HOPEWELL: >‘Pole farm’ history discussed

Calling a telephone number or a cell phone number in London from the United States, using a cell phone, takes only a few seconds to connect and costs anywhere from 8 cents per minute to $1.69 per minute in 2013

By Lea Kahn, Packet Media Group
   Calling a telephone number or a cell phone number in London from the United States, using a cell phone, takes only a few seconds to connect and costs anywhere from 8 cents per minute to $1.69 per minute in 2013.
   The same call to a telephone in 1929, using state-of-the-art short-wave radio transmissions, would have cost $45 for three minutes and required about 30 minutes to make the connection between London and the United States.
   That call would have passed through the AT&T International Radio Telephone Transmission Station at Lawrenceville on Cold Soil Road — known informally as the “pole farm.”
   Sunday afternoon, Lawrence Township Historian Dennis Waters outlined the history of the pole farm — now known as the Mercer Meadows Pole Farm county park — before about 80 people at the Hopewell Branch of the Mercer County Library System. The talk was co-sponsored by the Lawrence Historical Society and the Hopewell Valley Historical Society.
   The story actually begins when AT&T opened its first trans-Atlantic communications line in 1927, Mr. Waters said. At the time, there were 30 million telephones worldwide — half in North America and half in Europe.
   To connect Europe with North America, an American telephone call was sent to a radio transmitter on Long Island, and then to London, England. The cost was $75 in 1929 dollars for a three-minute call, Mr. Waters said.
   On the other end of the line, the respondent’s answer would be transmitted from England to a receiving station in Maine. The telephone circuit could only accommodate one call at a time, he said.
   But in 1928, AT&T switched to short-wave radio transmissions. The technology was more reliable, and when a second circuit was added, the cost of a call dropped to $45 for three minutes, Mr. Waters said.
   AT&T officials soon realized they would need to build another transmission facility to meet the demand, he said. Lawrence Township was about 40 or 50 miles away from the Netcong receiving station, which made it an ideal location.
   The site for the transmission station had to be on flat land, Mr. Waters said. It would require hundreds of acres of land, and also had to be close to AT&T’s trunk cable line. The company’s engineers looked around and settled on the land on Cold Soil Road.
   Over the course of two days in September 1928, AT&T had closed on the purchase of 812 acres of land in Lawrence and Hopewell townships, he said. The company paid $140,000 for the parcels, owned by the Fitzpatrick, Kozic, Mahan, Kubieleicz, Mysliwy, Pierson, Venner, Wilczynski (Wilk), Beans, Hunt, Bryan, Guretzky, Luthke and Zyla families.
   AT&T constructed two buildings for the transmitters on the property at a cost of $2 million — or $25 million in today’s dollars, Mr. Waters said. There were three short-wave radio circuits to London and one to Buenos Aires, Argentina. Outside, there were 26 steel towers that supported the antennas. Seven of the 180-foot-tall towers were oriented toward Buenos Aires and 19 towers were aimed toward London.
   The first international call from the Cold Soil Road site was made in January 1929, and originated in Cleveland, Ohio. The call went through to London, England. The process involved calling the long distance operator in New York City and who then had to contact his or her counterpart in Europe.
   Technology continued to advance, and the steel towers and their mesh antennas were replaced by rhombic antennas in 1931. The antennas were placed on top of 80-foot-tall wooden poles that were arranged in the shape of a diamond. The 26 steel towers were demolished a few years later, although portions of the concrete footings remain, he said.
   Because the “pole farm,” as it became known, was a major transmission facility, there was concern during World War II that the Germans would sabotage it, Mr. Waters said. German submarines were known to prowl off the New Jersey coastline. A fence was built around the buildings, lighting was installed and guards patrolled the property.
   The two decades after World War II were the “golden age” for the pole farm, Mr. Waters said. There was increasing demand for international telephone calls, and the larger of the two transmission buildings was expanded. By 1960, the number of poles for the rhombic antennas had increased to 2,000.
   The growing demand and the need to add more rhombic antennas meant that the land had to be cleared of trees. Six farmhouses that remained on the AT&T property were moved across the street on Cold Soil Road and Keefe Road in Lawrence and Blackwell Road in Hopewell Township to make room for them.
   Mr. Waters said 1963 was the busiest year for transmissions — six million of them, in fact. That demand triggered the last major investment in the transmission station, which was a diesel generator to ensure there was backup electricity to operate the facility.
   But in fact, the seeds had already been planted for the eventual demise of the pole farm. In 1956, an undersea cable was installed between Europe and North America. The AT&T transmission facility was the backup, in case the cable was cut, he said. Satellite technology also hastened the end of the pole farm.
   By the late 1960s, the poles began to come down, Mr. Waters said. In 1973, AT&T decided to close the Lawrence facility. At the end of 1975, one circuit was left — to Guantanamo Bay, he said. The lights went out at the transmission facility on Dec. 31, 1975.
   But there was one pole left, thanks to farmer Charlie Bryan, Mr. Waters said. Mr. Bryan, who was one of many farmers who leased farmland from AT&T, asked the company to preserve the pole so he could use it as a lightning rod to protect his farm buildings. It is still standing in a field off Federal City Road, and is part of the Mercer Meadows Pole Farm park.
   Even after AT&T closed down the pole farm transmission facility, it continued to hold onto the land, Mr. Waters said. Company officials may have expected the value of the land to increase because of its proximity to the proposed route of I-95, which bisected Hopewell Township, he said. A shopping center could have been built on the tract, for example.
   Hopewell Township residents vigorously opposed the proposed route for I-95, and plans for the highway were officially dropped in 1982, Mr. Waters said. But that was not the end of potential development on the 812-acre parcel in Lawrence and Hopewell townships, however, Mr. Waters said.
   In 1989, AT&T agreed to sell the land to a developer who would have built a gated residential community that featured a professionally designed golf course — but the plan was withdrawn because of fierce opposition to it.
   In 1992, Lawrence Township officials led the charge to persuade Mercer County to purchase the tract for open space preservation or a county park. After negotiating with AT&T, the county purchased the pole farm for $8.6 million in 1995.
   Today, the Mercer Meadows Pole Farm county park is devoted to passive recreation, Mr. Waters said. The Lawrence Hopewell Trail bicycle and pedestrian path loops through the park, and there are other pedestrian trails in the park, as well.
   Wrapping up his remarks, Mr. Waters encouraged visitors to the park to “listen to the insects buzzing around you and then close your eyes and imagine a buzzing (of transmission antennas) that was of a very different kind.”