History of the Atlantic Cable & Undersea Communications
from the first submarine cable of 1850 to the worldwide fiber optic network

Cable Projectors - John Young

Introduction: Even before difficulties were encountered in laying the first Atlantic cable, and the complete failure of the cable after its completion in August 1858, many competing plans using a wide variety of routes were proposed. None proved practical, and the cable was eventually successfully laid on its original route in 1866.

John Young, a businessman and telegraph entrepreneur in Montreal, Canada, was in 1856 one of the projectors of an alternative route. Some details of his life are extracted from his entry at the Dictionary of Canadian Biography, and are included below together with material from other sources.

-- Bill Burns

John Young, businessman, entrepreneur, and politician, was born 11 March 1811 at Ayr, Scotland. He moved to Canada in 1826, and settled in Montreal in the early 1830s, where he remained for the rest of his life, with the exception of spending two years in his native Scotland with his wife and children between 1861 and 1863. He died in Montreal on 12 April 1878.

John Young in 1873, from his French Wikipedia page

By the late 1840s Young had many business interests, including some which were transportation related, and he was also interested in telegraphic communications. In 1847 he became a promoter of the profitable Montreal Telegraph Company, and in 1856 he sought a charter to connect Canada to Britain by telegraph. He headed a group which formed the Canadian and British Telegraph Company, chartered in 1859 to build a telegraph line via the St Lawrence River and Labrador to Britain.

Young was also a leading figure in a company composed essentially of Montrealers which received a charter for the Transmundane Telegraph Company to build a line west by way of Alaska to the Orient [see further details below]. These projects failed but in 1869 he sought to recharter the Canadian-European Telegraph Company. Despite cooperative arrangements with the Great Western Telegraph Company and Hugh Allan’s Montreal Telegraph Company, Young’s company could not raise sufficient capital. In 1872 he asked the federal government to guarantee a net dividend of 5 per cent on the $4,000,000 needed to finance the building of the line from Gaspé to Scotland, but this was not forthcoming.

In 1859, as part of the planning for his trans-Labrador connection to Europe, Young evidently wrote to Hugh Shedden, a ships’ flag manufacturer in Liverpool, England, and requested a map of the Atlantic Cable route, which Shedden then sent to him. Many of these maps had been published between 1856 and 1858 because of the great public interest in the cable enterprise.

Evidence for this British connection to Young’s enterprise is a letter written by him from Montreal on 2 May 1859, thanking Shedden for supplying a map and giving details of Young's plans for two telegraph projects:

Montreal
2d May 1859

Hugh Shedden Esq.
52 South Castle St.
Liverpool

Dear Sir

I have your letter of March with map of a telegraph line from England to this continent and for your information beg to say that I have obtained a charter to carry a line from Canada, towards the Atlantic, and if authority is obtained from Denmark, see no difficulty in laying a line to connect with England. I may also state that authority has also been asked to carry a line to Vancouver Island. It will be some time yet before this work is accomplished, but I have no doubt it will be carried into effect by & by & that by this route China &c will be brought into telegraphic connection with England.

Thanking you for your map
I am Dear Sir
Yours truly

John Young

Nothing came of Young's transatlantic project in 1859, but as noted in his biography above, even after the success of the 1866 Atlantic cable Young still believed that his northern route could be competitive. This 1869 article in the Halifax (Nova Scotia) Morning Chronicle provides further details:

Morning Chronicle - Apr 30 1869

A CANADIAN AND BRITISH TELEGRAPH LINE.

As far back as 1S59, Hon. John Young and others associated with him, were incorporated into a Company called the “Canadian and British Telegraph Company,” to lay down a wire from Montreal to England via the Straits of Belle Isle, Greenland, Scotland, and the Faroe Islands, and a similar act of incorporation was obtained from the Imperial Parliament. This enterprise fell through at that time, because the Danish Government had given the exclusive use of the Greenland, Iceland, and the Faroes for telegraphic purposes to other parties thirteen years. This exclusive right has. elapsed, and Mr. Young has been informed by the Danish Minister at Washington that his government are now ready to afford him and his associates every facility for the carrying out of their original enterprise. Accordingly, Mr. Young has applied to Parliament through Mr. Gait for passage of an net to revive and amend the net of incorporation passed by the old Canadian parliament in 1S59. The Bill has not yet been introduced, but there is no reason to anticipate any opposition to it Mr. Young is confident of being able to carry out the enterprise in a few years. He is of opinion that a line by his route can be laid with one-third of the expense of the present Atlantic cable.

