Thursday, April 28, 2011

Mystery and Intrigue in my Backyard

My Backyard Adventure-Sheva Apelbaum

At the turn of the twentieth century, Germany led the way in almost every area of technological development. One area of great ingenuity and achievement was the field of communications. What many people don’t realize is that almost a hundred years before the invention of the Internet, Germany had a functioning world-wide wireless communication network.

The Telefunken Company World Broadcast Map-Sheva Apelbaum
Map of German World Wide Wireless Network 1913

Just before World War I Germany built a number of transmission stations on land and even used ships to relay the signals from sea.

The Telefunken Company Floating Station-Sheva Apelbaum
The Wireless Station Steamer Emperor

Interestingly, I discovered that one of the most important wireless facilities was in my own home town, of all the places in the world!I stumbled upon this discovery completely by chance. While riding in the car one day, I heard on the radio that it was the anniversary of the Zimmermann Telegram. I asked my dad what the Zimmermann Telegram was. He told me that officially, Zimmermann’s Telegram was the excuse that got the U.S. to join in the first World War.

He also said that the message was transmitted through our home town and the whole affair was shrouded in mystery and intrigue. Not being able to resist a good mystery, I decided to check out the station in the hopes that they had a small museum on the site (with original equipment and communications, perhaps?).

I searched our public library; I spoke to neighbors and teachers, and even some older folks who seem to have been around town forever…but everything was a dead end. No one seemed to know specifically where this station was located or even if it ever existed at all.

It was time to dig in and do some real research.  We contacted a number of federal agencies including the NSA, the Department of Justice, the CIA, and the FBI, and we asked for any public records about the Zimmermann Telegram and Sayville.  We also got copies of local historical newspapers from  1903-1917. 

After some digging, I got some interesting material from the NSA (mostly related to the actual Zimmermann telegram) and I managed to locate a 1913 postcard of the station.  It showed that the station was located in a large open area.

Sayville Wireless Station Postcard-Sheva Apelbaum
View of the Sayville Wireless Station, Circa 1913

The first recorded discussions of the station suggest that it appeared on the scene in disguise. It started in 1911 when the Stollwerck Brothers, owners of a New York Chocolate Company, purchased seventy-nine acres of land bordering the railroad track in West Sayville.

Stollwerck Chocolate-Albert Stollwerck Sayville Telefunken Broadcast Station-Sheva Apelbaum
The Stollwerck Brothers

Stollwercks Enemy Aliens-Sheva Apelbaum

From local news reports, the purchase created a lot of excitement as many local residents hoped they would soon land a dream job at the chocolate  factory. Shortly after the purchase, however, large amounts of equipment and crates all addressed to the Telefunken Company began showing up in Sayville post office.

Sayville Railroad Station 1912-Sheva Apelbaum
The Sayville Train Station Circa 1911

It soon became clear that instead of a chocolate factory, Sayville was about to get some sort of a plant. As time went on, railroad travelers heading in and out of Sayville could look out of the windows and see the construction of a large metal tower in progress right next to the track.

At about this time, the Kensington Hotel had been the center of social life in Sayville. It was located at the northeast corner of Railroad Ave. and Main Street. If you were visiting on business and needed a place to stay, this was surely the place for you. The hotel offered a dining facility, a social room, music, and a place for town residents to get local news.

Kensington Hotel Sayville-Sheva Apelbaum
The Kensington Hotel in Sayville, Circa 1909

After questioning the local workman who stopped by the Kensington for refreshments, Suffolk News reported that they were digging large holes for concrete piers.

Next, the workers reported that they were erecting 3 large piers 225 feet from the main base in three directions to form a tripod.  Each one of these 3 structures was a large rectangular concrete base about 15 feet square and 30 feet high. Iron anchors were embedded in these piers so they converged over the central foundation at a point 125 feet in the air.

