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Cape cable station tapped out history

By JOHN LEANING
STAFF WRITER
ORLEANS - The telegraph key pads, polished by the nimble hands of operators, have been silent for 40 years, but at one time, the French Cable Station near the head of Town Cove in Orleans was the vital communications link between America and Europe.
There is still enough draw from that history to attract a variety of visitors to the station, now privately owned and operated as a museum.
His interest piqued by a newspaper article, Stephane Chmelewsky, the French counsel general in Boston, visited the facility yesterday and got a special tour.
Inside the modest, one-story building on Route 28 is the now-outdated equipment that formed a crucial communications line across - and beneath - the Atlantic Ocean, allowing near-instantaneous, two-way communication for the first time.
"It is all extremely obsolete," said Gerald Downs, chairman of the board of directors of the non-profit corporation which owns and operates the museum, during a pause in yesterday's tour. "But in its day, it was state-of-the-art," said Downs, whose grandfather was a former station superintendent.
Chmelewsky said he was impressed in particular with the condition of the various pieces of equipment used by the telegraph operators from 1890 until the station closed its doors and shut down the telegraph for good on Nov. 24, 1959. On a wall inside the museum is still hung a faded 1959 calendar, with Nov. 26 circled repeatedly in pencil.
"Have a happy Thanksgiving. Station closed," was the final message sent out on the telegraph lines.
In its heyday, the French Cable Station played a major role in a number of international news events.
In November, 1898, as the east coast of the US was crushed by a major winter storm that wiped out almost all communication links, it was the French Cable station that first transmitted to the world the news that the coastal steamer Portland had sunk with hundreds on board. There were no survivors.
That report, based on wreckage from the steamer and many bodies coming ashore on Cape Cod, was first relayed from the Orleans station to France, then back to New York via undersea cable. From there, telegraph operators alerted Boston.
It took about five minutes for the message to make the trip across the ocean and back again.
During World War I, Marines guarded the cable station as American forces in Europe used it to send secure messages to Washington.
On May 31, 1927, it was via the French Cable Station in Orleans that the rest of the nation learned that Charles Lindbergh had done the unthinkable - flown solo from New York to Paris in his plane, "Spirit of St. Louis."
And in the spring of 1940, the French end of the cable in Brest sent a terse message and then went dead.
"Les Boches sont ici - The Germans are here," the message read, signaling the arrival of Nazi forces at the transmitter station in Brest. The station did not resume transmissions until 1952.
Many of the men from St. Pierre-Miquelon, a small French-owned island complex south of Newfoundland, who came to Orleans when the new station was moved from the St. Pierre, put down roots. They are the Norgeots, the Deschamps and the Ozons whose descendents' names fill the Lower Cape telephone book.
Although the station ceased operation in 1959, it wasn't until 1971 that a group of 10 local businessmen, assisted with donations from local citizens, managed to buy the building and land from the original owner, the French Cable Company.
It seems the late French president Charles De Gualle adamantly refused to sell any French assets. When De Gualle died in 1971, the sale finally went through.
The French diplomat yesterday laughed and said he did not know that story.
"But it does not surprise me," he said with a smile.
Although inoperative for 40 years, the transatlantic cable did not stop participating in history.
According to museum literature, when the empty freighter Eldia came ashore on Nauset Beach in a March. 1984 gale, anchors desperately thrown overboard in hopes of keeping the ship off the beach snagged the old cable, and parts were later found tossed up on the beach by the storm surf.


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