CLARKSBURG, W.Va. (WBOY) — Communication is as easy as its ever been. The internet allows our voice to be halfway around the world in the blink of an eye. But how far have we come? In just a few decades, the world has made a significant jump from landline phones to mobile phones as its primary source of voice communication. But there used to be a “wireless” system of sorts that predates the mobile phone craze of today and even the modern internet.
Enter AT&T’s Long Lines network, a first jab at a long-distance wireless network that spanned the entire United States. The original design of this network consisted of extremely long coaxial cables that stretched from coast to coast and connected various cities and towns and are still seen today through your average telephone pole. However, as post-war America began to advance into the modern era with an increasing phone demand, AT&T needed to upgrade.
The solution was to go wireless. Given that there was a limited amount of data that could be pushed through a cable, the engineers at AT&T sought to ditch the wire for long-distance communication and instead created a nationwide system of transmission and relay towers that relied on microwaves to send and receive data. According to telephoneworld.org, each tower had line-of-sight to the next, which allowed microwaves to be sent in a straight line toward the next relay using horn antennas instead of a 360-degree broadcast like a radio station.
According to the enthusiast website, long-lines.com, these towers were placed at strategic locations all across the country and several of them were in West Virginia. Given the rugged, mountainous nature of the state and its various isolated hollers, it was difficult for engineers to create wired networks across the mountains that didn’t exclusively serve population centers. Placing these towers atop a number of mountains gave the network the ability to expand across the Appalachians.
According to engineer enthusiast website, hackaday.com, the microwave system was first used in 1951 via a televised address from President Truman. Yes, that’s right, television. With the new high levels of data that could be transmitted through microwaves, it was now possible to not just transmit audio over the air from New York to San Francisco, but also video, leading to the development of national news networks that broadcast nationwide from a single station.
However, as time went on and the Cold War got a bit warmer, these towers were re-evaluated by AT&T to be used as more than just a civilian communication tool. According to telephoneworld.org, in the 1960s, government and military messages began to be sent through the towers. Some towers began to also come with bunker-like basements under the main control rooms that were set up like bomb shelters, some of which were able to survive a 20-megaton nuclear blast 2.5 miles away. In these basements were civil defense supplies and various plaques that had patriotic messaging on them such as “Communications is the foundation of democracy,” per hackaday.com.
Cold War paranoia came and went and the nuclear endurance of these stations was never tested on civilians. However, as the threat of war faded away, the Long Lines Network would begin to do so as well. According to historyfactory.com, AT&T was forced by the United States government to break up its monopoly on the nationwide telephone market into smaller companies referred to as “baby bells.” This, on top of the new implementation of underground fiber-optic cables, made the Long Lines system effectively obsolete by the turn of the millennium.
Despite many of the towers being abandoned in the 1980s and 1990s following AT&T’s dissolution by the US Government, many of the towers still stand and some were able to be repurposed by local radio stations and cell phone companies. North central West Virginia has its fair share of these towers with many of them being purchased by various companies and organizations such as local 911 centers and radio stations. You can find a list of some of these stations here. Keep in mind that most, if not all, of these towers are on private property. Please do not go to these locations without the landowner’s permission.
Nexstar’s WBOY would like to iterate that most of the information in this article has not been officially published by AT&T or any other official source. The information in this article comes primarily from enthusiasts and hobbyists who have acquired seemingly-official sources and documents through various means in order to preserve as much information about the AT&T Long Lines network as possible. If you have any corrections from a more credible source, please email them to firstname.lastname@example.org.