HISTORY OF KARC W4TRC/R REPEATERS
In the 1950’s and ‘60’s Kingsport area amateur radio activity in the 144-148 MHz 2 meter band was mostly low power AM generated by Heathkit “lunchbox” transceivers. Heath’s 6 meter AM “lunchbox” was also popular. CW and single-sideband activity on the lower portion of the band was often accomplished using HF radios equipped with frequency converters. Antenna polarization was generally horizontal especially on the lower portion of the band, and horizontal polarization remains the standard today for AM, CW, and SSB operation in the lower portions of the 2 meter band.
As the 1960’s progressed, 2 meter FM activity picked up in our area generally using surplus gear easily converted to 2 meters from its original use on the commercial VHF “high band” in the 150-170 MHz region. These transceivers often began their service in police cars, delivery trucks, emergency vehicles, and the like. Almost all amateur 2 meter FM activity was simplex ---- largely on 146.52 and 146.94 MHz. Vertical antenna polarization was the standard for commercial FM VHF activity, which primarily consisted of base stations communicating with mobile transceivers in service vehicles, and that practice carried over on 2 meters. Soon commercial interests began using repeaters to enhance range, placing their antennas on mountains, tall buildings, or towers.
Around 1970 George Shaver, K4HXD, put on the air what is generally considered to be the first 2 meter amateur repeater in the region. It was located on Chilhowee mountain near Walland in the Knoxville area with an output frequency of 146.94 MHz and an input frequency of 146.34 MHz and could be worked from Kingsport with the right combination of height, power, and antenna gain. That repeater is still in operation on the same frequency.
A KARC Repeater is Born
By 1972 interest in a 2 meter repeater was expressed by members of the Kingsport and Bays Mountain amateur radio clubs, and in a meeting on February 10 of that year Roy Hill, W4PID, moved and John Sanders, WB4ANX, seconded a motion that the club undertake operation of a 2 meter FM repeater. The motion passed, and in March testing was underway. In April Holston Valley Community Hospital (now Holston Valley Medical Center, part of Ballad) agreed that the proposed repeater could be placed atop the hospital building near downtown Kingsport at no cost to the club. In August different club members were assigned defined portions of the project such as power supply, transmitter, controller, Morse ID’er, etc. Minutes of club meetings indicate that through the summer some difficulties were encountered with getting equipment going.
The November, 1972, club newsletter reported that information had been received concerning a transistorized 2 meter FM repeater made specifically for the amateur market, which was being marketed. A special session was set to be held within the regular club meeting. Members were asked to bring their questions and their pocketbooks so that a quick decision could be made on whether or not to proceed with purchase of the ready-made unit, which was manufactured by Standard.
On November 9, Forrest Pilgrim, W4JD, the acknowledged senior ham of the group, reported on the Standard repeater. The cost was $640 (given inflation that would be about $4,126 in 2021 dollars). If 30 hams would contribute $20 each, the purchase could be made. It was decided to poll the 2 meter operators in Kingsport to determine if there were sufficient interest. There was!
On December 14, J.D. Hattaway, WA4BXZ, announced that an FCC license for the repeater had been granted. The license was for the call sign W4TRC as the FCC was not assigning separate call signs for repeaters at that time. Later in 1973 the Commission mandated that repeaters would be assigned special calls with a "WR" prefix. WR4AGE was assigned to the Kingsport repeater. In May, 1978 the FCC dropped that practice and as licenses for “WR” calls expired the repeaters were assigned the calls of their owners; hence, the KARC repeater became W4TRC/R. During the same December 14 meeting Charlie Benedict, WB4FVM, reported that the 2 meter repeater had been ordered with February 9, 1973, as the dealer’s earliest estimated shipping date.
The repeater’s “birth” was announced in the February 1973 Zero Beat, and on February 8, Charlie reported that the machine was on the air and operating nicely.” The output frequency was 146.82 MHz with input frequency of 146.22 MHz. It was known in the shorthand of the day as “the 22/82 repeater.” (That frequency is now occupied by the Scott Country Amateur Radio Club’s 2 meter repeater on Clinch Mountain near Gate City, VA.)
The Move to Bays Mountain
During the first few years of its operation, it became obvious that the KARC repeater operating from the hospital rooftop could not compete in coverage with many other area repeaters, whose antennas were located on mountaintops. For example, KARC member, Eddie Palmer, K4LSP (now K4JP), built a repeater on Bays Mountain (actually Holston River Mountain), which operated on 146.16/76. During the separate repeater call sign era, the FCC assigned Eddie’s repeater the call, WR4ADO.
Other repeaters were located on Mt. Pisgah and Mt. Mitchell near Asheville, NC, and others later on Buffalo Mountain in Johnson City, Holston Mountain, Camp Creek Bald (aka Viking Mountain) south of Greeneville, and other area summits. An advantage to the hospital site, however, was back-up emergency power, which many of the mountaintop sites did not have.
During this period club member, George DeVault, WA4IVG (now W3KPT), became the chief executive of Holston Valley Broadcasting Corporation (HVBC), owner of property and towers at Bays Knob (where Bays Mountain and Holston River Mountain converge) about two miles from and around a thousand feet higher than downtown Kingsport. This was the original 1948 site for WTFM(FM) (then WKPT-FM). The site is now the transmitter location of a number of broadcast stations including WRZK(FM), WVEK(FM), WKPT-CD, WKIN-CD, and the FM translators of WKPT(AM) and two other AM stations as well as the site of WTFM(FM)’s auxiliary back-up transmitter. DeVault offered use of the site and electricity at no charge to KARC for the location of the amateur radio repeater. Importantly, this site had back-up emergency power.
