History of the Atlantic Cable & Undersea Communications
|Punta Rassa Cable Station and the Sinking of USS Maine
At one time there was a telegraph station at Punta Rassa, Florida, near where the Sanibel Causeway is today. This was the terminus of cables between Cuba and Florida, with an intermediate station at Key West, and was long believed to have been the first place to receive news of the sinking of the USS Maine in Havana Harbor in 1898.
A brass plaque on that telegraph station read:
THIS TABLET MARKS THE SPOT WHERE
TABLET PLACED BY THE
Another plaque with almost identical wording was placed in the area by the Periwinkle Carden Club in 1976:
Some Background: In the late 1800s Cuba was going through unrest as Cubans struggled for independence from Spain. After riots began President McKinley ordered the battleship USS Maine to Havana to protect American interest. The battleship arrived on January 25, 1898. All was peaceful until February 15th, when at 9:40pm a terrible explosion on board the Maine sunk the ship and left two hundred and sixty-six men dead. The ship’s Captain, Charles Sigsbee, and most of the officers survived because their quarters on the ship were well away from the explosion.
The destruction of the USS Maine was immediately blamed on the Spanish in Cuba. Several leading newspapers in the United States used the event to publish stories that created a national outrage across the country. Two months after the sinking of the Maine the Spanish American War began.
A Couple of Details: In 1898 there were three undersea cables from Punta Rassa to Key West. The International Ocean Telegraph Company was responsible for both offices. There were two undersea cables from Key West to Havana. The telegraph office in Havana was under the control of the Spanish government and all telegrams in or out of this station were normally through a government censor. Any information that arrived in Key West from Havana regarding the USS Maine was immediately turned over to the military.
New Evidence: From the out-of-print but digitally available book “The Relations of the United States and Spain: the Spanish-American War” by French Ensor Chadwick, comes the following account (page 9) as described by Captain Gleaves, who was in charge of telegraphic communications between Key West and Havana. An internet link to the book can be found here: https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/006582567.
I found the above passage noted in the book “The Spanish War” by G.J.A. O’Toole. He related the story (page 33) and referred to his source in the Notes Section (page 402).
In the book “A Ship To Remember” by Michael Blow, this author also notes the telegraphs announcing the sinking of the Maine arrived at Key West. And he stated that the telegraph operator on duty at the time, Thomas Warren, “sat down at the telegraph and began to transmit the news to Washington” (page 404).
Here is one of the telegrams from Key West to the Secretary of the Navy, as received in Washington DC:
Conclusion: There is strong sentiment in southwest Florida that the telegraph office at Punta Rassa was the first place in America to hear of the sinking of the USS Maine. The Daughters of the American Revolution and the Periwinkle Garden Club have each erected brass plaques at Punta Rassa commemorating the event. I have even heard it was taught in some local schools. The Punta Rassa telegraph office played a pivotal role in providing the nation news from Cuba leading up to, and during, the Spanish-American War. But whether that office were the first to hear of the Maine, I leave it up to the reader to decide.
Special Thanks to Bill Burns of the web site https://atlantic-cable.com for his research for this article and his extensive knowledge as to how telegraph communication functioned.
Article text copyright © 2015 Tim Knox and reproduced with his kind permission.
Last revised: 23 October, 2015