DORCHESTER, N.B. – It’s a piece of Canadian history that Bill Steele didn’t want to see lost forever.
When he heard earlier this year that the original 1943 RCA 50 kW shortwave transmitter from the former RCI Sackville site was up for sale, it didn’t take Steele long to dip into his retirement savings to save the historical treasure.
“I just love this thing,” said Steele. “And I really hope other people do too. There’s just so much history behind it. I didn’t want to see this just go to scrap.”
Never one to let a unique opportunity like this pass him by, Steele said he is proud to be the new owner of the transmitter and will give it a new home at his prison in Dorchester.
The massive walk-in machine - adorned with an array of levers, buttons, glass tubes and wires – was said to be the most powerful shortwave transmitter of its time in North America. Built and installed in 1943 at the brand new Radio Canada International site along the Tantramar marshes, the million-dollar transmitter went into use in February 1945 when the shortwave service was officially launched and programs were fed to Canadian troops overseas and to European listeners.
Essentially, the transmitter helped bring the ‘Voice of Canada’ to the world.
“It was for our troops to hear their homeland. . . I’m so proud to have saved this,” said Steele.
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Within a few months, regular transmissions had been added in Czech, Dutch, Spanish, and Portugese, and programs were beamed to Latin America and the Caribbean, as well as Europe
“I now own this, I have the ‘voice of Canada,’” said Steele excitedly. “That’s pretty cool.”
The machine was decommissioned in the 1970s, replaced by a newer model, but the old transmitter remained on site so visitors could get a sense of RCI’s history.
RCI’s shortwave service came to an end, however, in June 2012 after a number of CBC cutbacks. A couple years later, the antennas were dismantled and the transmission towers demolished, and the RCI property came up on the market. It was sold just last year to Mi’gmawe’l Tplu’taqnn Incorporated (MTI), a group of Mi’Kmaq First Nations.
The intended use of the property is still being considered but, in the meantime, workers have been removing old equipment from the complex that is not needed now that it is no longer a broadcasting site. The transmitter was one of those pieces and MTI decided to put a $5,000 pricetag on it to see if there was any interest.
Steele heard about the sale and approached MTI soon after. Although there were several other interested parties, he said he is pleased he was able to keep this machine in the local area.
Since the transmitter no longer works, said Steele, its only use today is as a museum piece. But that’s okay with him, since that’s exactly what he plans to do with this piece of radio history.
“I want to make it available so anyone can come see it,” he said.
But to do so, he will need some help. Steele has started a GoFundMe page (https://www.gofundme.com/save-cbc-sackville-rci-radio) in order to do the necessary modifications to his building to bring the machine inside and have it properly displayed. The transmitter has yet to be delivered to his prison but he anticipates having to install a roller door on one of his rooms that could open easily to the public for viewing.
“I love it. People talk about doing stuff all the time and they’re not able to. I just love doing this . . . . I’m living my dreams. I’m buying cool stuff. A lot of people can’t say that. So many people don’t get that chance.”
Steele, a retired city worker from Toronto, bought and moved into the historic prison in the centre of the village last spring.
Then he went on to open the prison up as an Airbnb, offering guests an opportunity to spend the night in a cell. The unique lodging has attracted hundreds of visitors from all over the world.
Steele said he has enjoyed learning about the prison’s colorful past and has plenty of stories to tell about the paranormal activities going on there. Not only has he encountered a few unexplained incidents, so have several of his guests. Light switches have flicked on and off on their own, he said, and many people have repeatedly felt someone “poking” them in the middle of the night.
“I can absolutely say something is going on in that jail.”
But the incidents don’t really scare him, they just make Steele more curious about the stories of the prison and more excited about bringing guests here for tours and overnight stays.
“I’m passionate about the place and loving it,” he said. “I’m trying to keep it alive and bring people into the community.”