The Telefunken Company Broadcast Station Construction 1911-1912-2 Apelbaum
Concrete Pier at Station Circa 1912

As the construction was progressing, on October 11, 1912, the Suffolk County News reported that an interesting young man and his wife showed up in town and rented a cottage from Mrs.  Mills on Colton Avenue and then from Mr. Hamilton on Handsome Ave. in Sayville.  Mr. Van der Woude turned out to be the chief engineer in charge of all of the station's design work.  Shortly after his arrival he arranged for a local architect (Isaac H. Green) to design the structure and buildings for the wireless station.

Van der Woude House Handsome Avenue-Sheva Apelbaum  Cottage on Handsome Ave. in Sayville

Now the developments progressed at a fast pace  and the oystermen working on the Great South Bay could see a large tower rising up in the distance. In December of 1911, it was already about 300 feet tall.

Great South Bay-Sheva Apelbaum
The Great South Bay

After the architectural plans were completed by Green,  William Bason & Sons, a masonry firm from West Sayville, started the construction of the buildings on site. The plan called for a concrete floor, brick foundations and framed structure to house the power plant and a separate structure to house the staff.

The Telefunken Company Broadcast Station Construction 1911-1912-1 Apelbaum
Construction of Antenna and Power Plant, Circa 1913

In early January, 1912, the local residents and newspaper were referring to the wireless station as “ours”. It was also reported that the parent station was located in Nauen, Germany (outskirts of Berlin).  The Nauen station had a massive 640 foot antenna tower (which at the time was the second tallest structure in Europe after the Eifel tower).

Nauen Wireless Station 1918-Sheva Apelbaum
The Wireless Station in Nauen

In July 1912, the Telefunken Company completed the staffing of the station by adding a radio engineer.  On October 18, 1912 the Suffolk County News, reported that “Our Wireless Tower [would transmit messages a distance of 3,500 miles as soon as the construction of the Nauen is completed].”

The Telefunken Company Antenna 1914 Sayville-Sheva Apelbaum The Telefunken Broadcast Building 1916 Sayville-Sheva Apelbaum
Station and its Antenna Base in 1913

Telefunken’s Sayville antenna tower was an engineering marvel. The weight of the entire tower rested upon a ball and socket joint, which was supposed to give it great flexibility and the ability to resist the 70-100 mph wind gusts commonly found on the island’s shores.

Our Wireless Tower Safe-Sheva Apelbaum

The electrical equipment used in sending and receiving wireless signals was said to have the latest and the greatest in wireless communications.

Telefunken Transmitter Room 1912 Sayville -Sheva Apelbaum Telefunken Control Room 1912 Sayville -Sheva Apelbaum
Interior View the Sayville Wireless Power Plant

By the end of January 1913 after almost two years of construction, the station finally became operational. In an official ceremony attended by the representatives of the U.S. Department of Commerce and Labor, a broadcasting demonstration was given by Fritz von der Woude. Despite stormy weather, the guests witnessed firsthand how a message was sent from Sayville to Nauen and back to Sayville.

Telefunken Operator 1912 Sayville -Sheva Apelbaum
A Radio Operator in Sayville Station, Circa 1913

Over 4000 Miles-Sheva Apelbaum

In March 1913, the newspaper reported that the station survived a wind storm that uprooted trees and even blew an express wagon and horse over. In the middle of March, 1913, the New Sun newspaper provided a technical explanation of how the Sayville transmitter worked:

“The Sayville station has in reality two actual wireless stations that operate from the same mast. The majority of the time a wave length of 600 meters is used, this frequency keeps in touch with all vessels within a radius of approximately 2,000 miles. For the extreme long distances, the wave is extended to 2,800 meters and it may even be increased to 5,000 meter. Messages to ships 2,000 miles away can be reached within a few seconds.”

During this time period, one of the main uses of the wireless station was to broadcast daily news updates. Every day at 9:15 PM, the station became a wireless newspaper. The news of the day was summarized and transmitted everywhere, from the equator to the arctic circle.

In August, 1914, World War I broke out in Europe.  By the end of April 1915, Britain cut Germany’s underwater transatlantic telegraph cables. This made Sayville’s wireless station a critical link in the German communication network. As a result of this, Telefunken continued to improve the facility and added an additional 500 foot antenna tower.

