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

George R. Johnson, USN (1828-1898)

Portrait of George R. Johnson

Introduction: George Robert Johnson was a US Navy engineer who served on USS Niagara during the 1858 Atlantic cable expedition.

He was born in 1828 in Norfolk, Virginia, and at the age of 23, already married and with children, he was appointed to the Navy on February 16, 1852. He entered the service as Third Assistant Engineer, and was promoted to Second Assistant Engineer in 1855. It was while in this position that he sailed on a “special cruise”on USS Niagara in 1858 to lay the Atlantic cable. Together with other senior staff of the cable fleet, he was awarded one of the gold medals created by Tiffany & Co. by order of the New York Chamber of Commerce to commemorate the occasion. The medals were delivered to their recipients in August 1859.

In July 1858 he was promoted to First Assistant Engineer and in 1861 Chief Engineer. His last position was as Inspector of Machinery for the Navy at the Columbia Iron Works in Baltimore, and after a naval career of almost forty years he retired in 1890. He died in 1898 and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

At the end of 1858 George Johnson wrote a “Private Journal” in which he set down the events of the year. The section of the Journal which describes the 1858 Atlantic cable expedition and the images of his portrait and Tiffany medal are shared here by George Johnson’s great-great grandchildren from Texas and Michigan. For readability, minor changes have been made to punctuation and some paragraph breaks which are not in the original have been inserted, but the Journal has otherwise been transcribed verbatim.

—Bill Burns


Private Journal of Geo. R. Johnson
1858 Atlantic Cable Expedition

Nothing could give me more pleasure now than to have a few notes on events that have passed, that I might refer to for my own satisfaction, besides being enlightened often as to the date of some particular event. So in consideration of that fact I have concluded to keep these notes. You may call it a diary or journal if you like, though it makes no difference by what name it is called, so long as it serves to interest me and answer the purpose for which it is intended.

It is not my intention to note every-thing that occurs for that would be very uninteresting, or to keep a daily account of occurrences, for such a day as this for instance, the ship is under easy sail and rolling like the d_____ deuce and all the Engineers excepting “Old Kellogg” and the Engineer who has the watch, are loafing around the Ship in different directions seeking for some amusement by which they can while away the dull monotonous time which this Man-o-War Sea life is so famous.

I have been puzzling my brain for the last two or three days to find something to amuse me, but without succeeding very well, unless indeed I have struck on this method at the right time, and I fancy I have, though there are many who would call this a waste of time. Still in my opinion it is not half so nonsensical as reading “love sick” novels or idling around without doing anything as many are doing now immediately under my eyes. If I had any studying to do I would not do this but I have just passed through the ordeal of an examination for promotion to the grade of 1st Asst. Engineer in the Navy of the United States and learning that I had passed a satisfactory examination, I concluded to lay books and study aside for at least the next three or four months.

But I forget myself and must make a note of what I have been doing, where I am &c. &c.

The first page of the Journal

I think I may as well run hastily over the whole of this year and begin with January 1858. Though of course I can only now give a sketch of things that have happened, and though it is not customary to “turn back” when I wish to keep a journal, but as I wish to recur to the time I was first ordered to the “Niagara” to go to England to engage in the great enterprise of this Age –

Well! It was about the 16th of January 58 when I was very pleasantly situated at home with my family, having been on “Waiting Orders” for some three months, during which time I had formed the acquaintance and gained the friendship of Dr. Emmon Jeffers, a Dentist at Wilmington who very kindly offered me the use of his Laboratory besides giving me much information concerning the business, and as I spent much of my time there I soon learned how to do much of the work such as making the plates and setting up the teeth, becoming much interested and taking a fancy for the profession. I very reluctantly obeyed the Orders, for I must say that very little could have been required to cause me to send my resignation to the Secretary and assume the duties of a Dentist, and lead the happier life of a Citizen, but money matters are my great draw back. For now that I have a Wife and Children depending on me I shall weigh matters very carefully before I take any step, particularly one of so much importance to them as well as myself, though I am satisfied that nothing would please them better than to have me always at home, where I think every married ought to be, but I am digressing so will return to my Orders. They reached me about 5 o’clock in the afternoon and on the second day after I was on my way to New York to join the U.S. Steamer Niagara. A list of the Officers I give:

