This blog post was researched and written by Chuck Howell, MARMIA donor and volunteer.
These are not Christmas trees pictured atop the TV on MARMIA’s new tee-shirt commemorating Television Hill in Northwest Baltimore’s Woodberry neighborhood (near historic Druid Hill Park)–though buying one as a gift through Charm City Threads is certainly encouraged. They could represent the three transmission towers which stand there today – the two tallest beaming the signals of four television stations and three radio stations to the city and its environs – and the smaller tower relaying municipal police, fire and rescue personnel communications.
These three towers on our shirt can be viewed a bit differently, however, if one knows a little about the history of TV Hill.
Of course it wasn’t always called TV Hill – because, hard to believe as it may be – there wasn’t always television. It was Malden Hill back in those far-off days before test patterns and Uncle Miltie, but by the middle of 1948, the 20,000 or so Baltimore families wealthy enough to afford a TV set could get somewhat fuzzy reception of the first two stations in the city, WMAR-TV and WBAL-TV.
The construction of a new station was underway as well, WAAM–TV, channel 13. The owners had selected a site on Malden Hill, rising 334 feet above its surroundings. In addition to commissioning the first television studio in Baltimore designed specifically for this still new technology, a 530 foot tower (864 feet above sea level) was installed next to the building. The station, owned by Baltimore businessmen and Brothers Ben and Herman Cohen, went on the air on Nov. 1, 1948 and the next day stayed on the air for 23 hours straight covering the 1948 national election.
Flash forward nine years and WAAM-TV has changed both its call letters and its owners. Sold to Westinghouse Broadcasting Co. in May of 1957, it is now known as WJZ-TV. The station had also gained a neighbor, with WBAL-TV’s studios and broadcast tower relocating to Malden Hill several years earlier. Still, despite being home to two of Baltimore’s three television stations, the appellation of TV Hill needed one more push to put it into general use. That push, planned for several years, began in earnest in 1958.
Let’s Light These Candles!
TV reception could be a bit problematic in those pre-cable and satellite days of rooftop antennas or “rabbit ears” on top of the set. WJZ and WBAL had chosen elevated ground for their transmitter towers as a partial solution, but broadcast engineers confirmed that higher towers would improve both reception and station coverage. Though air traffic concerns imposed a ceiling on how high a station could build, both stations still had room to grow. New towers were expensive however, especially when the goal was to build as high as the law allowed. Neither WJZ nor WBAL could afford to shoulder the burden alone, so these neighboring stations began to discuss a partnership – one gigantic tower topped with two separate transmitter masts.
When Baltimore’s oldest TV station, WMAR, heard of this plan, it decided it wanted in. The reason was fear that viewers, who already got two stations from the same direction, wouldn’t bother adjusting their antennas to get WMAR, especially if its picture looked inferior to those provided by the new tower. And so a unique deal was struck – Baltimore’s three TV stations would share one gigantic tower, a tower
topped with three separate transmitter masts, a first at the time. The stations would all have improved coverage and picture quality at a cost they couldn’t have borne alone, and viewers could take a “set it and forget it” approach to their antennas.
Construction began in October of 1958 and continued through the spring. The Baltimore Sun tells us that:
The tower is a tower of statistics as well as concrete and steel.
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.
(Rasmussen, Fred. Remember When: A tower of power rose up above city Structure: The candelabra-like transmission tower atop Television Hill was completed in 1959, improving TV reception for thousands. The Baltimore Sun, 9/21/1997.)
At the time of its completion, the giant $1.125M “candelabra tower” on what was henceforth to be known as TV Hill, was the tallest free-standing broadcast tower in the United States. Today however, even with its 270 foot addition (which brought it to 1315 feet above sea level), it’s not even the tallest in the neighborhood. A tower completed on a nearby hill in 1987 by Cunningham Communications holds that honor, at 1549 feet above sea level.
The newer tower is a single mast structure, and though both hills and the three towers they support are now collectively known as TV Hill, there’s still only one candelabra tower, and unless and until our President and CEO Siobhan Hagan says otherwise, I think that’s the one depicted on our tee-shirt!
A picture of the top of the tower is included below. Also, here’s a link to an issue of Broadcast News, published by the Radio Corp. of America, which features a story on the tower starting on page 30.