In line with its claim of neutrality, the USA started censoring all messages sent out of Sayville. The U.S. navy took up a permanent position in the facility and assigned two censors to it: Lieutenant Francis Cogswell and Daniel Cozzens (who one day mysteriously got electrocuted on the site, but survived).

US censor badly burned-Sheva Apelbaum Closer Sayville Censorship-Sheva Apelbaum

The U.S. naval operators were to monitor the station in order to insure that no encrypted military messages were being transmitted. On June 7, 1915, Charles Apgar, a private citizen who invented a device to capture wireless transmissions, started recording Sayville station’s messages and sent them to the U.S. Secret Service. Based on the contents of these coded messages, in July, 1915, the U.S. Government finally ordered United States personnel to take over the station management.

At this time, according to some newspaper reports, a Sayville justice of the Peace, Daniel White who lived at the Kensington Hotel, noticed that Daniel Cozzens, one of the two US Navy men responsible for censoring the messages at the station, was  being treated to lavish meals by the German wireless operators.

Mr. White claimed that Mr. Cozzens was partying all night and then sleeping until noon. White (who was either envious for not being invited or not busy enough doing his daily job) connected Cozzens’ laziness with the sinking of the Lusitania, which was torpedoed by a German submarine in May of that year.

Lusitania Sinking

Mr. White confided in his personal friend, Francis Hoag the editor of the Suffolk County News, and told him about the evil that was taking place at the Kensington Hotel. White said:

“…They [the German wireless operators] seem to be on the friendliest terms with the young Navy man and buy drinks for him, often late at night with the results that sometimes he doesn’t get around until nearly noon the next day and even then he has plenty of time to go out in automobiles and play tennis with the girls around town.”

In what appears to be a well orchestrated and well timed media blitz, a story about the night adventures of Mr. Cozzens suddenly appeared in the Tribune newspaper. By the second week of June 1915, Cozzens was relieved of his responsibilities and the censorship at the station was increased.

Rumors (most likely spread by British agents and sympathizers) continued to circulate in the local newspapers about the traitorous nature of the Sayville wireless station.

On April 20, 1916, in what was a clear indication of the U.S. decision to side with the allies, Secretary of the Navy Daniels issued a statement saying that it had been decided to strengthen the guard at all German wireless stations in the U.S. including Sayville and the New Jersey facilities.

In April 21, 1916, the Suffolk County News reported the arrival of a company of twenty-one Marines under Sergeant Smith, who had been sent to guard the wireless station. “They were husky, business like looking lads in service uniform and heavy marching order, with cartridge belts filled with ammunition and toting all their hardware...”

Looks Warlike Here-Sheva Apelbaum

In February, 1917, all German personnel were ordered off the station grounds. The Atlantic Communications Company, the U.S. partner of the Telefunken Company, moved the station operators to their New York City office. The station then was taken over by a United States Navy crew.

On January 19, 1917, German Foreign Secretary Arthur Zimmermann sent a telegram to the German Ambassador to the U.S., Joann von Bernstorff, with instructions to forward it to Heinrich von Eckardt, the German Ambassador in Mexico.  The telegram described the upcoming plan to begin unrestricted submarine warfare against the allies with the possibility of creating an alliance between Mexico, Japan and Germany.  This communication, which later became known as the Zimmermann Telegram, was transmitted over three routes, including Sayville.

The telegram was allegedly intercepted by British Intelligence and decoded by them (I will discuss some of the issues that I discovered with this claim in another post). On February 24, 1917, its contents were given to the American Ambassador in London, Walter Hines Page.  Page forwarded it to President Wilson, who eventually declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917.

After the U.S. joined the war, in a move that was mostly designed for public relations, the wire fence surrounding the Sayville station was electrified, flood lights were placed at key locations, and armed marine guards were set up to patrol the grounds around the clock.

