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From Looking Back at Rocky Point - In The Shadow of The Radio Towers - Vol. 1
by Natalie Aurucci Stiefel
“When the first plant is inaugurated and it is known that a telegraphic message, almost as secret and non-interferable as thought, can be transmitted to any terrestrial distance, the sound of the human voice with all its intonation and inflections, faithfully and instantly reproduced at any other point of the globe, the energy of a waterfall made available for supplying light, heat or motive power, anywhere - on sea, or land, or high in the air - humanity will be like an ant heap stirred up with a stick.
SEE THE EXCITEMENT COMING!” --- Nikola Tesla
Wardenclyffe in Shoreham, Long Island was the laboratory of the genius inventor, Nikola Tesla. In the early twentieth century, local newspapers were reporting exciting happenings at Wardenclyffe. By 1939 the property and Tesla’s laboratory building, located along Route 25A, became the facilities of the Peerless Photo Laboratories, a subsidiary of Agfa-Gevart.
In 1901, Nikola Tesla announced to the world that he would build a broadcasting station, which he would call “Radio City” at Wardenclyffe in Shoreham. He intended this to be the hub of a worldwide broadcasting system, which would employ several thousand people.
Nikola Tesla obtained the land through an arrangement with James S. Warden, Director of the Suffolk County Land Company. Warden hoped by offering the land to Tesla it would bring an opportunity to build homes for the prospective employees on his company’s adjacent 1,800 acres. Warden extended the offer of two hundred acres of land to Nikola Tesla, twenty acres cleared and the right of way. This property was adjacent to the Jemima Randall Farm and George Hagerman’s land in Shoreham. The deed, recorded in Riverhead on April 20, 1902, transferred the land to Nikola Tesla by the “North Shore Industrial Company”, incorporated under the laws of the State of Maine, of which James S. Warden was Secretary and C. L. Perkins, the President. Jack Warden offered land for sale in the New York Times from $3,000 to $10,000 which attracted many Wall Street businessmen who found the spot as an attractive summer resort. The prediction was that Wardenclyffe would become famous for its natural attractions as well as the place of Nikola Tesla’s experiments.
Tesla explained his dream of his world broadcasting system to financier, J. Pierpont Morgan, who backed Tesla with $150,000 for the project. Tesla’s friend, architect Stanford White, of McKim Mead and White, designed the laboratory at Shoreham. Due to White’s close friendship with Tesla, he presented his design as a gift, and would not accept payment. White had received international acclaim for his designs of the Washington Arch in New York, the New York University, the Trinity Church in Boston, the original Madison Square Garden, as well as numerous other buildings.
Stanford White designed the Wardenclyffe brick building with arched windows, as well as the cast iron ornament on the roof, called a wellhead, which was inspired from one in Italy. An associate of White, W. D. Crow of East Orange, New Jersey, supervised the construction work of the laboratory, which took more than a year to complete.
Access to the Tesla property at Wardenclyffe was made on the north side from North Country Road as at that time the main road, Route 25A, was not in existence. Shoreham Railroad station was adjacent to the Tesla property and ideal for transporting equipment and supplies. Nikola Tesla’s assistant, George Scherff, traveled daily on the railroad from New York City, to bring a wicker basket of special food for Tesla, which was prepared at the Waldorf Astoria.
LOCAL NEWSPAPER REPORTED EXCITING HAPPENINGS
The summer of 1901 saw exciting happenings in the little village of Shoreham. On August 2nd The Port Jefferson Echo reported: “Mr. Nikola Tesla, the world renowned scientist on Tuesday of this week, closed a contract for the immediate building of a wireless telegraph plant and electrical laboratory at Wardenclyffe, situated nine miles east of Port Jefferson, where on the 200 acres recently acquired by Mr. Tesla, he will within thirty days, begin the erection of a plant, which when completed will be the largest of its kind in the world. The first building will be 100 feet square with others to follow. The power plant will be 350-horse power. Mr. Tesla has for several years past maintained an extensive electrical laboratory at Houston Street in New York City, where he has discovered and developed many marvelous features in electrical power and usefulness. The above will draw to Wardenclyffe men in the highest scientific circles from many portions of the globe.”