Because of lack of funding, again nothing came of this, but Young persisted, according to this 1873 article in the British Colonist:

The British Colonist - Jan 9, 1873

Canada Atlantic Cable.

The Ottawa Herald discusses the feasibility of an independent line of telegraphic communication between Canada and Europe. It says truly that cable despatches received via New York are pretty much worthless for us, and then gives some historical and statistical facts, which go to show that the scheme is neither new nor chimerical.

As early as 1859 the Hon John Young, of Montreal, obtained from the Canadian Legislature a charter for "The Canadian and British Telegraphic Company," the project being to lay wires from Montreal to Quebec, thence to Gaspé, and from that place to England, by of way Greenland, Iceland and the Faroe Islands. Newfoundland could not be made use of, because the Legislature of that Province has handed over to the Anglo-American Company for fifty years, the exclusive privilege of laying a cable direct from the Island to Great Britain, an agreement which was ratified by the Imperial Parliament. This unwise monopoly having been created, the roundabout project became a necessity, if an independent line were to be established at all.

Mr. Young’s charter expired without anything being accomplished; but a new one has since been granted, enabling Sir A T Galt and others to construct a line via Gaspé and the Labrador coast, under the title of the “Canadian & European Telegraphic Company.” The line is estimated to cost $2,480,000, and aid will be sought from the Dominion and Provincial Governments, with the proviso that no money be paid to the company until the line is put in good working order.

Should the line ever be completed, its construction would greatly reduce the cost of despatches, as the company propose to charge only half a dollar per word, or half the rate now charged by the existing company. Full discussion of the project can do no harm, and all are interested in its success, if it can be shown to be feasible.

Almost certainly because of the reluctance of investors to put up such a large sum to compete with the existing Atlantic cables, this project too never came to anything.

On a final note, it is interesting to find from the letter that Young was also a principal in a company planning a route to the Far East via the West Coast of Canada. An article by John S. Galbraith in the British Columbia Historical Quarterly, July-Oct 1953 [5MB PDF], titled “Perry McDonough Collins at the Colonial Office”) records that Perry Collins, then a U.S. Commercial Agent in Russia, had in 1859 conceived a route between North American and Europe which passed through Siberia, Russian America, British Columbia, the Hudson’s Bay territories, and Canada to Montreal, where it would have joined the American system. Collins received a charter from the Canadian Government for the Transmundane Telegraph Company in 1859, then proceeded to Montreal to seek financial backers, which is how John Young became involved.

However, Collins soon abandoned the Canadian company and in 186o presented his concept to the American Government. His plan is recorded in detail in his report in the Letter of the Secretary of State: Transmitting a Report of the Commercial Relations of the United States for the Year Ending September 30th 1860. After receiving support from the US and British Governments, in 1861 Collins interested Western Union in the undertaking, following which he sold the company his rights in exchange for stock in a new subsidiary and $100,000 cash.

Collins then attempted the overland connection via Alaska and Russia to Europe for Western Union, beginning in late 1864. The route ran north from San Francisco to British Columbia and from there to Russia via Alaska and on to Europe. But after the success of the 1866 Atlantic cable, the overland route was abandoned in July 1867 and almost the entire investment was lost, although some portions of the line became the first local telegraph system in Alaska.

Proposed Overland Telegraph
Courtesy American Antiquarian Society

The work of Perry Collins on this project is recorded in detail in “To Wire the World: Perry M. Collins and the North Pacific Telegraph Expedition” by John B. Dwyer, published by Praeger in 2001. However, the book does not mention Collins’ earlier connection to John Young and the Canadian Transmundane Telegraph Company.

John Young’s early involvement in the telegraph industry in Canada and his promotion of these projects to connect North America to the Old World show him to have been a forward-thinker. His international projects were never realized, but as described in his biography, although he suffered reversals in later life he had been successful in many other areas of business, and also had a notable political career.


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Last revised: 4 July, 2015

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