Saskatchewan

Historic CBK transmitter building in Watrous to be demolished

Local history buffs are working to preserve pieces of broadcast history before historic CBK transmitter building in Watrous is demolished in the coming weeks.

Local historians work to preserve pieces of CBC broadcast history

Most people who have grown up in the prairie provinces will have received their news via the CBC broadcast tower in Watrous. 

The massive CBK building was established in 1939 as part of an overall CBC plan to bring programming to all parts of Canada. This was done with several well-placed 50,000 watt transmitters. 

The CBK transmitter building in Watrous 1939 (Dwight Kornelsen/Watrousheritage.ca)

CBK was designed to serve all the prairie provinces, which is why Watrous was chosen as the site.

It is located in the centre of the populated portion of the prairies, and as a bonus it is located on a potash vein, making its ground conductivity one of the best on the continent. 

In those days the technology for a single transmitter took up two floors of the building.

About 371 square metres was for the transmitter. That amount of equipment required a staff of six to maintain.

There was also a manager and living quarters for the staff. 

The original transmitter needed 371 square metres of room. The new transmitter takes up less than one square metre. (Sourced from watrousheritage.ca)

During the Cold War, nuclear threat was a very real concern.

- Stephen Tomchuk

"The site was deemed important enough for communications that there was an armed guard protecting the transmitter," said Stephen Tomchuk, transmitter supervisor for Saskatchewan. 

"There was a fallout shelter built in the basement of the building that contained full facilities to be able to broadcast in the event of nuclear war," added Tomchuk. 

The transmitter survived the war unscathed but it was a plough wind going 160 kph that tore down the tower in 1976. 

According to the Watrous historical centre this was the only time in its history that CBK was off the air for more than a few hours.

Only several days after the storm, a 91-metre temporary tower put CBK back on the air and in 1983, a new permanent tower was erected, reaching the height of about 43 metres, the same length as the original antenna. 

CBK transmitter tower destroyed by winds in 1976 (watrousheritage.ca)

Over the years, electrical noise levels rose, making it necessary to install transmitters in Alberta and Manitoba to improve reception in those areas, and CBK was left with its present role of serving Saskatchewan. 

CBK building being demolished

Technology has changed immensely since the building opened in 1939.

"Now technology has evolved, the actual transmitter takes up nine square feet (less than one square metre) of space instead of 4,000 (371 square metres) and we now only have a staff of one that visits there once a month, said Tomchuk.

In March 2007, CBC decided to build a new smaller building to house the new transmitter. The new transmitter didn't heat the massive building the same way the old one did. The old building became vacant and with no one maintaining it, it fell into disrepair. 

CBC was in communication with the local heritage committee to offer it the opportunity to take over the building.

However, getting the building up to code and maintaining it was more money than the local heritage committee could afford. 

Tomchuk said the building contains hazardous material such as lead paint and asbestos in the flooring and he estimates it would cost between $500,000 and $1.5 million just to fix up the building enough to allow the public inside. 

Instead, members of the local heritage committee worked with CBC to identify pieces of interest from inside the building that could be removed to put on display somewhere else. 

Local Committee preserves pieces of broadcast history

Kathy Bergen is chair of the Watrous Manitou Heritage Centre. She has spent the last few days salvaging everything she could from the building. Bergen said community members are very proud of the old building. 

- Kathy Bergen

"It put Watrous on the map," Bergen said. 

Bergen said the typical first reaction is "Why can't something be done to save the building? But when you go in you see it's in poor condition and you realize how much money it would be to restore."

Workers remove the CBK letters from the historic CBC transmitter building in Watrous before the building is scheduled for demolition. (Submitted by Gary Bergen )

Bergen's husband Gary has created a website documenting much of the history of the CBK Transmitter as well as the equipment inside. 

The website even includes audio from the inaugural broadcast featuring messages from premieres, federal ministers and even a tribute from the Happy Gang, a classic CBC variety show. 

Bergen said members of the Heritage Centre are working on getting a building to house the historical equipment.

Volunteers have taken samples of everything inside and hope to one day recreate the space. 

- Kathy Bergen

The only thing they haven't been able to save is a huge map of Canada on the main transmitter floor. It is made of inlaid battleship linoleum approximately 12 metres by five metres and has all the CBC radio stations from 1939 marked on the map. Tomchuck said the asbestos lined flooring would pose a health concern if it was removed.

The floor is made of asbestos lined tile in the shape of a map of Canada with all the CBC stations in 1939 marked. (Sourced watrousheritage.ca)

"It's sad that it's a part of the history that won't be standing there but I feel good about what we've been able to do to preserve the history."

A demolition crew is expected to arrive in Watrous on Monday. Because of all the hazardous material inside the demolition process is expected to take about two weeks. 

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