After World War I, the Sayville station was transferred to the charge of MacKay Radio and Telegraph Company. Several years later, it was converted to a remote transmission station for the Federal Aviation Administration. Eventually, in 1938, it was decommissioned.

From my research, I knew that the station was originally located at the west side of town in close proximity to the railroad tracks (passengers reported a large sign that was visible from the train).

The Telefunken Company Antenna 1913-1 Sayville-Sheva Apelbaum
The Sayville Wireless Station View from the Train

I tried looking up some old maps, but had no luck.  Then it hit me, why not use aerial photograph of the area!  I loaded Google earth and in less than one minute, I located an area that could possibly fit the description. We obtained permission to enter the site to take photographs.  Next came the field trip!

Present Day Satellite Image of Telephonken Station-Sheva Apelbaum
Aerial View of the Sayville Wireless Station

I packed my adventure knapsack and with plenty of insect repellent headed out.  After walking for some time, we located an old path.  The area was completely covered with thick brush and pine trees; there were beautiful lush vines growing everywhere.

Flower Bloom-Sheva Apelaum

There were no signs of any buildings or communication equipment.  Using the aerial map and my GPS, I plotted a course toward the center of the site.  After about 20 minutes of walking, we discovered some old pavement and suddenly ran into a 30 foot tall concrete  pier.  I immediately recognized it as one of the 3 main antenna tower anchors.

Conducting Reconnaissance-Sheva Apelbaum Radio Tower Anchor-Sheva Apelbaum

At that point, we knew that the center of the structure was less than two hundred feet away.  After another dozen feet, we found a forest of piles that were cut down with many concrete blocks mingled among them.

Cables and Pilings-Sheva Apelbaum

Then finally we reached the center of the site.  I looked around and discovered a brick wall and a concrete floor (probably part of the original power plant).  And there it was, at the corner of the concrete floor were several rusted metal boxes with dials and tubes.

Radio Parts-Sheva Apelbaum

Infamy is strange.  Here was a landmark that at one time was considered the most sophisticated communication facility in the USA, a true engineering marvel.  It cost millions of dollars to build and maintain.  For several years, it was at the center of international intrigue and attention and at one point according to some reports, even controlled the outcome of World War I.

Then one day, it just disappeared from the map, its location and history almost entirely faded from memory.

Sources and Notes:

  1. Historical Long Island images, courtesy The Sayville Library Historic Image Collection of the Sayville library.
  2. Historical newspaper articles, courtesy Suffolk public library archives.
  3. Aerial photograph– Google maps
  4. Constance Currie and her great articles about the history of Sayville.

* Special thanks to Yael Eshkar for helping me with the German translation of the Telefunken Zeitung publications.


  1. Ja ja those Germans - the most clever monsters - puhhh!!

    What a great task you performed here Sheva, I am really proud of you! You searched and researched and took full advantage of all the resources you could find - you never gave up and you solved the mystery! To discover the station in the end, deserted and destroyed in the midst of the foliage must have been very exciting - I can imagine the screams and jumps of surprise and all the WOW's and gladness and happiness to be awarded for all the hard work!

    I checked a bit about the Zimmermann (two "n") Telegramm - which was a very high explosive attempt of manipulation, promising to give back to Mexico Arizona, Texas and New Mexico if they ally with Germany in the war and if the outcome is a win, that really led to the joining in of America in world war I. As it occurred the message was send three times (ones from Nauen to Sayville) and each one was caught by the Brits. They succeeded somehow in deciphering it because the Russians had detected a German code book in a sunken German ship, which was negligently not destroyed by the crew.
    At under "Arthur Zimmermann" and "Zimmermann Telegramm" the original text and some of the deciphered codes can be seen.

    All very interesting!

    I zoomed in at the old news papers and afar from the messages about the Sayville wireless station, I enjoyed very much all the one hundred years old gossip told there: who has married, who has died, a duel (wife beating the cause!), an auction, a performance in the Opera house, a fire, a tennis tournament...

    Again: kol ha kavod Sheva!