Captain Wm. L. Hudson.
Lieuts. J.H. North, J.D. Todd. Jno. [John] Guest, W.A. Webb, E.Y. McCauley & B. Gherardi.
Surgeon D.S. Green; P.A.S. [Passed Asst. Surgeon], F.M. Cunnell; A.S. [Assistant Surgeon], W.C. Hay.
Purser J.C. Eldredge.
Chief Engineer, J. Follansbee. 1st Asst. J. Faron & Wm. S. Stamm; 2nd Asst. G.R. Johnson & Mort[imer] Kellogg; 3rd Asst. J. McElmell, G.F. Kutz, J.H. Bailey & W.G. Buehler.

During the time the ship was being fitted for sea I boarded with Mrs. Badjen No.204 Washington St, Brooklyn, and after two weeks I made a flying visit to my family at Wilmington, remaining 3 days (without leave). After getting every-thing ready we sailed for England leaving N.Y. about the 6th March and arriving at Plymouth England about the 22nd inst. After a few days preparation we commenced coiling “the cable” on board the Niagara working the men day and night till it was completed, remaining in the Keyham Docks some two months and a half and taking on board about fifteen hundred miles. The English Ship “Agamemnon” was similarly engaged lying close by us.

About the 10 of June we started for the Bay of Biscay where after making some experiments in water 3 miles deep, and an absence of 8 days we returned to Plymouth, made a few alterations in the “paying out” machinery and taking in a fresh supply of coal started for Mid Ocean the place of Rendezvous settled on by the company where the splice was to be made Lat[itude] 52º.09 N Long[itude] 32º.39 W. We arrived there some days sooner than the other ships and some time during the latter part of June the ships all being present we made the splice and started, our ship and consort starting for New Foundland and the Agamemnon steering for Valentia Bay, Ireland, but after “paying out” a few miles the cable was broken on the Niagara which caused us to go through the operation of splicing again, when after paying out about 25 miles the cable was broken on the English Ship. Again we returned to the Rendezvous and again made a splice. This time we paid out about 150 miles when the wire again parted on board the Agamemnon.

At this time it was found necessary to return to port for coal. Consequently, we went into Cork, Ireland, where we filled the bunkers and waited 12 days for the Agamemnon. During our stay at Cork Messrs. Kellogg, Bailey & myself visited Blarney Castle and the Lakes of Killarney; by dint of daring and perseverance I obtained a small piece of the real Blarney stone. We were absent from the Ship two days without “leave” and when we returned were all “suspended,” but restored to duty again on the same duty.

On the 17th of July we again started for the Rendezvous, where we made the “splice” and started as before, but with more success, for on the 6th of August we arrived and landed the Cable safe and sound at the head of Trinity-Bay New Foundland. Captain Hudson received the end on shore which was passed by our 1st Lieut. out of the boat, then all hands jumped on shore and with right good will run up the beach with it as far as the station, after which all hands assembled on the beach and Capt. Hudson delivered a very appropriate prayer, giving thanks to the Almighty etc. When he was about half through with the prayer the scaffold on which he was standing gave way and he was unceremoniously landed on his head in a heap of shavings, which by the way only frightened him a little.

We remained at Trinity-Bay some three or four days waiting for fair weather, then steamed into St. Johns N.F. where we were received by the joyful inhabitants with much pleasure. Cannons were booming from every point, guns and pistols were brought into requisition, and all who had one was using it to make all the noise he could, all the bells in town were ringing, and thousands of people congregated along the wharves and in boats, passing around the ship. At first the harbor was actually filled with boats and it was with much difficulty that one could persuade them to keep far enough from the bows of the Ship for us to let go the anchor. When we did let go, it threw the water over several boats, so you may judge they must have been quite close. At night there was a general illumination in the City, the next day we were invited to a dinner and Ball. I attended the latter, and was much pleased with the assemblage as well as the fine supper we had; I had the pleasure of taking one of the young ladies home, a Miss Cummings. She has a brother in New York and was very sociable. I may have been a little oblivious or not, I do not like to say, but certain it is that the next day when I put on my coat I was somewhat surprised to find a pretty little pair of white kid slippers in the pocket which after arranging my scattered ideas I remembered to have taken them from the lady the night before, forgetting to return them when I left her at the door. I bundled them up very nicely and sent them to her by Jack Hudson who said he would call and deliver them.

