2016-10-28 / Community

A Window on the Past

Remembering the Texas Tower construction
By Kathryn Onos DiPhilippo
South Portland Historical Society

These 1957 photo shows a Texas Tower being built by Portland Copper and Tank Works in South Portland. Above, note the buildings at Fort Preble in the background. (Courtesy photos) These 1957 photo shows a Texas Tower being built by Portland Copper and Tank Works in South Portland. Above, note the buildings at Fort Preble in the background. (Courtesy photos) South Portland has been home to many heavy industrial businesses through the years. We talk most often of the large shipyards that were based here during World War II, but we also had a long history before and after that. This week, we’ll take a look at one of those post-war businesses.

After the war ended in 1945, South Portland was left with a very large, very vacant shipyard area to deal with. There had initially been two shipyards: Todd-Bath Iron Shipbuilding and South Portland Shipbuilding. Midway through the war, these two yards merged and became one organization, the New England Shipbuilding Corporation. After the war, the Greater Portland Public Development Commission was formed to take on all of the buildings and land that had been run by New England Shipbuilding Corporation, and find a way to use them to create economic development.

The east yard area, that had initially been home to Todd- Bath, had its own interesting construction – three large concrete basins that were divided by long piers to create space for seven Liberty ships to be built at the same time. I imagine that commissioners at Greater Portland Public Development Commission were scratching their heads when they looked at those basins, wondering how to find businesses that would come here to employ residents in South Portland and the greater Portland area.

In the early 1950s, one of the businesses that moved in was Portland Copper and Tank Works. We wish we had better knowledge of the work of Portland Copper and Tank Works. We do know it had been a subcontractor for General Electric, fabricating parts for use in jet engines. A very highly visible project, though, was the construction of the Texas Tower No. 4 in the old shipyard basins.

Texas Towers were large metal radar towers that were built for use by the Air Force in its Air Defense Command program. The radar towers were called Texas Towers because the design resembled that of oil rigs. In the 1950s, the Air Force had a plan for five radar stations to be placed in the Atlantic to provide an alert of an incoming attack by air. The large Texas Towers were put in to increase the range of radar detection by an estimated 300 to 500 miles, giving an extra 30 minutes of warning time. Only three of those planned radar stations were put in place: Texas Towers No. 2, No. 3 and No. 4.

The Texas Tower built in South Portland was Texas Tower 4. Construction began in December 1956 in the old shipyard basins. Work was completed in June 1957. The tower was turned on its side and moved in two sections out to its station, about 80 miles off of the New York/New Jersey coast.

The Texas Tower program was doomed to fail, however. The towers were known as having much vibration and noise – for those stationed on them, it was a most unpleasant and unsafe assignment. Texas Tower 4 was particularly unstable and the people who were stationed there called it “Old Shaky.” The towers had not been designed large enough to withstand the storms that occasionally come through the Atlantic. Several storms, and a hurricane in 1960, damaged the Texas Tower 4 structure, which was repaired each time. In a tragic event, a gale came through on Jan. 15, 1961, and the massive tower collapsed and disappeared into the ocean, with the loss of all 28 people who were stationed there – 14 Air Force men and 14 civilian contractors. The remaining two Texas Tower stations were decommissioned in 1963. During the demolition of Texas Tower 2, it also collapsed into the ocean, but no personnel were stationed aboard it at the time.

We would love to know more about the other types of work that Portland Copper and Tank Works did in South Portland during the 1950s. If you or someone you know ever worked for Portland Copper and Tank Works, we would really appreciate hearing from you. Please give the South Portland Historical Society a call at 767-7299, send us an email at sphistory04106@gmail.com, or write/visit us at 55 Bug Light Park, South Portland, ME 04106.

Kathryn Onos DiPhilippo is executive director of South Portland Historical Society.

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