The Big Tower

When, briefly, we had the tallest man-made thing in the world

There was an error in our Annual Manual, in our second annual "How Knoxvillian Are You?" quiz. The test was unsigned, but several readers somehow leapt to the conclusion that I had written that thing. I've gotten a couple of calls and letters about it, from folks who are even more Knoxvillian than I am.

The error appeared in question number eight: "What was once, according to Guinness, the tallest structure in the world?" The "correct" answer, as indicated, was (b.) "the WBIR tower on Sharp's Ridge."

I should have known better. The tallest structure in the entire world was a WBIR tower in Knoxville? Come on.

Okay, the tallest structure in the world wasn't in Knoxville. It was about 15 miles east of here, in East Knox County.

I lived in Knoxville in 1963, and was of an age that I would have been awed to hear that the world's tallest tower was in my home county. But I don't remember anybody talking about it at recess. It was only a decade later, after it was no longer the tallest thing in the world, that I first heard of it, thumbing through my Guinness Book of World Records.

It wasn't a secret here, though. The News-Sentinel announced the project with a small item on Page 13. Maybe it was just Knoxville modesty, but I get the impression that people didn't quite know what to make of it.

Other cities, I think, would have crowed about it. It was the time of the New Frontier. As we struggled to catch up with the Russians in outer-space exploration, manufacture of H-bombs, and public education, we could console ourselves that we were thrashing the commies in the size of our TV towers.

Whether the Cold War had anything to do with it, WBIR-TV had practical reasons to build a monster tower. They were already broadcasting at its maximum of 316,000 watts, but in the hill country were still tens of thousands who couldn't receive any of Knoxville's TV signals. In the hollers of Kentucky alone, there were 50,000 more potential viewers who'd never had access to any television station. WBIR-TV would reach them with a mast of 1,750 feet tall on a ridge in northeast Knox County, near House Mountain.

It took some guts. Then not quite seven years old, WBIR was Knoxville's newest TV station. Much of its news staff, like Doc Johnston, were radio guys who split their time with the TV studio.

WBIR broadcast a few things those folks in the TV-challenged hollers might have found interesting enough. There was Cas Walker's early-morning "Farm and Home Show," which sold country music and groceries, and Rex Rainey's "The Early Show," the afternoon adventure-movie matinee for the kids. And several national programs: "Perry Mason," "The Twilight Zone," Jack Benny, "The Secret Storm," "Captain Kangaroo." Those Kentuckians had heard of most of those shows; now they were actually going to see them.

The new mast, to be built by a Pennsylvania company called Stainless, Inc., would be, station manager John Hart said, 650 taller than the Eiffel Tower, and 350 feet taller than the Empire State Building. And it would be one foot taller than the previous record holder: the WTVM tower, which wasn't in Paris or New York, but in Columbus, Georgia.

WBIR didn't get to advertise its only global distinction for more than a couple of months, before another TV station—in Mississippi—built one just a little taller. (WBIR tried to hold onto the distinction by citing its altitude advantage, that it was over 3,000 feet above sea level; but by that standard, any hut in the Himalayas would have been higher still.)

Since those days, a few TV towers have risen over 2,000 feet tall. Today's tallest, in North Dakota, is about 300 feet taller than our old champ.

You could say it's still in the pack. For what it's worth, no walk-in skyscraper has ever approached WBIR's 1963 height. Petronas Tower in Malaysia, the tallest skyscraper in the world today, is almost a football field shorter than the old WBIR mast. Shanghai's World Financial Center, soon to exceed it, is 241 feet shorter.

In the late '70s, WBIR sold its tower to the folks that ran WIMZ, 103.5, and moved back to Sharp's Ridge. But the old tower is still there. It's about 15 miles from downtown, right off Rutledge Pike. Reporters used to call this route "Bloody 11W," fascinating a generation of Knoxville children ("Can we go out Bloody 11W, Dad? Please?"), but it's not very bloody anymore. In fact, for a divided highway, 11W's pretty quiet. And there, on a narrow, wooded ridge just past House Mountain, is a TV tower.

I'd say you can't miss it, but if you're not paying attention, you probably can. We're used to seeing TV towers, and this one doesn't look much different from any other: a slender cluster of poles, painted red and white. A triangular platform, about two thirds of the way up, and a multi-pronged antenna on top. Several big guy wires stretch from the tower far across the countryside to anchors in several cow pastures and goat farms. My friend Steve Dean, who went up there once when he was working for WBIR in the '70s, says the view from the elevator is stunning.

But from the ground, it's just a TV tower, and the fact that it's a little taller than others you've seen doesn't cause people to jam on their brakes on Rutledge Pike. You can't get very close to the tower itself, and there's no historic marker. It wasn't built to look dramatic; it was built to level the electronic playing field in this geographically challenged region, to get Captain Kangaroo to kids back in the hollers who'd never seen a TV image before, and maybe sell them some Nestle's Quik.

© 2001 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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