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February 20 - March 6, 2003

Mount Washington, N.H.: A Look Back

Almost exactly a year ago - February 6, 2002, to be exact, we presented a Tower Site of the Week feature on the WMTW-TV transmitter site high atop Mount Washington, New Hampshire. It was newsworthy then because WMTW had just signed off from the Rock in favor of a new site in Baldwin, Maine. Little could we have imagined that it would become newsworthy again on Sunday, February 9, 2003, when a fire that apparently began in the exhaust system of the generators blazed out of control, destroying the WMTW building and the adjacent Yankee Power House.

In memory of what was once one of the most impressive broadcast facilities in the Northeast (and as a way of showing off some of the nifty pictures that our Boston Radio Archives co-editor Garrett Wollman took during a rare blue-sky moment on the mountain last summer), we offer a recap of that Site of the Week installment, annotated to indicate what was lost in the fire on February 9.

(And we should mention that Site of the Week is actually Site of the Every-Other-Week for a few weeks while we're on the road gathering still more exciting tower images to share with you!)

First, a quick ID of the towers in Garrett's photo, above: at left is the WHOM 94.9 antenna, its multiple bays enclosed in a tubular radome. The Yankee Power House is the hip-roofed building between WHOM's current antenna and its auxiliary antenna, the three bays on the short tower. (At least the radome on the bottom bay was damaged in the fire.) The WMTW building itself is next on the right, hiding behind those weather monitoring doohickeys. The Armstrong tower that dates back to 1937 is at right, with the WMTW auxiliary antenna on top (it seems to have survived the fire without significant damage), with the heavily-radomed WMTW antenna from the early sixties just behind it.

On with the look back...

There are few spots as inhospitable for a broadcast transmitter as the top of Mount Washington, New Hampshire.

The highest point in the northeastern U.S. is renowned as the home of some of the worst weather in the world, including a record wind gust of 231 miles per hour and winter temperatures that routinely hover in the minus-twenties.

But at 6,288 feet above sea level, with a line of sight that stretches from Portland, Maine to Boston to southern Quebec, it was also an ideal spot to test the limits of VHF broadcasting in its earliest days.

In 1940, that meant FM radio - and in 1940, FM radio meant Edwin H. Armstrong, the inventor of the technology. Working with John Shepard, the owner of a Boston department store chain, Armstrong built the first FM network atop two New England peaks: Mount Asnebumskit in Paxton, near Worcester, Mass. and Mount Washington itself.

W1XER was the initial call for the station on Mount Washington's rocky crown, which actually began as a high-frequency AM station in 1937, operating on 42.3 megacycles. In the summer of 1940, Armstrong converted the station to FM operation, using the call W39B and the frequency of 43.9 mc when full-time operation began that December. The original antenna was made of eight truck springs, designed to bear the weight of the winter ice buildup on the mountain and spring back to shape once the ice melted in the spring!

Two buildings atop the mountain housed the station, which was officially licensed to Boston, 150 miles distant.

Shown at the left is the "Yankee Building" that housed the transmitter and studio facilities (though much of the programming originated at Yankee studios in Boston, relayed to the Asnebumskit transmitter and then picked up at Washington for rebroadcast); a short distance away is the Yankee powerhouse where the electricity needed for the broadcasts was generated. There has never been a power line running up the mountain from the valley below, and the broadcasters of Mount Washington have long borne the responsibility of providing power for the Mount Washington Observatory as well as their own needs.

(The Yankee Building, which sits between the WMTW complex and the Sherman Adams Building that houses the Mount Washington Observatory, survived the fire intact.)

W39B (known later as WMTW-FM on 98.5 and still later as WMNE on 100.5, by then licensed to Portland instead of Boston) used a 90-foot tower next to the Yankee Building, with a series of antennas that started with the famous "spring" antenna and were continually modified as the station changed frequency over the years.


The tower still stands, and we'll see it in a moment - but first, let's close a chapter in the mountain's history.

