DXpedition Island — Towers Included
Neil Galloway, VE3VNG
Battle Harbour is a remote location that boasts historic accommodations and two Marconi radio towers.
The DXpeditions you read about in ham radio magazines are often in remote locations. Somewhere back of beyond. Yet, an ideal DXpedition site is not necessarily dangerously remote — and not necessarily in a foreign country — nor is it mandatory to require long flights or tedious ocean voyages, or camp in freezing, leaky tents, on hard rocks.
Usually the DXpedition members carry all their equipment with them, including bulky antenna towers. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a location where the radio tower is already on site — just waiting for you? Right here in Canada there is a site begging for a few devoted, adventurous ham operators and it has not one but two towers.
Battle Harbour is an island off the southeast shore of Labrador. It is a National Historic District operated by the Battle Harbour Historic Trust. On the island there is an abandoned Marconi radio station, the only remaining physical evidence of which are two steel towers.
Communications at Battle Harbour
When Battle Harbour was first used as a base of operations by European fishermen, the only means of communication to other parts of the world was by letters carried by fishing schooners. It would be months before the letters were delivered, if they even reached their destinations.
This situation lasted until 1904, when the Government of Newfoundland established nine radiotelegraph stations on the southeast shore of Labrador to assist in communications with radio-equipped ships at sea.
On September 5, 1909, Commander Robert E. Peary broadcast from Battle Harbour to the world his still controversial claim that he had reached the North Pole.
The station on Battle Harbour was operated by the Government of Newfoundland until operations were turned over to the Canadian Marconi Company in 1906. The Marconi Company’s operation continued until 1957 when the Canadian Department of Transport took control.
All was clear sailing until 1930 when a fire destroyed the original wooden transmitter tower. The fire also destroyed the hospital established by Sir William Grenfell in 1893 and the boarding school for mainland native children.
Originally the radio station’s call sign was BH, then MBH and finally in 1912 the station was assigned the call letters VOA. Battle Harbour’s most famous operator was Stan Brazil (VON). Stan operated the station from 1912, when it used a spark-gap transmitter, till 1949. He not only handled the essential weather, shipping and fishing information, he also, when the air waves were quiet, would entertain his listeners with local news and events, gramophone music and sometimes accordion solos.
In 1942 the United States Coast Guard, in conjunction with the Government of Newfoundland, established the Battle Harbour Loran-A station (NJN-35). It was located at White Point, about 3.7 km southeast of the Marconi station. The station was operated by the USCG from 1942 till 1953 and by the Canadian government from 1953 till 1983.
The Loran-A station operated till January 1984 when it was moved to Fox Harbour and replaced by a Loran-C station. At about this same time, Battle Harbour (VOA) ceased operations. Today Battle Harbour’s communications are very limited. Even cell phones don’t work on the island.
A DXpedition Destination
Being an island, Battle Harbour is just right for island-seeking hams. It is a 1 hour boat trip from the mainland. The more adventurous might like to take the route through Labrador City — a much longer drive on gravel roads and a longer ferry ride. If you prefer to sail your own boat, you can sail right to the dock.
Geographically speaking, Battle Harbour is located at 52° 15’ 58.7” N, 55° 34’ 43.4” W. For comparison, Moose Factory, Ontario is 51° N, Edmonton, Alberta is 53° N and the Falkland Islands are 52° S.
Is Battle Harbour exotic? Perhaps. The island has a long history. With your first step on the dock, you can hear the ghosts of the brave fishermen who worked the fishing grounds and fought the elements to wrest a living from the cruel sea.
Remote? Not really, but there is no direct overland route. It is served by road and air to Mary’s Harbour on the mainland. The longest ferry ride is about 6.5 hours from North Sydney, Nova Scotia to Port aux Basques, Newfoundland and Labrador.
Dangerous? Nah. Just don’t get too near the steep cliffs.
Primitive? Yes. No en suite baths.
Food? The Battle Harbour Inn dining hall provides three hearty, delicious, family-style meals with fresh vegetables from their own organic garden every day .
Luxuries? This is the site of a traditional outport — the former saltfish capital of Labrador. The Historic Trust tries to keep the site close to its origins. Thus, the general store sells only the basic necessities, plus a selection of fine wines and beer.
Accommodations? By some DXpedition standards, luxurious. The Battle Harbour Inn has all the comforts of home (with shared bathrooms), hot showers, regular beds and three meals a day. Or you can opt for more rustic accommodations, such as one of the four self-catering cottages.
Wildlife? That depends on how hard you want to party.
Nature? You can’t get much closer. Birds, bergs and humpback whales.
Pollution? Non. Nil. Nada. Zero. Zilch. No TV. No cell phones.
Advantages over other DXpedition sites:
• Two tall radio towers oriented north-south about 122 meters (400 ft) apart. The local maritime navigation chart indicates that they are 60 and 62 meters (197 and 203 ft) high.
• Historical interest. Battle Harbour is the site of a restored saltfish plantation dating from the 18th century.
• The towers have not been used since the 1950s. Only one other ham radio DXpedition has been there — and the two hams who communicated from the site did not use the towers.
• The site is operated in season by a friendly, devoted staff, who go to great lengths to make your stay fun and comfortable.
• More questions? E-mail me or visit the Battle Harbour Web site.
All photos by Neil Galloway, VE3VNG.
Neil Galloway, VE3VNG, was first licensed in 1998. He started off with a Yaesu FT-727R handheld transceiver. Later he added a Kenwood TM-721A dual-band FM transceiver and an Heathkit HW101 HF transceiver. The HW 101 has been gone for several years — Neil never could get it to tune up to its maximum 100 W. He could barely get over 15 W — until the day he sold it when he got it up to 85 W. The Kenwood has been installed in several different vehicles and is still in service.
Neil is active with the Hamilton Amateur Radio Club, which was founded in 1932, where he served as treasurer for a few years. Neil especially enjoyed the fox hunts, assisting in the annual Around-the-Bay road race and providing communications for other civic activities, such as the ride-walk-run events in support of the cancer foundation. Neil can be contacted at 168 Hoover Crescent, Hamilton, ON L9A 3H3, Canada.