Up the Gatineau! Selected Articles
The following article was first published in Up the Gatineau! Volume 28.
Chelsea's Wartime Wireless Transmission Station
by Carol Martin
From 1941 until 1948, a plot of land on the Old Chelsea Road was out of bounds to local residents and visitors. This was the site of the Chelsea Wireless Transmission (W/T) Station, a military establishment that almost became a permanent installation. Local resident Joseph (Joe) Fleming recalled some of its details, and recently-declassified National Defence documents provided further information.1
During World War II, the Canadian military operated "controlled ionospheric stations" at several points across the country. Chelsea was the first of seven stations established between 1941 and 1947. Its equipment was installed in 1941 and became operational in 1942. Others in Churchill, Manitoba, and Clyde River, Baffin Island, opened in 1943, followed by Portage La Prairie, Manitoba, Prince Rupert, B.C., and St. John's, Newfoundland, in 1945. A receiving station in Ottawa on the Prescott Highway became a test lab in 1947.
These stations transmitted or received long-range radio signals, using equipment to send radio waves into the ionized region of the upper atmosphere, where they were directed to bounce or reflect back, for transmission around the earth. The DND files did not mention the extent to which these stations were engaged in experimental activities or were actually sending and receiving important information during wartime, but their control by the military indicates that they were considered part of the war effort. All three services were involved: Chelsea and Churchill were handled by the Royal Canadian Navy, Portage la Prairie and St. John's by the RCAF, and Prince Rupert by the Army. Baffin Island had been operated by the Carnegie Institute until July 1946 and was then taken over by the Department of Transport.
Just as many of today's Chelsea residents chose the village for its rural setting and short commute to the bustling cities of Ottawa and Gatineau, the National Research Council selected Chelsea as a quiet country spot near Ottawa but far enough away that signals from an Ionospheric Station based there would not interfere with that city's radio reception.
On November 15, 1941, Cecil Meredith of Chelsea signed an agreement with DND to lease, for $25 a year, a 300- by 500-foot parcel of land described as "part of the south west corner of lot number 11 Range 9 on Quebec Highway number 11." The "indenture," which provided for annual renewal during wartime at the same rate, agreed to "return the lands and premises to the owner in as good and tillable condition as it was when taken."2 After the National Research Council installed the equipment, the Navy took over operation and manning of the station in January 1942.
A modest building was quickly erected on the site. Joe Fleming remembers that it was about 24 feet square and set back from the road, with a boardwalk leading to it because the ground was swampy. Passers-by along Old Chelsea Road could see a small one-storey building, a steel antenna tower next to it anchored with guy wires set into bases, and a series of wooden posts, like telephone poles, with wires strung among them. DND files of 1945 and 1947 mention some of the equipment that would have been housed in the building: a Cathode Ray Oscilloscope, a Sutton-Hersley Tester, tubes, condensers, potentiometers, resistors and resistor wire, Mazda lamps and pyrex fuses.3
Most of the navy personnel who manned the station boarded with families in Chelsea, Joe recalls. One of them, Teddy Reid, stayed at his grandparents' home, the O'Neil House, located at the top of the hill on Route 105. According to Joe, messages were sent and received from overseas, and the station operated 24 hours a day, in three 8-hour shifts. The navy personnel wore their blue and white uniforms with bell-bottomed pants and round hats. Teddy Reid, the boarder with the O'Neils, had parents living in Centretown in Ottawa. On his weekly day off he usually hitch-hiked to Ottawa to visit his parents, and during the summer he sometimes brought Joe along. After they had visited his family, Teddy would treat Joe to a movie, and then they would hitch-hike back to Chelsea.
The station continued its operations after the war was over. By 1947 its staff were no longer boarding with local families but commuting by bus from Ottawa. Public transport cost $15 to $15.50 per month. At that time, the station had four personnel, who worked in three shifts. The service schedule for October 16, 1947, read as follows:
Leave town at 0830 - two men to Chelsea, one man return.