"The Rock" went silent on December 31, 1948, when the Yankee Network (by then owned by General Tire) decided the wide reach of the Mount Washington signal was outweighed by the very limited FM audience and the high cost of maintaining a year-round staff on a mountaintop that was inaccessible for days at a time in winter. (Then as now, engineers rotated on and off the mountain in one- or two-week shifts, getting up and down on snowmobiles.)

In the spring of 1954, Mount Washington became a busy place again; this time preparing for the arrival of television. A building and transmitter were fabricated in Manchester, then trucked north to be reassembled between the old Yankee Building and the powerhouse.

On September 25, 1954, WMTW-TV, licensed to Poland Spring, Maine, signed on from studios in the historic Riccar Inn and the new 105,000-watt transmission facility high atop Mount Washington.

Programming was transmitted by microwave over the 46 miles between the two locations.

The signal from the Alford antenna atop the old Armstrong tower reached a huge swath of Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, New York and Quebec - in many cases, areas that had never had a clear television signal until then.

In the sixties, WMTW upgraded its mountaintop facilities, building a new RCA antenna and tower completely enclosed in a cylindrical radome to replace the old Armstrong tower and Alford antenna, which remained available as a standby. In the seventies, a new RCA transmitter (just visible at rear in the above photo) supplanted the old TT-25 transmitter.

(The old transmitters disappeared from the mountain sometime before WMTW left completely; in pictures we've seen from channel 8's last few years there - you can see them too at - the old RCA transmitters had been replaced by a new solid-state transmitter, which looked kind of lonely in that big room. And even that transmitter was gone by the end of summer 2002, when WMTW vacated the premises, leaving the building occupied only by WHOM 94.9 and the generators, operated now by the state of New Hampshire.)

The engineers who maintained the transmitter even became stars, in a way; WMTW's newscasts featured live weather reports from the mountaintop all winter long, delivered for many years by Marty Angstrom, whose Maine accent became a hallmark of channel 8's programming.

The transmitter building houses full living facilities, including two huge freezers to store a winter's worth of food, brought up each July and August to be eaten over the next ten months or so.

We were fortunate to meet Marty and the rest of the crew at WMTW when we visited The Rock in June of 1995 to take these pictures. It was a warm, sunny day as we approached the base of the Mount Washington Auto Road; by the time we reached the summit, it was in the forties and fog was rolling in.

By the time we left the transmitter building, the fog had surrounded the mountaintop, which is why you don't get to see as much of these towers as we'd hoped to present.

WMTW, of course, was hardly alone on the mountaintop by the time we got there.

In 1958, WMTW added FM service to its TV facility, resurrecting the old WMTW-FM calls for a 48 kW facility on 94.9 MHz, licensed to "Mount Washington" itself.

Originally located on a two-bay antenna on a tower next to the TV transmitter building, WMTW-FM later moved to a new multi-bay antenna (completely enclosed in a cylindrical radome) alongside the power house. Sold off from the TV station in the seventies, 94.9 went through a few years as WMTQ before becoming WHOM, operating from studios in Portland and a transmitter (seen at left) in the WMTW-TV building, maintained all winter long by the channel 8 technicians.

A third station joined the crowd on the mountain in the eighties, when WMOU-FM (103.7 Berlin NH) moved from the WMOU (1230) tower down in the valley north of the mountain to a directional antenna on a tower near the Yankee building.

(That facility survived the fire intact, but with no power at the summit WPKQ was unable to transmit from the mountain for more than a week. After a few days of silence, 103.7 returned to the air with a few hundred watts from its studio facility down in North Conway.)

WMOU-FM changed calls to WZPK, "the Peak," then to WPKQ, rebroadcasting the country music of WOKQ (97.5 Dover) down at the Seacoast, with advertising that targeted the North Conway region at the base of the mountain. Again, WMTW's engineers handled 103.7's engineering, while WMTW's generator provided the power for WPKQ's transmitter.

And so it went...until digital television came along and changed everything.

