A Visit to the Camp Shohola Communications and Technology Center.
By Jon Mitchell, KD3FG.
I stopped by Camp Shohola while on a trip to the Delaware Water Gap and the Pocono Mountains and visited with Tom Gibson, WA3HWY a fifty year veteran of camp. I wanted to see what was new (and old) at the Camp Shohola Communications and Technology Center where I worked more than twenty years ago.
I was pleased to see that after more than 35 years of continuous summer operation, good old Wild Camp Shohola Radio was still running! Tom has put together an incredible program of communications and technology related activities. Since 1972, more than 4000 boys have learned how to operate a broadcast console and be a DJ at Camp Shohola. Although they now use modern computers for production and audio editing, they still teach tape splicing, dubbing and multi-tracking techniques. Camp Shohola was the first summer camp to teach radio broadcasting and continues with the finest and most up to date instruction including: play by play sports broadcasting and news gathering using remote broadcasting equipment, weather forecasting, announcing, console operation and modern digital production techniques.
However, they have not forgotten the roots of radio broadcasting and maintain a fully operational AM broadcast facility as it would appear more than fifty years ago. The Collins model 12H broadcast console was manufactured in 1936 and is a certified operating antique. It is the oldest operating broadcast console in the world and had been modified very little from its construction. Some of the tubes and capacitors have never been replaced, and all audio transformers, potentiometers, and switches are original. The total weight of the console exceeds 150 pounds including the external power supply.
There is also a fully operational 1938 Model 15 Teletype news printer. The wire service is set up to demonstrate how news would be prepared in a typical radio station news room fifty years ago. The copy is actually sent from a computer using a program that emulates the obsolete, five level, 67 WPM baudot code. And yes, we have four cases of canary yellow paper, two boxes of cotton ribbons and plenty of replacement springs, cams and levers for the inevitable repair. The station also has five broadcast cart machines, four open reel recorders, six turntables, and 17 microphones, some more than 50 years old. Please notice the 1930’s RCA boom microphone stand and audio monitor enclosure in the picture on the left.
The building is truly an operating Broadcast and Telecommunications History Museum.
The Strowger “Step By Step” Telephone Switching System.
Tom started the camp wide manually operated phone system in 1974, added the first Strowger Switching System in 1979, the electronic key system in 1983 and the computer interface in 1992. He is demonstrating how to use the first console where phone connections were made by switching lines together manually by an operator, (usually the boys operating the radio station). All of the cabin phones are still routed through the old manual switching system, which remains fully operational for use during radio station call in contests. The system has been struck many times by Pocono Mountain electrical storms. During one storm, “Ball Lightning”, a rare natural phenomenon, formed over the manual switching system. The blueish hissing ball was about eight inches in diameter and remained in the room for more than 15 seconds. It extinguished with a slight “POP” and left a carbon residue on the ceiling which remains today. In most cases the only repair need is to replace a fuse or two. The system is well grounded and protected by gas discharge and wire fuses. It is rare when it is necessary to change out a relay or other electronic component.
The telephone system is a fully operational Automatic Electric/Strowger telephone switching system invented by Almon B. Strowger, using technology developed in the late 1890’s and early 1900’s. It is similar to the one on permanent display at the American History Museum of the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C. The switch on the shelf was constructed by Tom Gibson from salvaged parts of an old 1940’s, 740C, AT&T switch dismantled in 1974. The switch on the floor was constructed in 1978 by Rick Walsh using similar components and won a first place prize at the Antique Telephone Collectors Convention in Hartford, Connecticut in 1980. The single connector switch mounted on an old test stand is an original Strowger switch manufactured in 1908, shortly before Joseph Harris licensed the technology and merged the companies. The last documented repair was a capacitor replacement 1918. The connector is recognized by collectors as the oldest operating Strowger switch in the world. It is being used as an intercept switch as it lacks the “G” relay to recognize a call in progress and return the familiar busy signal. All five switching systems are fully interconnected with redundancy on key components.
Here’s a closer view of the Strowger switching system constructed by Rick Walsh in 1978 from salvaged Automatic Electric parts. The system is completely self contained with ring generators, dial, trunk busy and busy tone generators, power supplies and fuse panels. There is also a rack of eight, six volt batteries which can operate the entire system for up to two days in the event of a power failure, (which is not uncommon in the mountains). There are 109 telephone throughout the camp connected to the switch by more than 35 miles of paired copper wire with over three miles buried in the rocky Pocono Mountain ground. There is a counter on the system that has recorded more than 1.8 million calls on the system since 1979.
Thanks to the Lackawaxen Telephone Company (685 prefix with less than 2000 subscribers), their friendly and superb local communications service provider and one of the few remaining ‘independent telcos’ in the U.S., the telephone system is the only Strowger system in the country connected to the international telephone network and still operating in commercial service. When family and friends telephone anyone at camp, they are talking through the antique switch. All switching contacts are routinely cleaned and maintained for top operating efficiency.
The camp system is connected to the outside world through an old PC which records the dialed number, duration and actual time of all outgoing calls. The computer also routes calls to one of three different carriers for the lowest rates and even provides call accounting with account codes for LD access. All six Camp Shohola external phone lines enter through the CommTech building where they are processed and connected to our switching system. Incoming and outgoing calls can be accessed from any camp phone. Some of the features offered include, call forwarding, conference calls and full operator services such as 911 emergency, 611 repair and 411 directory assistance.
Each summer Tom prints a 10 page directory for the 280+ users of the system. The directory even includes a Yellow Page and a map of the camp. For more information about Tom, his family and his many interests, please visit Tom’s Web site.
The Camp Shohola Amateur Radio Club, WB3DGR
I donated a Kenwood TS-120s to the club ham station WB3DGR to supplement their TS-520 and Yeasu FTDX-400. The station is capable of operating almost all band and modes with power up to two thousand watts PEP. There are now eight radios in the shack connected to a myriad of antennas on the roof and in the trees. Hopefully, many campers will have their first contacts using this radio! WB3DGR is the first summer camp Amateur Radio station in the country and the only one fully licensed by the Federal Communications Commission as an educational club. Tom started the radio program in 1966 and received FCC licensed club call sign, WB3DGR in 1974. Since 1966, more than 200 boys have obtained and amateur license through instruction at Camp Shohola including me. Tom still teaches the International Morse Code to interested campers even though the FCC eliminated the licensing requirement in early 2007. Interestingly, with the new rules, the Advanced Class amateur license is now the only U.S. license that documents Morse code proficiency.
The picture above is one of the camper cabins at Camp Shohola and is the last one in which I was a counselor in 1985. The cabin also housed the radio station before 1973.