This article was written by a friend of the Vancouver Maritime Museum, John Gilbert. John has been researching and writing about the Arctic and radio communications in recent years. He also served as a radio operator at Eureka Nunavut from 1956 to 1958.
The RCMP schooner St Roch was launched at the end of May in 1928. To navigate through Arctic ice and around Alaska, the St. Roch had to leave Vancouver on June 28. The last of the crew to be selected was the radio operator, F.W. “Fred” Sealey, then employed by the radio branch of the Department of Marine and Fisheries. Fred was an experienced marine wireless operator, having sailed on the Robert Dollar plying between Canada and Japan.
He arrived on board on June 7 with barely three weeks to get the wireless room ready. The ship was equipped with state-of-the art short-wave wireless gear pioneered only a couple of years before by Bill Choat on CGS Arctic.
Fred knew that he would need tools, test equipment, spare parts and reference manuals to keep the radios going in the Arctic, where the nearest radio service centres were hundreds of miles away. He spent his first three weeks sending off requisitions for the most urgent supplies, including a typewriter which he would use to copy Morse code messages. Many items did not reach the ship in time, leaving it to Fred’s initiative to keep things going when problems arose.
The ship had sailed only a few days en route to Herschel Island when the wireless equipment failed. Without wireless they did not learn until they arrived at their destination that a major influenza epidemic had devastated the area. Fred was able to repair the wireless with some help from wireless operators at Barrow and Herschel Island.
Plans to communicate with Aklavik did not work out initially so Fred erected a temporary 30-foot antenna and communicated with a station at Bristol Bay, Alaska. Realizing that short-wave signals bounced off the ionosphere, sometimes skipping over closer stations, Fred began to send messages to Ottawa through the wireless stations at Churchill, Manitoba, Nottingham Island, Resolution Island and Cape Hopes Advance in Hudson Strait, 1100 miles away. These stations had been installed the same year.
Fred could claim to be the first radio broadcasting station in the Arctic; his efforts were recognized in the RCMP Commissioner’s 1930 report:
“Last winter items, not of a confidential nature, … were broadcasted from the St. Roch’s location in Langdon Bay …. If we could be certain that these scheduled broadcasts would be always picked up by our detachments the scheme would, as a means of communication, be of inestimable value to us”
Fred returned to the Department of Marine and Fisheries with a glowing testimonial. The Director of Radio, C.P. Edwards, said of Fred’s resourcefulness “when his gasoline engine outfit broke down…he managed to establish communication with Churchill on a receiving tube and dry batteries.”
Fred died at Saanich Peninsula Hospital on October 6, 1976.
For the second (1930) voyage of the St Roch the radio operator was Herbie Holt. Sadly he was hit with appendicitis and returned to Vancouver as the ship approached Alaska.
John Duke took over as radio operator when the ship reached Herschel Island and held the position for the next three years. While the ship was frozen in the ice at Tree River, he kept a daily journal in which he recorded his almost daily innovations. By then Fred Sealey was in charge of the new government station at Coppermine and visited the ship. No doubt inspired by Fred’s broadcasting efforts the year before, John ran antennas out onto the ice. He would monitor the news, sent in those days by Morse code. Other Crew members, such as A. H. Owen-Jones, would then “broadcast” the news and commentary and play music using the ship’s gramophone. These transmissions were made several times a week at 2:00 p.m. and 7:55 p.m. The ship was granted a radio licence to broadcast on a frequency of 667 KHz and was given the call sign VGSR.
Dean Hadley, the radio operator on the 1940-41 voyage through the Northwest Passage, continued the broadcast transmissions under difficult wartime conditions. In his book What a Life! he reports that “there was no regular schedule, just the occasional news and music with most of the potential listeners forewarned via short wave radio that there would be a broadcast.” Hadley describes the unique experience of working on the antennas “All the things you might need…you take with you, then either climb up the rigging or use a bosun’s chair to get up high enough to reach the antenna yardarm…the motion of the ship is amplified as you go higher and the view is spectacular.”
Dean Hadley was the last living member of the St Roch crew. He died on July 13, 2018.
Early in 1946, Operation Muskox, a military exercise, arrived at Cambridge Bay and stayed close to the St Roch for a week changing engines and tracks on their vehicles. Radio operator L. C. Smith was asked to act as a wireless station and radio beacon to assist airplanes supporting Muskox. Smith was alone and could not possibly provide 24-hour service, so he built his own automatic beacon. He rigged up the motor of an old electric gramophone with a disk of plywood and pulleys and used heavy rubber bands to achieve the proper speed and tension. The disk was notched with Morse characters signalling VGSR. Several visitors who came on board found it hard to believe that they had homed in on this contraption.