WMTW, assigned a DTV allocation of channel 45, realized that a UHF signal from Mount Washington would be unlikely to put a viewable DTV product over Portland, its primary market.

(The advent of cable and satellite television had cut significantly into WMTW's off-air viewership in the sparsely populated regions north and west of the mountain; by the eighties, channel 8 had moved its studio from Poland Spring to Auburn - and later to downtown Portland itself - and was solely focused on southern Maine.)

In 2001, WMTW built a new 1670-foot tower in the town of Baldwin, Maine, on the west side of Sebago Lake and just a few miles from the existing towers of Portland competitors WCSH-TV (Channel 6) and WGME (Channel 13), and on February 5, 2002, channel 8 signed off from the Mount Washington site and began transmitting from the state of Maine for the first time in its nearly half-century history. Soon, WMTW-DT will begin its own operations from the Baldwin tower. (Weather permitting, we hope to present this tower as next week's Site of the Week.)

(The weather did permit, sort of; you can see those pictures here.)

What next for Mount Washington? There's pressure from Dartmouth University, which controls the mountaintop, to clear off some of the development that now greets hikers, drivers and those arriving on the historic Mount Washington Cog Railway. It's not clear who will provide power and maintenance for the radio stations and the Observatory in the absence of WMTW. And it's certain that Maine viewers won't hear Marty telling them about the nasty mountaintop weather any more.

(In a way, you could say that the university got its wish; it's unlikely that the WMTW building and the Yankee Power House will be replaced by anything nearly as large as those buildings were. WHOM will likely relocate its transmitter to the Yankee Building once it resumes broadcasts from the mountaintop; the Yankee Building will probably also house some of the microwave facilities, including the link from the Portland studio to the Rumford transmitter of WLOB-FM 96.3, that remained behind in the WMTW building.

As for the power supply on the mountain, the fire has already renewed talk of a permanent power line to the summit, perhaps via conduit attached to the Cog Railway tracks. If another generator facility is constructed where WMTW's plant stood, connected to the kerosene tanks - remember, diesel fuel would freeze at summit temperatures! - that survived the blaze, it's sure to be much smaller than the WMTW building was. And it's likely that at least some of the towers at the summit will now come down. In the image seen here, courtesy of the Mt. Washington Observatory, the main WMTW tower is seen at bottom center, with the Armstrong tower just above it. You can see the red radomes of the WHOM auxiliary antenna above the charred remains of the Power House; note that the bottom radome and part of the middle one are gone. The main WHOM antenna is at top center and seems to have survived. The generators were in the part of the WMTW building at the right of the image.)

Progress marches on, we suppose; certainly WMTW today is more interested in touting its "new, stronger signal" from Baldwin than in its long history atop Mount Washington. But we hope, years from now, that someone will still remember all the long winters and hard work that went into the transmission of television from this mountaintop.

The More You Know...For much, much more detail on the early years of FM and TV on the Rock, don't miss the "Articles" section of Norm Gagnon's outstanding GGN Information Systems site. Norm also features several early photos of the FM installations on Mount Washington. Additional details on the Armstrong/Yankee years on the mountain provided by Granite and Ether: A Chronicle of New Hampshire Broadcasting by Ed Brouder (Bedford, N.H.: NH Association of Broadcasters, 1993).

Want to see more neat sticks all year round? Nashville's WSM (at right) is one of the more than a dozen Tower Site images featured in the 2003 Tower Site Calendar, coming this fall from Tower Site of the Week and

If you liked last year's edition, you'll love this one: higher-quality images (in addition to WSM, this year's edition includes Providence's WHJJ; Mount Mansfield, Vermont; Buffalo's WBEN; KOMA in Oklahoma City; WTIC, Hartford; Brookmans Park, England; WPAT, Paterson; Four Times Square, New York; WIBC in Indianapolis; WWVA in Wheeling, W.V.; WGN Chicago and more), more dates in radio history, a convenient hole for hanging - and we'll even make sure all the dates fall on the right days!

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