Historic RCA Coast Station KPH
Photo © NPS
This quiet landscape, a haven for migrant birds among the Monterey cypress trees has long been shaped by a myriad of people drawn to it’s rich soil and beaches. Coast Miwok people, farmers, military and communication workers, and now scientists have all walked the dunes and grasslands of this site. These buildings, now an office setting for park workers, were once in the forefront of communication technology - a wireless telegraph station where operators tapped out Morse Code messages across the Pacific Ocean. It is known as the RCA Ranch since it’s 1929 purchase by the Radio Corporation of America.
The story begins with Coast Miwok people traveling along Drakes Estero digging for shellfish, leaving behind middens stacked with oyster and clam shells. Native bunchgrasses supported herds of elk and deer on treeless plains swept by prevailing northern winds, succeeded by the cattle of Mexican ranchers, grazing throughout the Rancho Punta de Los Reyes. Eventually, a law firm, Shafter, Shafter, Park, and Heydenfeldt emerged as owners of the entire peninsula. This firm mapped out a series of 30 ranches run by tenant farmers, labelling the various holdings by letters of the alphabet. This site is the original ‘G Ranch’ though it would pass through a series of names including ‘Flat Ranch’ and ‘McClures Ranch’. G Ranch, similiar to the other tenant run dairies raised cows to provide butter for a growing San Francisco population. Milkers, many immigrant Portuguese and Irish, worked for about $30.00 a month plus room and board, milking a string of about 25 cows twice day, wind or rain.
How did the peaceful sound of grazing of cows give way to the tapping sound of Morse Code? The early 19th century was an exciting time of innovations in communication. In 1901, Gugliemo Marconi heard the first tap of his wireless telegraph system- the letter ‘S” in Morse code across the Atlantic Ocean. The wreck of Titanic in 1912 highlighted how wireless telegraph systems could safeguard lives and property at sea. Wireless operators could tap out messages at about 15 words per minute - calling other ships and shore stations for aid. The Marconi Wireless Company, owned by RCA had opened and operated two local communication
stations in Bolinas and Marshall in 1913-1914 to transmit messages around the Pacific. RCA then purchased G ranch because of it’s proximity to the ocean for a third station to transmit across the north Pacific. The art deco style receiving station was built between 1929-1931 and the landmark row of Monterey cypress trees was planted, one of the few tree species adaptable to wind and ocean weather conditions.
Wireless transmission and ship to shore communication were rapidly growing enterprises. This Point Reyes Station was named KPH, with the ‘PH’ indicating the Palace Hotel where the station was first licensed before being moved out to the Point Reyes peninsula. It was at the sister Marshall station that the mainland United States first received news of the attack on Pearl Harbor and transmitted it across the country. During World War II, RCA Ranch was used by military and Coast Guard personnel who were stationed on the ranch to patrol nearby beaches.
World War II spurred even more developments in communications such as LORAN (long range aid to navigation) and GPS (global positioning systems) replacing the need for Morse Code operators and ocean-front technical stations. The National Park Service was able to acquire the property from RCA 1999. A partnership was created between the Maritime Radio Historical Society and the seashore to protect and maintain the equipment. The society opens the station to the public on field days when volunteers operate the antique code machines. The field days are open to the public and more information can be obtained at www.radiomarine.org.
Today, the line of cypress trees, the setting for numerous car commercials, offers a welcome respite for migratory birds along the Pacific Flyway. Golden eagles like to settle along the topmost branches to scan for rabbits in the nearby fields and warblers hide in the thick branches to rest as they head south. The structures are maintained as part of the long human chain of history on the Point Reyes peninsula.
Time Period Represented: 1929 - present
Hours Open: Limited
Visitor Fees: Free