3 Navy towers gone from skyline; Radio transmitters made obsolete by new technology


A Navy band sounded colors, the U.S. flag was raised, and three 300-foot-tall radio towers came crashing down yesterday at the Naval Academy in Annapolis in a matter of seconds.

The towers -- a landmark for sailors and tourists -- fell victim to the changing world of telecommunications, as satellites and other wireless communication eclipsed their usefulness.

"They raised the flag, and within a minute -- kaboom, kaboom, kaboom -- down came the towers," said John Schorpp, the only employee at the Navy radio station since it closed in 1996. "It was really a strange sight seeing all those towers lying on their side."

The demolition was the first of three planned for 13 of the Navy's 16 red-and-white steel towers, built on Greenbury Point in 1918 to provide communications to military ships.

Since the closing of the station, Schorpp has maintained and managed the radio towers, including a nonmilitary responsibility -- watching the 20 or so osprey families that nested in the towers yearly.

"Those osprey nests were destroyed when those towers came down," Schorpp said. "But luckily the birds have migrated until March."

Schorpp joined 80 other people -- including Navy dignitaries, members of the media and Annapolis residents -- to watch the demolition, but there was little cheering.

"I heard a few oohs and aahs," Schorpp said. "But some people were sad because it was the passing of an era."

JoAnn Johnson of the Annapolis neighborhood of Brownswoods met her husband, Howard, at the installation in the early 1970s when she worked as a tower radiowoman and he worked as a wildlife manager on the 231-acre wildlife preserve on the site.

Although Johnson left the Navy after four years, her husband, who later become an antenna mechanic, worked at the site for 22 years until he died in 1997, Schorpp said.

"They met there, had three kids, and now she was there for the grand finale," Schorpp said.

Richard Kellard, another former employee who attended the occasion, was the towers' radioman on Dec. 7, 1941, when the transmission came that Japan had bombed Pearl Harbor.

The government bought the property -- where the Wright brothers had earlier flown experimental airplanes -- in 1909. It was the Naval Air Station until 1917, when it became the U.S. Naval Radio Station, Annapolis, with the construction of the first towers. The towers were built to send signals to Europe, where they were picked up by antennas on the Eiffel Tower in Paris.

Later the number of towers was increased, and the radio signals left Greenbury Point for U.S. forces in World War II and Cold War-era nuclear submarines. But radio technology, e-mail, satellite and microwave communications made them obsolete.

Despite pressure from developers who wanted to build on the site, the Navy transferred the property to the Naval Academy in 1994. Academy officials have vowed to preserve the point.

"The environmental refuge will remain that way; it will be a preserve," said Commander Mike Brady, spokesman for the Naval Academy.

Hiking trails are planned, and contractors have offered to build nesting boxes for the ospreys.

Three small towers will remain standing, possibly to be contracted to private businesses, but Controlled Demolition Inc. of Phoenix, in Baltimore County, will take down an 800-foot tower about next weekend. Two smaller towers will be taken down manually.

"The big show is December 5 when six 600-foot towers and one 1,200-foot tower come down," Schorpp said.

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