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

Western Union
by Bill Glover


Western Union became the dominant telegraph company in the USA and entered the submarine cable world in 1873 when it purchased a majority shareholding in the International Ocean Telegraph Company. In 1957 it purchased the remainder of the shares and the company was absorbed within Western Union. Another company purchased was the Mexican Telegraph Company, taken over in 1927. The assets of the company were later taken over by the Mexican government and the cables were abandoned.


The first Atlantic cable operated by the company was one leased from the American Telegraph and Cable Company, in 1881. This cable was manufactured by Siemens Brothers, who used CS Faraday (1) to lay the 2531 nm cable between Sennen Cove, Cornwall, and Canso, Nova Scotia. The cable was extended from Nova Scotia to Coney Island, New York in 1889.

The Sennen Cove cable house is enclosed within the white fence

A second cable was laid over this route by the same vessel in 1882. These cables were diverted into Bay Roberts, Newfoundland in 1913 and 1915 respectively, also by CS Faraday (1). A connecting cable was laid between North Sydney, Cape Breton and Colinet, Newfoundland in 1915 and a further cable was laid in 1921 between Island Cove, Newfoundland and North Sydney, this being extended to Canso in 1922.

Western Union Cable Station,
North Sydney, Nova Scotia

Similar links were done between Sennen Cove and Valentia, Ireland, in 1918, with CS War Simoon carrying out the work; Valentia - Le Havre, France, in 1920, the cable being laid by CS Stephan; and a further Sennen Cove - Valentia cable was laid in 1923 by CS Stephan and CS T. W. Stuart. All of these cables were manufactured by the Telegraph Construction and Maintenance Company.

Western Union had a cable station in Penzance, Cornwall, with an underground connection to the landing site at Sennen Cove.

In 1912 the Western Union Telegraph Company leased all of the Anglo-American Telegraph Company’s Atlantic cables. This agreement ran until 1963 when Western Union terminated the lease and paid compensation. Anglo-American was liquidated and shareholders were paid out. One condition of the lease was that on termination Western Union were required to hand over a cable ship. As Anglo-American was to be wound up a new company, Transatlantic Cables Ltd., Bermuda, was set up as owners of the cable ship. This company was also wound up.

In addition to the above cables Western Union also leased the one cable owned by the Direct United States Telegraph Company until 1920 when it was purchased the British GPO.

The photo caption reads:
Western Union Tel. Co.
Atlantic Cables
Deep Sea Repairs. 1910.

The ship is CS Minia, owned at that time by Anglo American and used by Western Union for maintenance of its Atlantic cables. There is more information on CS Minia in the article The Bottom of the Ocean Is "Main Street" to Him and on the CS Minia page

The Western Electric Company developed a method of continuously loading a cable to improve transmission speeds. To test the idea the Telegraph Construction and Maintenance Company (Telcon) were given an order to manufacture 120 nm of cable. This was laid in a large loop by CS Lord Kelvin with both ends coming ashore in Bermuda. The test was successful and in 1924 Telcon were awarded a contract to manufacture and lay a loaded cable from New York to the Azores. CS Colonia laid the main cable with CS Robert C. Clowry laying the New York shore ends. A second loaded cable followed in 1926; this one of 3410 nm was laid between Sennen Cove, Cornwall, and New York by CS Colonia. In 1928 another loaded cable, this time using Telcon’s own "Mumetal" was laid between New York and Horta, Azores, by CS Colonia.

1923 cablegram


In 1920 the company awarded the Telegraph Construction and Maintenance Company a contract to manufacture and lay a cable from Miami to Barbados. CS Colonia and CS Stephan laid the 1638 nm cable with CS Robert C. Clowry laying the Miami shore ends. This cable connected with the Western Telegraph Company system at Barbados and provided an alternative route to South America.

Correction memo
for a telegram sent
from Barbados to
Liverpool, UK

Western Union Cablegram


In the early 1940’s Western Union had taken over the Postal Telegraph Company. A condition of this was that Western Union disposed of its international operations. Unable to comply in the normal way, an independent company, Western Union International Inc., was set up in 1963 to take over the operation of all Western Union’s cables.

