The candelabra-like tower atop Television Hill has been a Baltimore landmark for nearly 40 years.
Soaring 1,319 feet into the Northwest Baltimore sky, 730 feet above the high ground of Television Hill, and visible from almost any location in the metropolitan area, the transmission tower has been broadcasting the signals of stations WJZ-TV, WBAL-TV and WMAR-TV since August 1959.
From its heights, there are spectacular views of the surrounding city and counties as well as the Chesapeake Bay and the Eastern Shore. Airplanes dodge it and lightning strikes it. Migratory birds occasionally crash into it. During the winter, ice sometimes falls from its guy wires and crashes onto parked autos.
Plans for the tower on what was then known as Malden Hill were approved in 1956 by Mayor Thomas D'Alesandro Jr., who described the project as "big-league and worthy." Construction of the $1.25 million tower began in October 1958 and lasted until spring of 1959.
"It is the only tower in the United States with three antennas attached to its top, resembling a candelabra for the piano of Paul Bunyan," observed The Sun in 1958. "Some less reverent called this effect 'a pie in the sky.' "
Construction of the tower, which was built by only 12 men, was directed by Darrel M. Barnard, superintendent of the John F. Beasley Construction Co. of Oklahoma. Barnard explained to The Evening Sun why men risked their lives in this dangerous construction venue: "There's a feeling of accomplishment doing something not everyone would do. I guess I can't really explain. I never thought about it much. It's just another job."
He also pointed out that his workers climbed up and down steel beams without the benefit of safety belts. "You can't use safety belts. They get in the way. You get used to it. A man up there might get used to the belt, then one day think he's got it hooked when he hasn't," Barnard said.
The tower, which was built without the loss of a single life, wasn't considered done until Barnard had personally checked it.
"Before the job's finished, he'll have inspected each and every bolt and fitting, traveling up and down its height on a 'headache ball,' " reported The Evening Sun.
"The ball, really a counterweight to the hoist rope, is a device that carries the men from bottom to the top, sort of a free swinging elevator, a ride itself usually reserved for circus daredevils."
"The tower is a tower of statistics as well as concrete and steel," said The Sun Magazine in 1959.
"It contains 500 tons of nickel-chrome alloy steel, which is three times stronger than structural steel. The main legs are solid steel 7 inches in diameter, set in a triangle 12 feet on a side. They rest on a concrete polygon 15 feet on a side and 20 feet deep.
"The antenna platform at the top is a steel triangle 105 feet long on each face and 16 feet thick. It supports at each corner a 10-ton, 101-foot antenna mast. Each station has provisions for emergency transmission in case its main system fails, and for maintenance purposes there is a two-man, radio-equipped elevator to the top.
"The tower is guyed by nearly 3 miles of steel wire rope. Twelve sets of guy wires installed at four levels are anchored to the ground by 33-foot square concrete slabs buried 16 feet deep. All told, 2,250 tons of concrete form the tower base and cable anchors."
The steel required 2 1/2 tons of paint. The structure was designed to withstand winds of 165 miles an hour. A 270-foot addition was built in 1964 to improve the signal transmissions.
The tower began operation on Aug. 9, 1959, when Gov. J. Millard Tawes threw a switch during a ceremony in studios on Television Hill.
The Sun Magazine reported: "What the new tower will mean to most viewers is an end to the troublesome rotating of rabbit ears and other antennas every time they change channels. Now, with all signals coming from one point, the viewer will be able to orient his receiving antenna for best results just once, then lock it in place and forget it."
Viewers from as far away as East Berlin, Pa., Rehoboth Beach, Del., Hagerstown and Emmitsburg were quick to praise the new tower.
"A beautiful sharp picture" "The black seems blacker and the white whiter" "A remarkable change" "The sound is much better, too" "Just like sitting in the movies," reported The Evening Sun.
Mary H. Frey, of Red Lion, Pa., said that her picture looked "real good" since the change. "Before there was sort of a wave, like a wheel. That isn't on now."
The tower remained "king of the hill" until 1987, when Cunningham Communications erected a 1,259-foot TV transmission tower on an adjacent, 286-foot hill. Just this month, a third tower was completed on the second hill to provide digital communications for the Baltimore police and fire departments.
Pub Date: 9/21/97