By February of 1902, the Echo reported further improvements at Wardenclyffe: “Notwithstanding inclement weather and the usual obstacles and difficulties incident to the development of great enterprises, the Tesla improvements at Wardenclyffe have gone steadily forward. The power house, constructed of pressed brick, is 100 feet square and divided into a boiler room, engine and dynamo room, machine shop and laboratory. The boilers, engines, dynamo and other electrical equipment are being placed under the supervision of the Westinghouse Electric Company, where a force of employees from Mr. Tesla’s New York establishment is busy setting the drills, lathes, etc. in the machine room. The power house is completed, the foundations of the great tower put in and the well in connection herewith sunk to the required depth of 120’.
WHERE TESLA STAYED
On June 21, 1902 the Port Jefferson Echo said “Nikola Tesla rented the brick cottage of Mr. C. Wilson at Wardenclyffe until his own palatial abode is constructed.“ Tesla also sometimes lodged at the home of Dewitt Bailey. Mr. Dodd, proprietor of the Wardenclyffe Inn, was famous for his warm hospitality, where Niklola Tesla also sometimes stayed. During June of 1902 The Echo also reported that Tesla received assistance from Fritz Lowenstein, who became a well-known scientist and aided Tesla in his Colorado laboratory experiments in 1899 Lowenstein, who arrived from Germany, took up residence along with Tesla’s private secretary, George Scherff, at Dr. W. J. Herdman’s place at Wardenclyffe during that season.
The progress inspired Tesla that Wardenclyffe would be the great wireless center of America. He started to move his workshop from his New York City laboratory. He also planned for a workmen’s village and expected model cottages to be built by the following spring. However, much of his work was done in secrecy. The August 1902 “Babylon Signal” stated “the power house at Wardenclyffe occupies nearly three acres and is fenced in so that no one can get a view of it except those who are working within the enclosure. Mr. Tesla asserted there was a similar power house in Scotland.” Tesla said “We have been sending wireless messages for long distances from this station for some time, but whether we are going into the telegraph field on a commercial basis I cannot say at present. ”The Brooklyn Times of June 1905 reported, “From the time that Tesla secured the large tract of woodland, where the electrical plant is now situated, up to the present date, Mr. Tesla has maintained rigid privacy about his methods and plans. He does not court publicity as to the details of his work and newspapermen who call to see him are not likely to get overloaded with technical information. The visitor who walks into the grounds and approaches either the machine shop or the tower and well is met by an employee, who explains in polite but forceful language, that it is private property and that Mr. Tesla does not care to have visitors at that place. Mr. Tesla claims that it is today possible to communicate between any two points on earth, using the earth as a conductor. From his plant at Wardenclyfe he could run the electric motors and the big printing presses in the Brooklyn Times office. “
However, the County Review gave another account of Tesla on June 23, 1905: “This one gathers from occasional meetings with the Wizard of Wardenclyffe. He talks freely of his work to those who have his confidence and to such he is a wonderfully interesting man. His thought is concentrated almost solely upon electrical work and he is sufficiently human to enjoy discussing his work with those who have a fair comprehension of his accomplishments. Dozens of Tesla’s inventions and discoveries in connection with electrical work have been patented. The inventor positively asserts that there are many infringements of his patents in daily use in connection with wireless telegraphy” coneniences. He says he has met with an immense amount of opposition along various lines and that difficulties which would have put most men out of the race have been successfully overcome. He has implicit faith in the future of his many appliances.”
Construction of the domed tower began in the summer of 1901. It was constructed entirely of large wooden beams, with 50,000 bolts, which were assembled on the ground and hoisted up into position. When completed, the tower rose to a height of 187 feet and weighed 55 ton. It was eventually intended to enclose the ribbed cage with copper plates to form an insulated metal ball.
