Sunday, May 12, 2019

The Long Lines - Part 2

Part 1 was a photographic series featuring Cold-War era communications towers once referred to as "Vintage Skynet." Here in Part 2: the towers' backstory and history.

- The New Hope, OH Long Lines tower as seen Dec. 2017.

American Telephone and Telegraph’s “Long Lines” was the division of AT&T that specialized in providing customers with long distance connections. The name was fitting at the onset simply because the enterprise sought to create a physical telephone network that spanned the nation via the standard wires of the time. By 1911, AT&T’s long distance chains covered New York to Denver while evolving technologies were bringing the company’s ultimate aims closer to reality. The 1930s brought about the organization’s first experimentations with coaxial cable (that could also carry television signals) and two decades later on August 17, 1951—AT&T’s first, truly coast-to-coast network debuted in full. The system allowed not just for direct dialed long distance telephone calls, but helped launch certain television programs into the cultural stratosphere as they could now be enjoyed anywhere within the United States.

Microwave relay transmission allowed AT&T to begin bolstering and expanding this network in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Rather than hardwiring and creating a literal network of “long,” physically linked “lines” of cable—microwaves could be transmitted in line of sight from one point to another, continually bouncing and moving between towers of the grid until reaching the intended destination(s). Since satellites were yet to be widespread (and really, before they were used for communications), this nationwide network of microwave relay towers became the most efficient way to transmit information over long distances not just in the United States, but across the world.

AT&T didn’t have the exclusive on the technology, but they certainly had an advantage when it came to propagating it across America. As the Cold War heated up, the United States government took great interest in the defensive benefits that a continent spanning communications network would provide. Physical wires on poles could easily be cut by enemy ground forces, let alone totally destroyed by the new weapons of the era: atomic and nuclear weaponry. Microwave relay systems (somewhat) resolved that problem, all you needed were a few working towers to transmit and receive signals. If one was knocked out, your network just had to be robust enough for redundancies. Backed by the United States’ defense funding (and profits from companies who relied on AT&T’s network to transmit their programs and information), the relay towers of the Long Lines division sprung up like weeds across a freedom-loving nation wary of the red menace looming across the sea. Some towers were built with hardened bunkers below. Others were outfitted simply to survive the blast waves of nuclear weaponry with no need for a human staff. Many more, in particularly rural areas, were just simple towers.

- The Springboro, OH Long Lines tower as seen in Sept. 2018.

As an example: the White Oak tower situated outside of Cincinnati and the Springboro Tower located just outside of Dayton, Ohio are Type 4A and 4D respectively. These towers are made from concrete, with walls that are about a foot thick, likely to survive and be operable if their nearby industrial metropolitan areas were hit with the atomic weapons of the time (later, more advanced weaponry would likely not have spared these, but you can read more about that in this piece). Wartime communications were only backup plans, though, something reserved for worst case, doomsday scenarios—the White Oak and Springboro towers mainly relayed network television signals to their nearby population centers.

The history of the Long Lines is as vast as the network once was, and on top of that: the corporate chronicle of AT&T is even more complex. AT&T had acquired the Bell System (once its own parent company) in 1899. Avoiding a breakup via a Federal anti-trust suit in 1913, Bell was able to remain as a division under AT&T. Over the years, as the dominant telecommunications company spread out and improved its Long Lines network, their Bell Labs subsidiary was researching the practicality and implementation of fiberoptic networks (the type of cable that eventually became one of the afterthought, subterranean tenants in the abandoned Cincinnati Subway tunnels). AT&T’s Bell System subsidiaries were eventually broken up by the U.S. Government in 1984 as several regional companies known as "Baby Bells." Along with the rise of communication satellites, the cooling of the Cold War, and the increased implementation of fiberoptic technology—the towers of the Long Lines’ microwave relay network became mostly obsolete. These days, some towers still serve their original function, others have been re-purposed as cellular towers, and many are just completely abandoned—often with their distinct horns (about the size of an SUV according to this 99% Invisible article) still fastened to the towers.

- The distinct horns of a Long Lines tower as seen at White Oak in Apr. 2019.

In 2005, the Southwestern Bell Corporation (itself a creation born out of the Bell System’s 1984 breakup) did what AT&T had originally done to the Bell System: they bought their (former) parent company. After clearing government hurdles and providing $16 Billion, SBC acquired AT&T and adopted the familiar name and logo. This version of AT&T still exists today and assumes the history of their acquisition (hence why your phone may have switched from SBC's Cingular Wireless to “AT&T” in the early 2000’s).

After reading an article from 99% Invisible and checking out the work of photographer Spencer Harding, I wanted to see what towers remained in my part of the country and a few places I traveled to.

Part 1 of this series took a look at the visual presence of these structures.

This segment, Part 2, features a closer look at each individual tower.

I was able to find all of these thanks to a user-created Google Map. It provides any curious person with a relatively reliable guide of where these spires can (or in some cases, used to) be found across the entire country. A few towers I sought out specifically, others I found while traveling to other destinations, and one I just happened to come across while on vacation. All in all: I photographed 13 towers in Ohio, 1 in California.

- Location of the Ohio towers documented here on QC/D. The map is available here.

