1940s transmitter finds new home in old jail

Bill Steele is a collector of odd things. A year ago, for example, he bought the site of the last double hanging in New Brunswick. His latest purchase is also a rare find: a massive 1940s transmitter that once broadcast Canada's stories around the world.

The massive transmitter is being moved from the former RCI site to the former Dorchester jail

Bill Steele, who bought the 1940s shortwave transmitter from the Mi'kmaq groups that now own the Radio Canada International site, shakes hands with Mike Knockwood of Fort Folly First Nation. (Submitted)

Bill Steele is a collector of odd things. A year ago, for example, he bought the site of the last double hanging in New Brunswick.

His latest purchase is less morbid but also a rare find: a massive 1940 shortwave transmitter that once broadcast Canada's stories around the world.

The transmitter was installed around the end of the Second World War and used until the 1970s. The Radio Canada International site outside Sackville continued to broadcast, but the 50 kW transmitter, five metres long and 2½ metres wide, was decommissioned and used as a showpiece. 

Steele became the official owner of the old jail in Dorchester last June and has turned it into a guest house. There is also a gym inside. (Submitted/Bill Steele)

The RCI property was bought in February 2017 by Mi'gmawe'l Tplu'taqnn Inc., which had no use for the non-functioning equipment and put it up for sale.

Steele couldn't help himself.

"I like weird and unusual stuff," he said. "That's why I'm putting it in my jail."

He bought his jail — now a gym and bed and breakfast — last year as a retirement project. Guests bunk in a decommissioned jail cell.

The jail built in the 19th century was where the Bannister brothers of Berry Mills were hanged for murder in 1936, the last double hanging in the province.  

Steele's enthusiasm for historical objects is infectious even when he talks about the paperwork that comes with his latest purchase. 

This tube, part of the RCA 50 KW transmitter on the former RCI radio tower site, is part of what sold Steele in the machine. (Tori Weldon/CBC)

"It's got the manual, from the '30s that the Canadian government — like, I had it in my hand, I'm going, 'Look at this.'" 

And he describes the transmitter in glowing terms. 

"When I first saw it, it was the big, huge Frankenstein-looking bulbs that were in there," he said. "It was like, 'Oh my god, this is like something you see on TV.' I expected a Tesla spark to be flying over top of it."

Despite what the sign says, Steele plans to install the non-functioning transmitter inside his jail, where guests sleep in old cells. (Tori Weldon/CBC)

Steele plans to share the massive machine with anyone who wants to come by for a look. He already has a place picked out for it.

"It's going to take up the whole room."

Mike Knockwood is a member of Fort Folly First Nation, one of the seven Mi'kmaq groups that purchased the RCI property.

He's glad the transmitter will be close by, more so because "it's not going to be taken apart and sold for scrap."

Knockwood said some groups expressed interest in getting the transmitter for free, but Steele paid for it. He wouldn't say  for how much.

The 19th-century Dorchester jail closed about 20 years ago. These days, the cells are for rent to people drawn by the site's history. (Brett Ruskin/CBC)

Steele is hoping anyone with stories about the transmitter will share them with him on his Dorchester jail Facebook page, because, as Steele is the first to admit, this isn't his area of expertise.

"I've never touched a shortwave radio, but look it, I'm going to have the biggest one in Canada."