The tower consisted of four tall wooden timbers stretching from a height of over 100 feet. The skeleton structure had a spread of 40 or 50 feet across the base. Each timber was aimed toward the center as it rose in the air, crowned at the top by a huge half sphere. The staircase, which led up the tower, was also constructed entirely of wood, and fastened by wooden pegs without the use of nails. The tower was high enough to be easily seen from New Haven Connecticut, across Long Island Sound. The huge mushroom-like tower gave the aura of a futuristic, Martian giant and local residents called it “Tesla’s Magic Tower.” Nikola Tesla planned to build another two towers to duplicate the tower with the large sphere on top. The three towers, one for each powerhouse, would each have a 500-foot well. The water at the bottom of the well was to be kept warm and was not to exceed a certain temperature. Excavation was planned to continue down to 500 feet.
Local farmers watched the strange looking objects arrive at Shoreham as attested by the March 27, 1904 New York Times: Some of the farmers who come to Wardenclyffe to send their products to the city look at Mr. Tesla’s tower, which is situated directly opposite the railroad station, and shake their heads sadly. They are inclined to take a skeptical view regarding the feasibility of the wireless, world telegraphy idea, but yet Tesla’s transmitting tower as it stands in lonely grandeur and boldly silhouetted against the sky on a wide clearing on the concession is a source of great satisfaction and of some mystification to them all. ‘
The June 1905 Brooklyn Times described the tower: “The queer tower has been taken for some new-fangled kind of a lighthouse, a wireless telegraph station and a pumping station. Every native keeps his eye on it in the hope that he may catch on to its secret, but as yet all are in the dark as to its purpose.” The Eagle reported that up to 1911 Nikola Tesla was a familiar figure going to and from the plant. “An atmosphere of mystery hung over the place, an unearthly influence seemed to be radiated from the alemble topped tower, as if drawn down from interstellar space and spread over the countryside to inspire wonder and awe in the minds of the nearby farmers and villagers, who knew only that Tesla was searching for or working with wonder currents that had something to do with wireless and electricity.” By 1916 The Eagle stated “Standing like one of the fabled Martian giants, from H. G. Wells’ tale of the “War of the Worlds’, the tall Tesla tower has graced the landscape of this village for a decade and a half of years.”
WORK HALTED BY CARPENTERS: Several months later, friction among the carpenters delayed the operation and was reported in the July 1902 issue of the Echo. Tesla had his hands full with managing of crew, machinery and the need for more capital from his investor, J. P. Morgan. “The carpenters employed on Tesla’s wireless plant refused to work last Saturday and left for their homes at Port Chester. The men were set at work by Foreman Houck putting shingles on the outside of a 150’ tower, when a stick of timber came crashing down to the ground. It seems another contractor, completing the upper portion of the tower, would not take his men off. The carpenters said they would not work with a careless set of laborers over their heads.” These delays proved to be very costly to Nikola Tesla.
The tunnels, which were built under the great tower, were considered a great mystery. A well was dug below the tower 120’ deep and 12’ square, lined with 8’ timbers. A spiral stairway encircled a telescopic steel shaft. Air pressure would cause the shaft to rise 300 feet to contact the tower’s top platform. Connected to the well were four brick-lined tunnels nearly 100 feet in length. The Port Jefferson Echo reported in February of 1902: “The staircase leading down into this subterranean chamber is partially completed, and next week a force of workmen will begin the driving of a series of four small tunnels, each 100 feet long transversely across the bottom of the well. As these tunnels will be below the water level, some skillful engineering will be required to carry the work through. Mr. Tesla’s energy is pushing the work of construction forward and the fact that the boilers, engines and heavy machinery need only the finishing touches to make the power available, is an assurance that within a very brief period, he will be transmitting messages across the ocean through his wonderful wireless system.” The March 1902 Patchogue Advance reported “Under the center of the tower a well 123 feet square has been sunk a distance of 120 feet. This has been cased with eight-inch timbers and at the bottom, below the water line, a system of four tunnels will be driven out a distance of 100 feet each to the north, south, east and west. The particular use to which all this is to be put is one of the mysteries of the wireless system.”