Leave town at 1700 - one man to Chelsea, two men return.
Leave town at 0300 - one man to Chelsea, one man return.
A note to file in November of that year mentions the "inconvenience involved in using the Gatineau Bus" and indicates that the army had arranged to supply motor transport for all trips.4
In January 1945, the Chelsea station's equipment was out of action, and all attempts by station personnel to rectify the trouble were unsuccessful. Finally, the equipment was overhauled and working again, but the equipment which had, in 1943, been a "complete set of the newest English automatic equipment" was showing its age, and newer equipment was being developed in the United States. Still, in the early autumn of 1946, although the war was over, DND wished to keep the Chelsea station open.
In September 1946, E. J. Tapp, Regional Supervisor of Soldier Settlement and Veterans' Land, Veterans Affairs Canada, visited Cecil Meredith with a "draft sale" contract, hoping to persuade Meredith to "sell for $1" his property to that organization, which planned to turn it over to DND. Tapp's letter to the Deputy Minister, DND Naval Service, described the reception he received from Mr. Meredith: "Mr. Meredith informed me that he has been receiving $25 a year since November 15, 1941, for this area and he considers the amount totally inadequate... [and that] the Department should vacate the premises because it was leased for the duration of hostilities only... and he would be glad if the Department would remove its equipment and building away to another site as he considers the whole situation to be a nuisance."5 Tapp's letter noted that Mr. Meredith did not specifically mention a price for the property, but said he was selling 50- by 100-foot building lots on the main Hull to Maniwaki highway (now Route 105), for amounts ranging from $300 to $400. Tapp added that he did not show his hand in respect to price, but that if this was a criterion to the value, "he would likely ask plenty for the lands leased by the Department."6
Cecil Meredith clearly called DND's bluff, and Tapp reported his opinion that local land values were inflated. He also observed that the area under discussion was low-lying and he thought it would not be suitable for building purposes, and "not even so for farming," with heavy clay soil on a clay subsoil, while the adjoining area was being used as pasture.
In January 1947, DND offered to double the rental rate for a year, to $50, but either Mr. Meredith refused that offer or they thought better of it. In August 1948, Cecil Meredith served legal notice to DND that the property was "leased during the last war and the lease was not to exceed a period of one year from the ceasing of hostilities."The DND file shows a "final payment" of $20.83 to cover rent from November 15, 1947 until September 15, 1948.
The government considered moving the station to Gloucester, but found that the Ionospheric equipment from Chelsea would interfere with that wireless receiving station. Some Chelsea equipment was eventually placed in Gloucester and the balance in a station on the Prescott Highway. DND estimated that the cost of salvaging the "naval improvements" (the building, fixtures, etc.) was $600, equivalent to the presumed cost of restoring the site, while the value of the salvaged materials was deemed to be only about $150. Mr. Meredith agreed to accept "certain improvements on the said lands... consisting of a small building and its fixtures, board walk, out-house, fence and gate" in lieu of restoration of his property to its original condition.
The building was moved to a location on Route 105, and Joe Fleming remembers that the Larmours lived in it for some time before they built a house further up the road. That building is still there. Well-kept and trim, with a foundation and additions, it is now number 559 on Route 105, the property of David Fleming. The land where the station once stood has been filled and landscaped for a soccer field, immediately east of Chelsea's present-day town hall complex, and adjoining Chelsea Elementary School.
|1.||The DND files consulted for this article are with the NAC. See RG 24, Accession 1983/4/167, Boxes 3171, 3172 (Radio equipment and repair), Box 3297 (Motor transport), Box 4331 (Real estate: lessor C. W. Meredith).|
|2.||DND files, box 4331.|
|3.||Ibid, box 3171.|
|4.||Ibid, Box 3297.|
|5.||Ibid, Box 4331, File 9650.247.1|