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

St. John's, Newfoundland, as a Port of Call
for Transatlantic Steamers - 1856
by Cyrus W. Field

Introduction: In August 1855, Cyrus Field's first attempt to lay the Cabot Strait cable connecting Newfoundland to Nova Scotia failed. He immediately set out for England to order a new cable, and contracted with Glass, Elliot & Company to manufacture and lay the cable, and they finished the project in the summer of 1856.

The completion of this cable would provide Field with a direct telegraph connection between Newfoundland and New York, and in February 1856, while still in London, he published a twelve-page pamphlet describing the benefits to transatlantic steamships of making port at St John's, Newfoundland on the way to and from New York via the Great Circle route. The most important advantage would be the ability for ships to drop off and pick up messages carried by the new telegraph line between Newfoundland and New York, saving three to five days in the transmission time.

The full text of this pamphlet is reproduced below. A folded chart pasted in the back of the pamphlet, with the routes of the various transatlantic steamship lines and the connecting land-based telegraph lines, is not of sufficient quality to show here.

Thanks to Canadiana Online for making this pamphlet available.

—Bill Burns


Of some of the Advantages attendant upon making
St. John's, Newfoundland, a Port of Call
for Transatlantic Steamers.

By a slight examination of a chart of the North Atlantic Ocean, it will be seen that Newfoundland occupies a very important position between Europe and America, not only in reference to its southeastern terminus, Cape Race, the point which all steamers desirous of making short passages endeavour to sight, but to its commanding position at the mouth of the gulf of St. Lawrence, and its consequent value to the nation controlling its vast and hitherto only partially known resources.

That portion of its eastern shore which extends northwards from Cape Race to Cape St. Francis, being more particularly interesting in reference to Transatlantic Steam Navigation, requires but a brief description to prove its advantages over any other part of the American seaboard as a point of approach. This part of the coast throughout its entire length has a fine bold shore, without rocks or shoals of any description to endanger vessels making the land, while the existing lighthouse on Cape Spear, and the superior one to be erected this year on Cape Race, can be seen at a great distance—and in clear weather light the entire coast between the two Capes.

The evidence of experienced mariners proves the eastern shore of Newfoundland to be much more free from fogs than most parts of the North American coast. It is only when the wind varies in the unusual quarter between east and south, that the heavy sea-fog from the great banks drifts in upon the land, and then it is so common to find clear weather within a mile of the shore, that persons well acquainted with the navigation near Newfoundland run boldly through the fog, the safe nature of the coast justifying the practice.

May, June, and July, are the months when fogs prevail, and they are notoriously more frequently encountered south and west of Cape Race than north and east of that point. Halifax Bay is particularly subject to them, and although the entire coast of Nova Scotia is beset with reefs and hidden dangers, the Cunard steamers have hitherto experienced no difficulty, and but little delay, in making port in consequence of thick weather.

There are eight harbours between Cape St. Francis and Cape Race, a distance of about 90 miles, into which vessels of any size can enter easily and anchor safely; St. John's, the most northerly, with a population of about 27,000, being the chief commercial depôt and capital of the colony.

The harbour of St. John's possesses the advantages of being ample and land-locked; of having great depth of water, with very little rise and fall of tide; thus enabling the largest ships to enter and leave at all hours. The entrance is free from rocks or hidden dangers, and so short that a steamer can reach her wharf within half-a-mile of the broad Atlantic. There is an excellent harbour light, and during the present year a wharf will be constructed, and machinery erected for the express purpose of coaling ocean steamers in the most rapid manner. There is also an 18-pounder gun fired every half-hour at the harbour's mouth when the weather is foggy.

In the months of March and April, the northern ice floats past the eastern shores of Newfoundland, frequently reaching 40 degrees of north latitude, equally obstructing vessels bound to Halifax, Boston, and St. John's; in fact during April, it not unfrequently happens that vessels making the southern passage meet with great obstruction, while the ocean north east of Cape Race is free from ice, the floes having gone rapidly by to linger in lower latitudes, where the southern currents detain them, often for a considerable time. The Custom House returns show the arrival and departure of vessels to and from St. John's during every month in the year, and in the memory of the oldest citizen, the harbour has been known to freeze entirely over but on two occasions, thus proving the comparative mildness of the climate, which is in fact less severe by several degrees than Halifax or Boston, consequent upon Newfoundland being entirely surrounded by salt water.

The great circle sailing line for ocean steamers between the English Channel and New York, when drawn across the chart, almost intersects the harbour of St. John's, and in the event of vessels ever being prevented from approaching this port in consequence of floating ice, the harbour of Trepassey, eleven miles south west of Cape Race, would be available, as it would be freed from obstruction by the same wind which would block the eastern shore; it is therefore proposed to have equal facilities for coaling steamers in this latter port, that Captains may rely with confidence upon being supplied at either place during any season of the year.