In 1904 The New York Times told of the curiosity of the tunnels at Wardenclyffe. “While the tower itself is very stagy and picturesque, it is the wonders that are supposed to be hidden in the earth underneath it that excite the curiosity of the population in the little settlement. In the centre of the wide concrete platform, which serves as a base for the structure there is a wooden affair very much like the companionway on an ocean steamer. The tower and the inclose in which it has been built are being carefully guarded these days, and no one except Mr. Tesla’s own men is allowed to approach it. Only they have been allowed as much as the briefest peep down the companionway. Mr. Scherff, the private secretary of the inventor, told an inquirer that the companionway led to a small drainage passage built for the purpose of keeping the ground about the tower dry. But such of the villagers as saw the tower constructed, tell a different story. They declare that it leads to a well-like excavation as deep as the tower is high with walls of mason work and a circular stairway leading to the bottom. From there, they say, tunnels have been built in all directions, until the entire ground below the little plain on which the tower is raised has been honeycombed with subterranean passages. They tell with awe how Mr. Tesla, on his weekly visits to Wardenclyffe, spends as much time in the underground passages as he does on the tower or in the handsome laboratory and workshop erected beside it, and where the power plant for the world telegraph has been installed.”
In a conversation this writer had with Tesla author, Leland I. Anderson, he mentioned that Nikola Tesla stated it would be very dangerous to walk on the ground between the tower and the laboratory building when it was operating, because of the tunnel, which connected the building to the tower. Anderson also referred to a spiral stairway, which ascended down into the tunnel. At the bottom there are four stone-lined tunnels going out in various directions. These were used to establish ground connection (transmission) for the tower and not to be walked in. The tunnels gradually rose to the surface into brick, igloo-shaped mounds. Some people remember seeing these mounds at the edge of the Tesla property, near the present Fire Department. When the adjacent Fire Department built an extension on their garage, the bulldozer sank deep into the ground.
By February 22, 1902 The Echo printed the following announcement: “The immense wireless telegraph plant now being built at Wardenclyffe marks the beginning of the real war between Marconi and Nikola Tesla. Marconi has so far found only one way to send messages by wireless telegraphy - through the air. Tesla will try two methods. By means of his great tower he will send messages through the air. By means of his great well he will send messages through the ground. It is the latter method that Tesla thinks will achieve the greatest success. One of the remarkable features of the well is that at the bottom, the water will be warm. The principles on which Tesla will send wireless messages through the ground is, as explained by a friend, that a straight line through the earth, say between New York and London, is shorter than a line around the earth. His belief in it is so great that he has declared, in confidence to his friends, that ten years from now Wardenclyffe will be the great telegraph and cable center of America.”
THE END OF THE TOWER
In 1903, when Tesla realized that financial backing for Wardenclyffe would cease, he demonstrated lightening-type flashes from his tower in Shoreham. The July 14th report from the New York Sun stated: “Tesla’s Flashes Startling, but he won’t tell what he is trying for at Wardenclyffe. Natives hereabouts are intensely interested in the nightly electrical display shown from the tall tower where Nikola is conducting his experiments in wireless telegraph and telephony. All sorts of lightning were flashed from the tall tower and poles last night. For a time, the air was filled with blinding streaks of electricity, which seemed to shoot off into the darkness on some mysterious errand. When interviewed, Tesla said “The people about there, had they been awake instead of asleep, at other times would have seen even stranger things. Some day, but not at this time, I shall make an announcement of something that I never once dreamed of!”
Tesla’s dream for Shoreham to become a worldwide wireless center, was halted in 1915 when he was forced to hand over the Wardenclyffe deed to the Waldorf-Astoria to pay some of his $20,000 hotel debts. It was his belief that the Waldorf would hold the property until he could settle his debts. However, it was sold before he could redeem it. It was Tesla’s intention to always return there and continue his work, but that was not to be. The March 26, 1916 Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported that Wardenclyffe had been transferred to Lester S. Holmes, a Manhattan lawyer, who purchased the laboratory along with 176 acres, in foreclose, as a business proposition. He had no intention of using it for the same purposes Tesla did, but merely as a business proposition. It is Holmes’ name, which appears on the Belcher Hyde 1917 map, with “Suffolk County Land Company” still holding title to land just north of the site.