Western Union Inc. finally abandoned its Atlantic telegraph cables in 1966; the only two in working order at that time were those running via the Azores. From that date the company leased circuits

A pocket edition of WU code book for use by people travelling abroad, with a list of Western Union offices and code words for common messages. Use of the cable code words instead of spelling out the message in full reduced the cost of a cablegram, quite a money saver when cabling home from abroad.



Built in 1910, by A.C. Brown & Sons, New York

Length 132.3 ft. Breadth 33.3 ft. Depth 15.1 ft. Gross tonnage 532

Built for the Western Union Telegraph Company for cable repair in the shallow waters off the east coast of America. One tank 17 ft 9 ins by 11 ft 6 ins was fitted along with a single bow sheave. Cable could also be stored on a drum mounted vertically on the deck, this was used as a capstan when picking up cable.

Sold in 1924 and used by its new owner for bootlegging. As the name Western Union was still painted on the superstructure and the new owner retained the vessel’s original name, Western Union found itself accused of illicit activities.


Built 1924 by Chantiers et Ateliers de St. Nazaire.

Length 223.6 ft. Breadth 34.2 ft. Depth 16.6 ft. Gross tonnage 1288

Built as a smaller version of CS Lord Kelvin, and used for cable repair work. Based at Halifax, Nova Scotia until sold


Built 1939

Length 96.0 ft. Breadth 23.5 ft. Depth 9.1 ft. Gross tonnage

Equipped with a diesel engine and sail this small vessel was chartered from Thomson Enterprises of Key West by Western Union for many years on cable repair duties. Sold out of the cable world in April 1974.


Built 1917 by Cochrane & Son Ltd., Selby

Length 135.3 ft. Breadth 31.9 ft. Depth 15.9 ft Gross tonnage 316

Chartered from the National Fish Company and fitted out with cable gear to repair cables off Newfoundland during the period April to September 1921.


IntnlOceanTelCoTelegram02s.jpg (50877 bytes)

Captain James A. Scrymser applied to the Florida State Legislature for the rights to land a cable at Punta Rassa; this was granted for a period of twenty years. At the same time General William F. Smith applied to the Cuban Government for similar cable landing rights in Cuba; this was granted for a period of forty years. The success of these two applications led to the formation of the International Ocean Telegraph Company. An Act of Congress passed on 5 May 1866 granted the company exclusive rights to operate all Cuban traffic for a period of fourteen years. At the same time exclusive rights to operate a private landline between Punta Rassa and Lake City was also granted. At Lake City the line linked with Western Union’s network.

A survey of the route was carried out by the United States Coastal Survey and a cable was ordered from the India Rubber, Gutta Percha and Telegraph Works Company. CS Narva was used for cable laying. Work started on 3 August 1867, when CS Narva laid the shore end at Key West, proceeding from there to Moro, Cuba, where the Cuban shore end was laid on 5 August and the main run commenced towards Key West the next night.

A navigational error made in the overnight heavy fog led to the cable running out before reaching Key West. Use was made of the cable for the Key West - Punta Rassa section and fortunately enough cable was aboard the vessel to complete the lay. In all 102 nm was laid between Moro and Key West and 133 nm between Key West and Punta Rassa. The line carried its first commercial traffic between Punta Rassa and Cuba on 8 September 1867.

At the conclusion of the expedition the Narva was required to remain available for 15 days to make sure the cable was working properly. During this time the cable engineer, 21-year-old Philip Crookes, who had written letters home to his family throughout the voyage, was taken ill with yellow fever and died at Havana on 22 September 1867.

Philip’s brother was William Crookes (later Sir William), the eminent scientist, and in memory of his brother he published a memorial book containing the text of all the letters. These letters provide a most interesting report on the details of the expedition.

Another death from yellow fever on the expedition was that of CS Narva crew member John Cooper Catchpole. This memorial card notes that he died at “the Hospital, Key West, State of Florida, of Yellow Fever, on the 10th September, 1867, Aged 45 Years”:

Image courtesy of Rachel Hassall

A second cable was laid in the following year, the manufacturer and cable ship being the same.

