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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 French Atlantic Cable: Brest - Duxbury, 1869

There was a certain amount of politics and underhanded business dealings in arranging the landing of the French Atlantic Cable in the United States against the monopoly of the Anglo-American company, which James Scrymser describes in his autobiography: Personal Reminiscences of James A. Scrymser in Times of Peace and War; New York, 1915.

Landing of Original French Cable Company

REFERENCE has been made several times to the reciprocal policy of the United States Government in regard to the landing of foreign cables on our shores. In my article on “Wireless Telegraphy,” I have referred to the landing of the French cable at Duxbury in 1869. The story of Baron Emil Erlanger, of Paris, who promoted this French Atlantic cable, may be of interest.

The Baron had obtained from the Emperor, Louis Napoleon III, an exclusive right for fifty years for landing his cable on the coast of France, and journeyed to America to make the necessary landing arrangements at this end. The Baron was a Confederate Government Agent during our Civil War, and was chiefly remembered in this country as the promoter of the Confederate Government Cotton Loan.

The French cable scheme was bitterly opposed, from the start, by Cyrus W. Field, the promoter of the Anglo-American Cable Company. Mr. Field’s first step was to induce General Grant, then President of the United States, to officially notify the Emperor of France that the French cable could not be landed on American shores unless reciprocal rights were granted to an American Company for French territory. In consequence, the exclusive feature of Baron Erlanger"s French Concession was canceled and the Baron probably concluded that he would have no further trouble in landing his cable at the place planned, Duxbury, on Cape Cod. Mr. Field, however, found a new obstacle to place in the Baron’s way, viz., the formal authority of the Legislature of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

Somehow the Massachusetts legislators had not forgotten the services of Baron Erlanger when acting as Confederate Government Agent for its Cotton Loan and here was an excellent method to punish him, and punish him they did, by refusing to grant the necessary permission to land his cable at Duxbury. The legislators themselves were ably aided in this fight against Baron Erlanger by numerous lawyers and lobbyists, who were engaged day and night in the endeavor to block the Baron’s scheme.

In the “opposition,” also, were the Western Union Telegraph Company and the Franklin Telegraph Company, both of which coveted the landline tolls on messages to and from Europe over the French Cable Company, should it succeed in securing the necessary landing rights.

It was an anxious time for the Baron, and his associates. Already nearly $4,000,000 had been expended for the cable. The cable ship had cleared from a European port, destined for Duxbury, Mass. In desperation, Baron Erlanger’s agent came to me and gave me to understand that, although he had spent thousands of dollars in lawyers' fees and otherwise, he could make no headway whatsoever with the Legislature of Massachusetts. He told me that the cable ship was about due at Duxbury, and would have to pay a demurrage of $2,000 per day unless the landing rights could be secured at once.

Naturally, I was most anxious that the French Company should succeed in securing the landing rights and, so, be in a position to compete with the Anglo-American Cable Company, which was charging at that time about one dollar a word on all European messages. A reduction of this rate would, of course, increase the traffic of the International Ocean Telegraph Company, with which I was then connected, to and from Cuba and the other West India Islands. For this reason I planned to secure the necessary State landing rights for the French Company. I asked the agent what he could afford to pay to secure the permission within one week. He replied that he would willingly pay $10,000. I well knew that he would gladly pay more, but I was so anxious that his Company should succeed at once, I promised to obtain for him the necessary authority.

There were two men in the State of New Jersey whom I knew I could rely upon. I arranged to meet them in Trenton on a Friday morning and agreed to pay them the $10,000 provided they could quickly and quietly secure the passage of a Bill authorizing the landing of the French cable on the coast of New Jersey within one week. At noon, the following Tuesday, I received a telegram informing me of the successful passage of the necessary Bill and that it had been signed by the Governor.

My plan was eminently successful and the anticipated sensation in the ranks of the lobbyists in the Massachusetts Legislature and the Western Union and Franklin Telegraph Companies was quickly forthcoming. The lobbyists knew that their long fight was in vain if the French Company could land on the coast of New Jersey and the Telegraph Companies foresaw that the French Cable Company might build its own landlines to New York City and so save all the landline tolls between Duxbury and New York. To me, it was as good as a comic play to behold the disappointment of the lawyers and lobbyists when they found that they had been outflanked, and the fact that they were eventually obliged to aid, rather than oppose, the cable landing of the French cable on the coast of Massachusetts did not add to their joy.

The Bill, granting permission to land the cable on New Jersey soil, was most effective and, finally, the French Cable Company received the permission to land at Duxbury, Mass., without the slightest opposition.

It is interesting to note, also, that within a month the Atlantic cable tariff was reduced from one dollar a word to about twentyfive cents and the reduction proved highly beneficial to our Cuba and West India traffic

Last revised: 11 December, 2009

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