  2. Wow, Sheva, such amazing detective work. The uncovering of such interesting piece of history must have been so exciting. And like all detective stories it had its climax in the field trip and the actual discovery of the remnants.
    Great post! Uri

  3. Thank you, Yael and Uri, for your kind comments! It was a real thrill to uncover a nearly hundred year old mystery. But part of the mystery still remains: when was the telegram intercepted, by whom, and how was it decrypted? I know that the common theory is that British intelligence intercepted and decoded the message and then shared it with the U.S., but there are so many problems with that theory that don't add up. Stay tuned for part two, coming soon…

  4. You have a new photo!!!! Lovely!!!!

  5. Hi Sheva,
    Thank you for posting the interesting history! As you say, this station was of tremendous historical importance prior to the US entry into the First World War.

    My hope to recreate the radio-frequency alternator (transmitter) used in the Sayville, NY - Nauen, Germany link, but on a much shorter wavelength. I've made some progress, although I'm not quite there yet.

    This all seems so long ago and possibly unimportant...however, I bear in mind that I would never have met my wife had her grandfather not been killed while serving in the Italian army in WW1, AND, had my own grandfather not been severely wounded while fighting with the Rainbow Division in France. I like to paraphrase the wonderful Canadian writer, John Ralston-Saul: "History is not the past, it is the water we swim through."

    I hope you will continue with your historical research Sheva. You appear to have a real knack for it!

    Best wishes,
    Roxbury, Vermont

  6. Hi Mike,

    Thank you for your comment. Recreating the Sayville Nauen transmitters seems like a very ambitious project, even at a higher frequency. Would you be creating the transmissions from Sayville <-> Nauen? Please let me know how it comes out.

    History to me seems like a flowing river that engulfs each generation and links us to each other. I have often thought about what would have happed if historical events were altered.

    For example, what would have happened if the US did not enter WW I as a belligerent. It seems to me that the Europeans would have eventually reached exhaustion and a military stalemate and the war would have ended on its own. Without Germany bearing the entire burden of the post war, fascism and communism would have probably not spread as rapidly, or at all, as they did in Europe and around the world. This in turn could have prevented WW II, the cold war, and other regional conflicts like Korea and Vietnam from ever taking place.

    The question that puzzles me is which is the preferred universe: the one in the first scenario (US not entering the war), or the second scenario (our reality), where you and I exist but hundreds of millions of people had to die as a result of the US entry into WW I?

    Best regards


  7. Hi sheva.great work sheva. regards marc fogel

  8. I invite you to a preentation on Telefunken at the Sayville Library on Saturday, September 15th at 11am. September presentation marks 100 years since Telefunken successfully linked with Nauen and was able to consistently communicate with them. We are the Long Island Radio & TV Historical Society, and I'd like to give you a free one year membership.
    Connie Currie

  9. Sheva,
    Your work on Telefunken at Sayville is outstanding. It happens that the Sayville stations are my favorite subjects. I’m a member of the Long Island Radio and TV Historical Society (Connie Curry, president) and will be giving a talk on the Telefunken station at our September meeting at the Sayville Library (new location for us). Meetings are on the third Saturday of the month (no meetings in Aug) and start at 10AM. Meetings are open to all. Please join us if you can. The talk, “Inside the Great Sayville Wireless Station,” includes a rare look at the station’s interior and apparatus through dozens of photographs. I’m sure you’d enjoy it.
    73, George Flanagan, W2KRM

  10. Thank you so much for inviting me. I am very excited and am looking forward to attending.

    1. Sheva,
      Although clumsily executed in the extreme, I hope you found my presentation on the Sayville station at least somewhat informative and interesting. I was particularly disappointed in missing the opportunity to speak with you. After wrapping up the A/V stuff at the lectern I turned to head your way, but you had already left. If you’d like, drop me an email at
      George Flanagan

    2. I did enjoy your presentation! It was very informative. I found it incredible to see how elaborate and detailed the technical operation was and I was struck by how much detective work was put into interpreting the photographs.

      I was sorry to have to leave so quickly. I will write to you soon.

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