In a club meeting on November 13, 1975, Hank, K4VOS, led a lively discussion about moving WR4AGE to Bays Mountain on a new frequency. He moved that the club relocate WR4AGE and apply for a new license. After a lengthy discussion involving additional motions and amendments it was decided that the repeater trustee would be allowed to move the repeater to Bays Mountain.
On December 11. 1975, Eddie, K4LSP, moved to make the relocation of WR4AGE to Bays Mountain permanent. Ralph Tilghman, WB4LJW, seconded the motion, which passed. A motion to apply for a new repeater license for the hospital site was proposed by Hank Resch, K4VOS, and seconded by George, WA4IVG. The motion carried, but once the move to Bays Mountain was accomplished, there was never again any KARC repeater operation from the hospital site.
During the club’s March 11, 1976, meeting Hank, K4VOS, said everything looked good for the WR4AGE frequency change to 146.97 MHz with input frequency of 146.37 MHz before May 1, 1976.
The KARC 2 meter repeater was thus moved to Bays Knob with equipment in the main HVBC transmitter building and antenna on a pole just outside the building. Around this time a cellular telephone company leased space and built an additional 200 plus foot tower on the HVBC site. HVBC had rights to use the new tower for various auxiliary purposes and allowed the W4TRC repeater antenna to be moved to the new tower increasing the repeater’s antenna height by almost 200 feet.
An almost forgotten feature of the repeater was added in the mid 1970’s ----- “autopatch.” Using touchtone pads on their transceivers club members could access a telephone line at the repeater site and dial local numbers. Of course in compliance with FCC rules governing amateur radio nothing of a pecuniary nature could be discussed. In those days before cell phone service came to the area, the “autopatch” was not only a great convenience, but an important safety feature, which could be used to report emergencies. The repeater’s “autopatch” was discontinued after economical cell phone service became available locally.
New Equipment, Fusion Digital, & the 440 Band
KARC added a 440 MHz W4TRC repeater (443.325 MHz output with input frequency of 448.325 MHz) at the same site around 2010. New Yeasu repeater equipment was purchased thanks in part to donations from club members, and the “fusion” mode was introduced on both the 2 meter and 440 MHz repeaters repeaters. The club ultimately decided to operate the 2 meter repeater in a mode in which all input signals whether analog or fusion would be retransmitted in analog FM on the repeater output. The 440 machine relays “fusion” inputs in the “fusion” mode and analog inputs in the analog mode.
The new “fusion” repeaters were manufactured by Yaesu. These are not only frequency-agile (they can be moved to any frequency in the band without requiring crystals), but each is also able to operate on either the 2 meter band or the 440 MHz amateur band. The club later purchased a third Yaesu unit capable of slightly higher output power, which is now being used on the 2 meter repeater. The unit taken out of service has been retained as a “back-up” replacement when and if needed for either 2 meter or 440 MHz use. Interestingly, the company, which had supplied the club’s first 2 meter repeater in 1973, had morphed into Vertex Standard, a subsidiary of Yaesu, the manufacturer of the club’s current repeaters. In the years between the retirement of the original Standard equipment and the acquisition of the Yaesu gear, a variety of surplus commercial gear had served the 2 meter machine.
DeVault retired from HVBC in 2017, and around 2019 his successor at HVBC asked KARC to move its repeater equipment from the original Bays Knob building to an outbuilding near the main building, because that original building was becoming full of paying customers, and a newly-acquired auxiliary back-up transmitter for the HVBC FM stations also required space. HVBC also asked that the club get its own AC power drop from AEP. There was no request from HVBC for the club to remove its antennas from the tower; however, the outbuilding offered was just far enough from the nearest power pole that the club would have been required to pay several thousand dollars to AEP to erect a new pole and extend the power line at standard power company construction rates.
Another Location Change
At this point club member and Sullivan County Constable Gary Churchwell, K4NRI, offered to allow KARC space in a building, which he controls, less than 500 feet west of the HVBC site on the Holston River Mountain side of the summit along with electricity from the existing service Churchwell had for his own amateur radio repeaters. The club accepted this offer and soon moved the W4TRC repeaters to the new site. Initially the club’s antennas were located on a pole substantially below the “treeline” at the new site reducing coverage especially to locations on the south side of Bays Mountain where the mountain itself cast those locations in shadow.
Another club member, Chris Early N6MMX, who had owned a 900 mHz amateur repeater operated under KARC auspices at the HVBC site, agreed to fund a new 65 foot tower at the Churchwell site, a tower he was willing to share with KARC at no cost to the club. This would get the club’s repeater antennas back above the “treeline” substantially improving coverage to areas south of Bays Mountain. The club agreed to cover the costs of erecting the new tower and to fund improvements to Churchwell’s building. The tower erection was completed late in 2021, and a new 2 meter W4TRC/R repeater antenna donated by another club member was immediately mounted on the new tower. In the spring of 2022 the KARC 440 mHz repeater was diplexed into the same dual band antenna thus substantially improving its coverage.
The Churchwell site is the same site Eddie Palmer utilized for his original 146.16/76 repeater ---- which was the first 2 meter amateur repeater to ever operate from the mountain.
Thus the story of KARC’s over half a century of amateur radio repeater operation continues.
This article was written by George DeVault (W3KPT) and David Rotenberry (K4DR). Sources include a cache of Zero Beat newsletters and club minutes from the 1970’s, which K4DR had saved, and the memories of both authors, who welcome any comments or corrections. Regrettably sometime in the past a complete set of newsletters and minutes of the clubs was destroyed rather than preserved after water damage occurred at “the Quonset hut” where they had been stored. We dedicate this article to the hard-working club license trustees, who have maintained the club repeater(s) through the decades. While we have not ascertained the names of all of them, we especially want to note the late Gary Smith, K4VZZ, and current trustee Ken Klotz, W4IJK.
George DeVault & David Rotenberry – May 2022