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

The Cables and Iceberg - 1867

Introduction: The main hazards to undersea cables are fishermen, earthquakes, and icebergs. This report from the New York Herald of June 6th 1867 describes the grounding of an iceberg in the mouth of Trinity Bay, Newfoundland, which resulted in damage to the 1866 Atlantic cable.

The photographs of a section of cable damaged by the iceberg and recovered during repairs are courtesy of site visitor Simon Cheifetz; photos of a second sample are courtesy of Howie & Rosie Stewart.

—Bill Burns

Special correspondence of the Herald

Breaking of the Ice and Unusually Large Icebergs—A Monster Visitor in Trinity Bay—How to get Rid of It—Danger to Both Cables and Injury to One, & c.
Trinity Bay, N.F., June 2, 1867

I herewith forward you a report of the situation of the Atlantic telegraph cables and the iceberg by which one line was injured, from which you can form an idea how the accident occurred to the cable of 1866.

Portion of shore end of the Atlantic Telegraph
Cable of 1866, crushed by an iceberg in Trinity Bay
8th May and repaired 18th June 1867

Image courtesy of Simon Cheifetz

Since the breaking of the big ice, several icebergs, immense masses, have been careering up and down Trinity Bay, pushing their cold noses into the numerous out-harbours—and decidedly unpleasant old fellows they are, but besides being a terror to vessels, which give them a wide berth, their presence has kept the thermometer down several degrees. The mouth of the harbour opening into Trinity Bay is so narrow and difficult for an iceberg to enter that it was supposed there would be no chance of the cables being injured at the spot where the accident occurred. Indeed, all the skippers of Heart's Content agree that an iceberg has not been seen near the mouth of the harbour for twenty five years; so the gentlemen of the cable staff entertained but little fear of an accident by ice.

At five 5 A.M. on the morning of Sunday, May 5, the iceberg which occasioned the accident was discovered making direct for the entrance of the harbour, and six miles distant; at half-past eight it had diminished the distance 3 miles, and within half a mile of the cables, and if it held its course another hour would be across the track of the cables. With good glass the monster was calculated to be from fifteen to twenty feet high and five hundred feet in length, and reckoning by the rule of 9-10 would make the submerge at least twenty five fathoms, which will cause it to ground on the shoal of sixteen fathoms, and you may be sure it became a matter of much anxiety, and, as a sequel proved it justly so.

At half-past nine it struck the shoal, beam on, and swung round diagonally with the mouth of the harbour.

The cables have been worked in a loop for the last four months - that is, a continuous circuit without earth, or, practically speaking, using the two cables as one wire. From the time the cable anchored, until Wednesday, May 8, no change was perceptible, both cables seeming intact, which was the case. On Thursday morning, the iceberg had turned its sea side to us, occasioned probably by the detaching of immense masses of ice of several tons weight, the sea strewn with debris.

It was proposed at one time to drill and make a blast to lighten it off the shoal, but a reconnoitering boat allowed this disposition of the case to be attended with hazard and danger, owing to the continued breaking up.

On the afternoon of Thursday, May 9, the iceberg was evidently dragging slowly on the shoal, and working broadside onto the 1866 cable, and at six o'clock broke up and floated towards the head of Trinity Bay, breaking the 1866 and passing over the cable of 1865 which is laid in the deep water outside and above the shoal. The cables were disconnected and test applied, with a heavy ground connection found on the 1866, but no communication with Valentia. Messrs. Needham and Dickinson, electricians, having the testing in charge commenced experiments with Wheatstone's bridge, Thompson's galvanometer and using the Siemens unit brought a break down to two and five-eighths miles from the Newfoundland shore end.

The cable could have been repaired temporarily immediately after the accident occurred, the Admiralty having telegraphed ordering the Guinare, survey steamer at St. John's to be placed at command of orders from Heart's Content, but the cable of 1865 being amply able to do the work it was determined to send a steamer from England to make the repair at once thorough and complete, and ere this reaches you the telegraph may advise of the complete restoration of the defunct line.

The other side of the same cable, relatively undamaged
but showing the effect of crushing by the iceberg

Recovered cable images courtesy of Simon Cheifetz

Compare the section of the crushed sample
with the illustration of the 1866 shore end cable

Another section of the recovered cable has recently appeared (December 2017), and the images below are courtesy of Howie & Rosie Stewart.

The cased section of the recovered 1866 cable. The wording on the plaque is almost identical to that of the other sample above.
The two ends of the section, showing the
crushing of the cable caused by the iceberg

Last revised: 18 December, 2017

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