Using an AT&T map from the 1970s (sourced from, I was able to see which of the 14 towers I documented were part of the same "routes." From what I've learned, the types of antennae on each tower carried different types of signals. Although many towers were often within close proximity to one another, they didn't always "talk" to each other. Per the aforementioned, disco-era map, the yellow lines in the graphic above signify which of the towers I documented were once linked along a "route" (many more towers existed along these routes, I just didn't photograph or come across all of them).

Jamestown - Springboro - White Oak - Cincinnati

- This particular route, featuring four of the towers I happened to photograph, is highlighted above in red.

Jamestown: A rural tower located not too far away from Interstate 71. While a house sits nearby, this structure seems to be the most common type of the Long Lines. There’s a small concrete building located at the bottom, but not much else to the facility. The distinctive “horns” are gone and the tower's overall shape seems to be pretty ubiquitous among these facilities.

Springboro: Built in 1949 and listed as a type “4D,” this one is a large concrete structure standing at 191 feet tall. By 1964, extra antennae were added that allowed the connection with the aforementioned Jamestown tower. This particular structure was owned and maintained by the Ohio Bell Telephone Company and, at the time I photographed it in late 2018, several SBC logos and documents were still located within a nearby support building, tacked to a bulletin board.

White Oak: Similar in appearance to the Springboro tower (with thick concrete walls), White Oak was also built in 1949, but is considered type “4A.” Like its Springboro counterpart, the main use of this tower was to provide network television programming. This tower is a pretty iconic landmark in Cincinnati's western suburbs.

Cincinnati: Truth be told, I don’t know exactly where the Cincinnati Long Lines tower was located. From what a few local engineers and communications professionals have told me: it was most likely atop the former Cincinnati Bell Equipment Building, the antennae and horns were secured to the black framework atop the brutalist structure. Like other locations featured in this post, a tall building in a city’s core was more commonly a Long Lines site rather than the typical lattice or concrete towers found in rural areas.

Wilmington - Blue Ball

- The Wilmington and Blue Ball towers, highlighted in red, were once direct links within a route of the Long Lines system. Note: despite their close proximity to other nearby towers, their communications routing wasn't joined to the those locations (at least in 1970).

Wilmington: Similar in appearance to the Jamestown tower, Wilmington still sports its "horns" above a simple concrete building.

Blue Ball: Annexed by Middletown, OH in 1994, Blue Ball was a community who's name grew out of a stagecoach stop (denoted by a blue ball that could be seen and understood by illiterate coachmen). Similar appearance and construction to the Jamestown and Wilmington towers.

Cleveland - Richfield - Akron

- The "route" between Cleveland, Richfield, and Akron.

Cleveland: Most sources list the Downtown Cleveland Long Lines location as having been atop the "telephone building." Constructed between 1925 and 1927, the AT&T Huron Road Building is an art deco skyscraper that holds offices for some of the telecommunications company's subsidiaries. Before the early 2000s corporate shakeup, the building donned an SBC sign.

Richfield: South of the Downtown Cleveland site and in the suburbs, this tower features a configuration that's a bit different than any of the other locations photographed here. The ubiquitous "horns" are not present, but other antennae still are. I appreciate the installation's similarity to that of what the Empire constructed on Endor in Return of the Jedi.

Akron: Downtown Akron, OH's AT&T Building apparently once feature a unique, decorative spire up top that took care of receiving and sending out signals. It was still there in Sept. 2017 according to Google Street View, but by the time I started photographing these things, it was gone.

The following towers didn't feature a direct connection to each other, or any of the previously mentioned locations along any of the "routes" listed in 1970.

New Hope: The New Hope tower, located in an unincorporated community of the same name along the Ohio/Indiana border, has a rather ominous look (at least on a gray, snowy day). The "horns" are gone, but the distinctive red and white paint job still exists. The support building is a bit larger than some of the others previously seen and there are even more facilities elsewhere on the property. Signage posted on the fence highlights new ownership who has made the tower available for rent. A much older and faded sign from AT&T reads:

"Wilful or malicious destruction of or injury to communications facilities used or intended for use for military or civil defense functions is a violation of the laws of the United Sates. Violations are punishable by imprisonment for up to 10 years or a fine of up to $10,000 or both. In case of emergency call collect. 1-815-727-2670."

Given the amount of buildings and the stern AT&T warning, I wonder if this particular tower had broader civil defense implications at one point. If you call the number, it just goes to a standard voicemail.

Blooming Grove: A rural tower supported by several cables outside of Mansfield, OH.

Mt. Vernon: Featuring antennae similar to that of the aforementioned Richfield Tower, the Mt. Vernon tower's vertical appearance is a departure from the standard.

New California: Technically in Dublin, OH just outside of Columbus, this tower has the "standard" look. 

San Diego (University): While in San Diego last year, I wasn't really planning to look for any Long Lines towers, but we ended up snagging a parking spot across form this one. Listed on maps and documents as "San Diego (University)," I'm not sure which particular university it was linked to or what that relationship consisted of, if any. Like the Cleveland location, this facility is still tied to AT&T operations. It resides outside of the downtown area, though, with a large collection of "horns."


For Part 1 of this series on just the towers and their visual presence, go here.


You can read more about Long Lines towers at the following (super helpful, awesome) sources:
  • Hackaday: a good overview of the towers and their purpose.
  • 99% Invisible: the aforementioned article that inspired this series of QC/D posts. 
  • great site with a vibe of the "old school" web that really dives into the towers' technical details and history. 

Special thanks to Phil Armstrong, Travis Estell, and Tom Niehaus for their help on this series.

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