That day we sailed for New York, arriving there we found the same hearty welcome awaiting us, thirty or forty steam boats filled with persons anxious to see the Ship and each boat with a band of Music. The boats would run around us and then went on up to the city with us, as we neared the city the Artillery of the N.Y. Greys welcomed us from the Battery with a salute of 100 guns, in the evening the city was illuminated and by some accident the City Hall was burned down. After we hauled the ship alongside the docks in the Navy Yard we had thousands of visitors every day and at all hours in the day until we were detached, which was not until the 25th August though the Department had sent them to the Captain some 8 days previously.

We thought the Captn. was keeping us by the ship just for the gratification of his pride, for there was no duty for any of us to do after we arrived, though it made no difference to him how much we were inconvenienced by the flow of persons around and through our apartments. We did not have one moment's privacy after day light until after dark at night, so one might judge what our feelings must have been just stopping there to be gazed at like wild animals, with nothing to do and all anxious to go to our families. During most of the time I was in N. York I was sick having been attacked with the Cholera Morbus, which very nearly stopped my mortal career. The Doctor (Cunnell) and two of my mess mates Kellogg & Kutz sat up with me nearly all night; nearly every day there was invitations to dinners, and other places, in honor of the great event.

I went on to Norfolk two days before I received my detachments. My Wife was there at the “Ranche” spending some time with my Parents; There I remained one week when I received permission from the Department to attend an examination for promotion to an advanced grade. The Board Convened at New York and was composed of Messrs Wood, Sewell & King. The last named being in my opinion one of the poorest tools that the Almighty ever let live, a man and not a Man. As soon as I had passed I found Orders to join the “Niagara” again, after just getting a leave of absence for three months, such treatment is enough to disgust anyone.

Tiffany gold medal inscribed to
Geo. R. Johnson, U.S.N.

George Johnson’s Journal continues with an account of another voyage on USS Niagara in 1858, but this is not related to cable laying. He had a long and distinguished career in the US Navy before retiring in 1890.

This obituary, published in the Journal of the American Society of Naval Engineers, Volume X (1898), gives further details of George Johnson’s life and career.

George R. Johnson

Chief Engineer George R. Johnson, U. S. Navy (retired), died in Washington, on the 16th of October, of angina pectoris, after having been confined to his bed for almost a year.

Mr. Johnson was born in Norfolk, Va., in 1828. He learned the trade of machinist in that city, and became so proficient that he passed the line at which the ordinary mechanic ends and the artist is recognized.

He entered the Navy as a Third Assistant Engineer in 1852, and served on board the Princeton, the first very successful screw steamer in the Navy. He was on special duty at Norfolk in 1855, was promoted to Second Assistant Engineer in this year, and served on board the steam frigate Merrimac in 1856 in the Mediterranean. He was ordered to the Roanoke in 1857, and also served on board the Niagara when she laid the first cable across the Atlantic. On this occasion he was the principal dependence of the Chief Engineer (Mr. Everett), who invented the paying-out gear.

Mr. Johnson was promoted to First Assistant Engineer in 1858, and served in the office of the Engineer-in-Chief until 1861, when he was promoted to Chief Engineer and ordered to the Lancaster, where he remained until 1864. From 1864 to 1867 Mr. Johnson was employed as inspector of the machinery of the iron clads building at Wilmington, Del., and from 1869 to 1870 he served on board the Dictator. From 1872 to 1874 he was Fleet Engineer of the Pacific Squadron, and from 1874 to 1877 was superintendent of construction of the monitor Amphitrite. From 1877 to 1879 he was Fleet Engineer of the South Atlantic Squadron. From 1879 to 1884 he had special duty at Wilmington. He was Fleet Engineer of the European Squadron 1884-1886, and from 1887 to 1890 he was superintending the construction of the machinery for the Petrel and other vessels at Baltimore, Md. Mr. Johnson was retired on the 9th of November, 1890.

He was a man of rare ability, and, while an abstemious man in his habits, he was thoroughly sociable and a “good shipmate,” and always had a host of friends.

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