As local residents would climb the tower stairs, the lower flight was removed to prevent further use of the tower as an observation point. On July 4, 1917, by order of Washington, the tower was dynamited by the Smiley Steel Company, under the supervision of William H. Glancey of Shoreham. The job took until Labor Day to complete. Shoreham resident, Robert Oliver, witnessed the event, “ I remember standing on a hill in 1917 when Tesla’s tower was taken down. It didn’t go down at first, but later they were successful”. The salvage company made $1,750 from the demolition job. The Echo gave a striking report of the dynamiting of the tower: “The first charges of dynamite was exploded Sunday morning about 8 o’clock and the shock was sufficient to dislodge the steel dome at the top and it fell with a crash to the ground. Subsequent light charges of dynamite reduced the remainder of the structure.”
There have been various speculations as to why the tower was dismantled. It was thought that the government felt it might be an enemy target site for the nearby Camp Upton military base. Tesla defended his patriotism for this country and declared his treasured citizenship papers were of such high value to him that they were kept in a vault, rather than the awards he received.
The laboratory lay abandoned for many years. By 1912 Westhinghouse, Church, Kerr & Company removed the machinery from the building, as part of their judgment of $23,500. Ironically, many years before, Nikola Tesla gave many of his patents to Westinghouse to save that company. If he kept his contract, he would have sufficient capital to independently pursue his inventions. Walter L. Johnson acquired the property in 1925.
On March 6, 1939 Plantacres, inc. purchased the property and leased it to Peerless Photo Products. In 1940, the Peerless Company installed a new boiler to replace the original Tesla boiler. The building started to take on some changes when an extension was added on the west side and a small room on the east side.
By 1950 a machine shop was built on the northeast section of the property. A storage area of 15,000 square feet was added in 1956 and in 1964 an additional 10,000 square feet was built for shipping space.
REMEMBRANCES OF NIKOLA TESLA
In 1885 Nikola Tesla developed a wireless radio controlled boat. As early as 1898, he astounded viewers at Madison Square Garden by demonstrating his robotic boat. While Tesla was at his Wardenclyffe Laboratory in Shoreham, he continued his research in robotics, which he referred to as “Teleautomatics”. Local Rocky Point resident, Barbara Hagerman Gallup, related the story her father told her about Tesla. Wray Hagerman, who was a self-made inventor, frequently visited Wardenclyffe and befriended Nikola Tesla. According to Hagerman, Japan became interested in Tesla’s radio controlled robotics. Several Japanese representatives came to Shoreham to see Tesla’s invention. When Tesla demonstrated how he could blow up his robotic boat, floating in Long Island Sound, from a high cliff above the beach, the Japanese offered to buy it. Tesla refused, as he was very proud to be an American citizen and would offer it to no other country. Tesla often remarked how his degrees and gold medals were not guarded in a safe, but instead the safe proudly held his American citizenship papers, which he felt were his most valued possession. He was sworn in as citizen on July 30, 1891.
Rocky Point resident, Pete Aviles, worked in food service at the New Yorker for seventeen years. As a Bellhop he served meals to Nikola Tesla in his room. Aviles recalled “I would bring his meals to his room, mostly very light food. Mr. Tesla was fond of pigeons and took care of them on the terrace outside his room. He would order many napkins to use with his meals. When he left the room he would always tell me to take a coin from the package of new coins on top of the dresser.”
Shoreham resident, Robert Oliver, recalls the time he personally met Nikola Tesla: “During the mid 1940’s I purchased my suits at Arnold Constable on Fifth Avenue, In New York City. As was the custom in those days, we would have the suits shipped out to our homes in order to save the two percent sales tax on them. When the salesman realized my home was at Shoreham, he began a conversation. It turned out that he worked as secretary to Nikola Tesla. He would bring Tesla’s lunch in a wicker basket, via the railroad, from the Waldorf Astoria Hotel. The salesman said he had stayed with Tesla at the “Wardenclyffe Inn” (formerly known as “Flavel’s Inn”) at Shoreham. Sometimes when they were staying at the Inn, Tesla would wake him up in the middle of the night and they would walk to the beach. The secretary would take shorthand notes in the dark, as he walked along with Tesla. He told me that Tesla was living at the Hotel New Yorker and comes to feed the pigeons at Bryant Park, adjacent to the Fifth Avenue library. He walked me over to the Park and showed me this old gentleman sitting on the park bench, feeding the pigeons. I sat down and chatted with him, after shaking his hand. I said no more than a few words. This was quite shortly before Tesla’s death, perhaps 1942. Tesla was working on wireless transmission of energy. As children, we would play in one of his deserted laboratories. The entire wall was covered with glass tubing in all kinds of patterns. Much of it had been broken with rocks. From my understanding, Tesla was working on the transmission of energy through the atmosphere. I heard that he was researching high pressure water, using water at extreme high pressures to cut and weld things, a method, which later came to be. Today he is not generally known for his contributions of alternating current, the fluorescent light and actually the first transmission of wireless radio.