Stereoview from the series
"I.O Telegraph Expedition Illustrated"
titled "On board Bark Raleigh. Drum and Cable".
There is no record of this ship in the cable archives,
but it’s possible that Raleigh was used to
help with repairs on the 1867 cable.

[Stereoview courtesy of the Ken Rosen Image Archive.
Photographer O.B. Buell, Key West, Florida.]

Detail of cable crew from the Raleigh stereoview

Captain Scrymser left the company in 1875 and in the same year the company purchased CS Suffolk from the West Indian and Panama Telegraph Company renaming the vessel CS Professor Morse.

In 1875 the ship was used to lay a cable between Punta Rassa - Sanibel Island - Key West to replace the 1868 one which had developed faults. In 1890 another cable was laid over the same route with CS Faraday (1) carrying out the work, assisted by CS Rhiwderin.

In 1899 another cable was laid between Havana, Key West and Florida, this one landed at Miami Beach. A second cable was laid over the same route in 1917.

The 1883 Bensel’s Key West Directory lists the company’s address as Greene cor. New., Martin L. Hellings, Manager/Superintendent. Also listed are telegraph operators John W. Atkin(s), Joseph P. Boyle, and Thomas K. Warren. [New St. is now called Telegraph Lane.]

In the 1906-07 R.L. Polk & Co’s Key West Directory the address is 416 Greene St., premises shared with the Southern Bell Telephone and Telegraph Co. John W. Atkins had risen to the post of Manager with the IOTC, and W.R. Overstreet was Manager of the Bell company.

In 1957 the International Ocean Telegraph Company was absorbed by Western Union.

For further information on the IOTC and the Key West cables, see Tom Hambright's article. See also Punta Rassa Cable Station and the Sinking of the USS Maine by Tim Knox

International Ocean Telegraph Company
stock certificate dated 188_



Built 1866 at Port Glasgow

Length 257.5 ft. Breadth 28.1 ft. Depth 19.4 ft. Gross tonnage 695

Named CS Suffolk when purchased in 1870 by the West India and Panama Telegraph Company to assist CS Dacia lay the original cables. Remained in the West Indies on repair duties until sold to the International Ocean Telegraph Company in 1875 when the vessel was renamed CS Professor Morse. Used by Western Union as a repair ship on both Atlantic and Cuban cables. Wrecked on Block Island, Rhode Island in 1883.


Captain James Scrymser left the International Ocean Telegraph Company to set up two further telegraph companies, one being the Mexican Telegraph Company, the intention being to link the USA and Mexico by submarine cable. Up until this time links between the two countries were by land line.

The India Rubber, Gutta Percha and Telegraph Works Company were contracted to lay the 738 nm of cable between Galveston, Texas and Vera Cruz, Mexico, with a landing at Tampico, the work being carried out in 1881 using CS Dacia and CS International. A second cable was laid in 1882 this time from Galveston to Coatzacoalcos and then to Vera Cruz. The India Rubber Co manufactured the cable and used CS Dacia to lay it. The Coatzacoalcos to Vera Cruz cable belonged to the Central and South American Telegraph Company, Scrymser’s second company.

Two further cables were laid, in 1895 and 1905, both from Galveston to Coatzacoalcos. Siemens Brothers manufactured both cables and used CS Faraday (1) to lay them.

Up until 1890 repair work was carried out by chartering cable ships from other companies. In 1890 the Central and South American purchased CS Relay and this vessel was used to maintain the cables of both companies until the Mexican acquired its own cable repair ship in 1893.

In 1927 the Mexican was taken over by the Western Union and the cables were eventually abandoned.


Built 1874 by Barrow Ship Building Company, Barrow in Furness

Length 172.0 ft. Breadth 23.0 ft. Depth 12.5 ft. Gross tonnage 402

Purchased by the West India and Panama Telegraph Company from the Dublin and Glasgow Steam Packet Company in 1880 retaining its original name Duchess of Marlborough. Sold to the Mexican Telegraph Company in 1893 and renamed CS Mexican. Based at Galveston until 1913 when wrecked off the coast of Nova Scotia.

Last revised: 14 August, 2016

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