antenna. We've worked some contests with a giant inverted vee while we were doing our antenna shopping. Much more to come.

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