NIKOLA TESLA - FAR AHEAD OF TIME
The National Archives in Manhattan store the records of Tesla’s application for citizenship as early as February 6, 1889. On July 30, 1891 naturalized citizenship was granted to Nikola Tesla when he was sworn in at the Common Pleas Court in New York City. His witness was Richard F. Feist of Rahway, New Jersey. At the time Nikola Tesla listed his residence as the Hotel Gerlach on West 27th Street in New York City and his occupation as Civil Engineer. This building was named “Radio Wave Building”, in honor of Tesla’s transmission of radio waves in 1896 from his laboratory at 5th Ave. south to Hotel Gerlach Tesla organized his Tesla Arc Light Company of New York in 1885 and in 1887 founded The Tesla Electric Company. On two occasions Tesla lost his laboratories to suspicious fires. As the genius savant kept his inventions recorded in his photogenic mind, he was able to rebuild his laboratory. With an affiliation with George Westinghouse, Tesla lit up the 1893 Columbian Exhibition at the Chicago World’s Fair. Westinghouse obtained forty patents from Tesla, breaking the monopoly held by General Electric. When Tesla realized that Westinghouse needed help, he tore up his contract with him, enabling Westinghouse to continue, but left Tesla with little finances to pursue his inventions. The vision he had from boyhood of harnessing the power of Niagara Falls was fulfilled, when his polyphase system of power transmission was applied there in 1893. A statue of Tesla is displayed on Goat Island at Niagara Falls, in front of the entrance arch of the original Niagara Falls polyphase power plant.
Many inventions used today can be attributed to Nikola Tesla, such as fluorescent lighting, early radio, the bladeless turbine and the science of robotics. In 1882 Tesla discovered his greatest invention the generation of alternating current. His polyphase alternating current is the system in use today to bring electricity and power to homes and business throughout the world. He had the basic system of radio in 1896. He learned that everything has its own vibration, and by tuning into that “resonance” a building can be brought down, a tube of gas can glow. The vacuum tube for photography was developed in his lab. Tesla had over 700 patents in his name. He worked in the field of high frequency currents and developed a transformer known as the “Tesla Coil”, which converts low frequency current into high frequency current. The Tesla Coil is use in every radio and television produced today. In 1920 Tesla patented a lift-off helicopter. His research in robotics developed into the technology of missiles. The medical MRI, Magnetic Resonance Imaging, is expressed in “Tesla Units”, for his work in resonance.
The vision Nikola Tesla had from boyhood of harnessing the power of Niagara Falls was fulfilled, when his polyphase system of power transmission was applied there in 1893. A statue of Tesla is displayed on Goat Island at Niagara Falls, in front of the entrance arch of the original Niagara Falls polyphase power plant.
Tesla referred to himself as a “discoverer” rather than an inventor, and opened the way for others to follow. The immigrant, who arrived in the Unites States in 1884 left a great legacy to his adopted country. There is a photo of him on display at the Statute of Liberty, memorializing the immigrant who changed the world.
For many years, New York City was graced with the man, Tesla, who loved to feed the pigeons in Bryant Park behind the New York Library. The street sign there today reads “Nikola Tesla Corner”. Nikola Tesla died alone on January 7th, 1943 at eighty-six years of age, the Hotel New Yorker where he resided for the last ten years of his life.
Some people referred to Nikola Tesla as the “Man Who Invented the 20th Century””. Tesla’s discoveries and theories will someday prove that he also invented the 21st century, as some of his discoveries are still waiting to be explored.
“My project was retarded by laws of nature.
It was too far ahead of time.”