The average detention of a steamer in the harbour of St. John's would not exceed two hours, in consequence of the perfect arrangements for rapid coaling, and the extra distance to be run in making port would not exceed twenty miles in and out, or two hours of time additional, making four hours-a trifling period compared to the gain in speed, which would ensue from steamers departing with less coal and in lighter trim, and to the increased amount of income from extra freight room.

Nothing, however, can add more to the importance of St. John's as a port of call, than the establishment of the line of electric telegraph between St. John's and New York, which will be completed this summer-supplying news, both political and commercial, between the American Continent and all Europe, from three to five days in advance of any other present means of communication; and thus enable the British Government to exchange telegraphic despatches in cypher with its colonies of Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick and Canada, and with its Minister at Washington at least twice a week several days in advance of the mails. The American Government can also by these arrangements very materially anticipate its present means of communication with its Representatives at the European Courts.

The steamers belonging to existing Transatlantic lines, already pass Cape Race no less than 416 times during the year, independent of incidental passages, as per following list:


  To America. From America. Total.
Between Liverpool and Boston, or New York
 52 times  52 times 104 trips per annum
Between New York and Liverpool
 26     "  26     "  52     "               "
Between Southampton and New York
 26     "  26     "  52     "               "

Between Liverpool and Quebec, or Portland.

 26     "  26     "  52     "               "

Between Liverpool and Philadelphia

 26     "  26     "  52     "               "

Between Glasgow and New York

 26     "  26     "  52     "               "

Between Antwerp and New York

 26     "  26     "  52     "               "
  208 trips to and 208 trips from = 416 trips per annum.

Or more than 1 STEAMER PER DAY past Cape Race.

Very many of the foregoing steamers could be intercepted and communication held with them without causing detention, (in case that they did not desire to touch in at St. John's,) by having a small steamer stationed off Cape Race, thus gaining additional time in the receipt and delivery of the more important telegraph despatches and mails to and from Newfoundland.

The time must arrive when Newfoundland will become the place from which many sailing vessels will receive “orders” from their owners and consignees. The vast trade of the St. Lawrence and the great inland lakes now float past its ports, and it is but reasonable to suppose that when shipowners can rely upon the prompt and safe delivery of their despatches, that many vessels crossing the North Atlantic will there receive “final orders” for their destination. St. John's will then become the storehouse of the Gulf, and add greatly to the remunerating traffic of ocean steamers entering her port with regularity.

The port charges of St. John's are remarkably light, being but £4 for pilotage for vessels over 300 tons, and the light dues, although but 6d. per ton once a-year, would, in all probability, be rescinded in favor of ocean steamers.

Good Scotch coal can now be furnished steamers at a cost not exceeding 16s. per ton, from the wharf, and fresh provisions as cheaply as in Boston or New York.

It remains, only but to show the amount of business which may reasonably be expected to accrue to the first line of steamers which will call regularly at St. John's for mails, passengers, and telegraphic despatches.

The Local Government would probably agree to pay an annual bonus to any Company which will make St. John's a port of call semi-monthly, during ten months of the year,-a bill to that effect having once actually been passed, say 3,000 0 0
The number of cabin passengers to and from Europe direct, and via Halifax, average now 500 per annum, making at £20 each 6,000 0 0
Passengers to and from the British Provinces now average 200, making at £4 each 800 0 0
Passengers to and from the United States direct, say 200 at £6 each 1,200 0 0
Steerage passengers not included in the above statement, to and from Europe, say 200 at £5 each 1,000 0 0
To which must be added an increase of at least 50 per cent. by the substitution of direct steam communication 6,000 0 0
Probable amount of freight for dry goods to St. John's per annum, say 1,500 tons at £3 per ton 4,500 0 0
Probable grant from the British Government, as they now pay £4,100 for carrying the mails between Halifax and St. John's 6,000 0 0
Add to which, that the “New York, Newfoundland, and London Telegraph Company,” are willing to pay a postage of one dollar upon every message brought from or conveyed to Newfoundland, for transmission across their Lines, which, upon the very moderate estimate of 500 messages only for each trip once a fortnight during the year, would yield the sum of 5,200 0 0
Making a total of £33,700 0 0

or nearly £1,300 sterling the round voyage for the local business of St. John's, to which must be added an additional sum of at least £1,500 sterling for the extra freight carried each voyage between Europe and America from the diminished amount of coal required when starting.

It is anticipated that at least one of the Telegraph Companies in Great Britain will make arrangements to deliver and receive despatches off Cape Clear or Cork, thus shortening the time on the European side fully one day, and as any of the first class steam ships now plying between Europe and America can easily make the run from Cape Clear to St. John's, during moderate weather, within six days, we should thus have a total diminution of at least from four to five days in the receipt of intelligence, and as we have clearly shown that it is manifestly to the interest of ocean steamers to make St. John's a port of call, it is to be hoped that it is only necessary to call the attention of proprietors to the foregoing important facts, in order to receive their co-operation is securing to the public the great boon of bringing the old and new worlds into such immediate and friendly proximity.

Cyrus W. Field.

London, February 1856.

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