If you walk or bike through Lawrence Township’s Mercer Meadows, you will encounter puzzling artifacts from telecommunications history — scattered giant slabs of concrete and one giant pole that is more than 100 feet high. In 1929 AT&T set up this 820-acre plot as a “Pole Farm.” All telephone calls from the United States to Europe were routed through it.
“Until undersea cables were laid in the 1950s, all the international telephone traffic was done by short-wave radio,” says Dennis Waters, a Lawrence historian who is on the Mercer Makes panel on October 4. For telephone traffic to Europe, parts of the Middle East, and Africa, the gateway transmitter was the Lawrenceville station. “In 1952, to speak to a cousin in England, you would talk to a series of operators. and your call would be transmitted over short wave and converted to telephone signal in London.”
Several thousand poles, 80 to 120 feet high, supported giant antennae that were parallel to the ground. Eight poles held up each antenna, and each antenna, shaped like a rhomboid or irregular diamond, covered about 10 acres. One of the rhomboids transmitted to Honolulu, another to Buenos Aires. (The rhomboid antennas replaced an earlier design, shown in the photo above.)
Two buildings housed the equipment for transmission, which went over various wires to the antennas strewn all over the property. “The ‘radio men’ operated the transmitters, and there was a lot to that job, because the vacuum tubes were constantly burning out,” says Waters. Engineers who managed the outdoor part of the plant worked out of the barn that stands at the entrance to the park.
Why Lawrence? “AT&T needed a large, flat piece of land that was not too far from Route 1,” says Waters. The main East Coast telephone trunk line from Boston to Washington ran under U.S. 1.
“AT&T also needed an area that was rather sparsely populated, so it would not interfere with radio reception.” The antennas continuously pumped out a million watts of radio frequency energy. In addition, the ‘sending’ Pole Farm also needed to be 40 or 50 miles south of the ‘receiving’ station in Netcong.
“The Pole Farm was capital intensive but without much impact on the local economy,” says Waters. At its peak, during World War II, the Pole Farm employed 80 people. In 1965 it was the largest radio telephone station in the world, but undersea cable was replacing the shortwave radio transmission. “Shortwave radio continued to operate to places not reachable by undersea cable,” says Waters. “The last live circuit was to Guantanamo Bay Cuba, because we had no cable laid to Cuba.”
In 1975 AT&T removed nearly everything from the Pole Farm tract, leaving behind one pole and dozens of concrete slabs that were the bases for the antennas. For the next 20 years, AT&T leased the land to farmers. When developers got interested, the community convinced Mercer County to acquire the property
With the entrance located at the intersection of Cold Soil Road and Keefe Road, Mercer Meadows (renamed from Mercer County Park Northwest) includes Rosedale Park and the equestrian center.
The son of an Air Force archivist, Waters grew up “all over the place” and spent his 20s in the radio broadcasting business. Then he went to Binghamton University for both a bachelor’s degree and a PhD in advanced technology. Most recently he published a series of business and technical newsletters, and he still owns part of a molecular biology news service, Genome Web.
“I am a neighbor of the Pole Farm, and for 20 years, fragments of information were floating around,” says Dennis. “When I was appointed Township Historian in 2006, I made it my first project to document the history of the facility. In the late ‘20s, it was bleeding edge technology.”
“Perhaps because of my itinerant childhood, I like to understand who was walking in the same place 200 years ago,” says Waters. “It helps give meaning to a place. People who use the trails probably have no idea that when the president of the United States was speaking to the leaders of Europe, his call was transmitted from this spot.”