Summer 2009 Issue


Photo 1. John Williams, N4AOW’s tower is at the top of a mountain in Tennessee (notice the small specks in the fields below; those are cows!). (All photos by Kevin, N5PRE, unless otherwise noted)

An Interview with the
“Fire Tower Man” of Tennessee

My friend Melvin, K4JFF, had often told me he could routinely work a station in Tennessee on 2 meters simplex from his house in Atlanta, Georgia, and that this ham has a fire tower atop a mountain there. It intrigued me from the start. This is the story of my search to learn about the tower and the man who built it.

By Jorge de la Torre, KI4SGU

Many hams have 100+ foot towers for their VHF/UHF antennas. However, John Williams, N4AOW’s tower is at the top of a mountain in Tennessee (see photo 1 and notice the small specks in the fields below, as those are cows!). After first hearing about his tower, I thought that this must make for very short antenna runs, but was quickly reminded that he would have very long ground leads. From the moment I heard of N4AOW’s tower setup, I knew I had to meet John and visit his QTH. I finally got my opportunity to meet him at the Dalton (Georgia) Hamfest on a frightfully cold day in February 2008.

When I met John, there was a bit of a mental disconnect for me. This legendary ham could easily talk across state lines on 2 meters, defying the curvature of the Earth itself, but the quiet, soft-spoken gentleman before me did not quite fit what I had imagined. As I spoke to John more and more, I came to realize that the magic in all of John’s accomplishments is the thousands of details he meticulously handles. To him it is not all about raw, brute power; it is all about the details.

As a ham and an amateur engineer, I was more than a little intrigued as to how a ham would acquire and operate his own 90-foot steel tower atop an equally impressive ridge line in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains (technically the northern end of the Red Hills of southeast Tennessee). One detail, which I came to find out later, is that John had acquired not only the tower but also the land with this project in mind. He then finally built the house that is now his home. Wow, that is dedication to the hobby!

During that first meeting, as we walked and talked amidst the cold bone-yard at the hamfest in northern Georgia, we turned the pages of his photo album, an album that John had compiled as a record of the construction project. My very first question was “Wherever did you find a surplus forestry service tower?” “In Sparta, Tennessee,” he said, adding, “for about $300 in the summer of 2001.” The tower also had lots of its key parts missing. Apparently, the previous owner had had the tower for a similar project, but had never been able to complete it and had lost many of its parts along the way before selling it to John. I wanted to visit and operate from the shack, and not just the turn the pages and view the pictures. As people often do, we vowed a most excellent and expedient plan for later that year when we would visit the tower and see for it ourselves. I optimistically figured on a few months at the longest, when the weather had warmed up a bit and I would make the trip to John’s home in Cleveland, Tennessee. But alas, work and family and all of the other normal pressures of life conspired against me and kept me from making the trip.

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