History of the Atlantic Cable & Undersea Communications
The First Submarine Telegraph Cable In America, 1852
THE FIRST SUBMARINE TELEGRAPH CABLE IN AMERICA, 1852.
by Charles Dawson,
The story of the cable began to unfold itself in a series of coincidences when the writer was researching the life history of his Scottish seafaring forebears. It turned out that one of them was probably involved in the actual cable laying.
He was the writer’s great grand uncle Archibald Kennedy, born in Greenock, Scotland 14 June, 1815, died Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, 22 Jan. 1903. Nothing was known about him – or even his existence - until the writer came across a copy of his will that had been preserved by his mother’s family.
Archibald appears to have gone to sea as a boy and then immigrated at an early age to Canada, and also to have reached captain’s rank. The rank of master, however, in the British North American mercantile marine in the 1840s and 1850s was attained informally on the basis of service, and no separate official PEI register of master’s names appears ever to have been kept. Nor could Archibald’s name in the British official merchant marine records be traced.
Early in life, Archibald married Mary Crawford McLaurin, born in Greenock Scotland in 1825, who had moved to Cape Traverse, P.E.I. with her father Humphrey McLaurin (1795-1869) believed to have been in shipbuilding, although no details of this have so far been traced. Archibald is first noted as living at Bras d’Or, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia as ‘mariner/owner-skipper’ then at Baddeck, Cape Breton, N.S., as ‘trader/dealer’. It was possibly at about this time that he became, or was at least in the process of becoming, a recognised shipmaster. There is a record of the marriage of Archibald Kennedy in 1847 at Cape Breton, but not of Mary MacLaurin.
It is not known when Archibald moved to PEI, but Hutchison’s Business Directory of 1864 listed him as ‘Harbour and Ballast Master’ at Souris, PEI and he still owned ships in 1876, as can be seen from the list of the ten ships he owned or part-owned. There is an illustration of the largest of them, of which AK had one sixty-fourth share. This is an oil painting on canvas 18” x 28”, by an unknown artist, of the iron steamship PRINCE EDWARD, 1365 gross tons built in 1872 by Aitken & Mansel, Whiteinch, Glasgow.
Archibald eventually established a sail-making business in Charlottetown, and is shown in the 1861 census as a sailmaker at Peak’s Wharf on Queen Street near Water Street. About 1865, he added shipschandlery to his activities, the business being under the name of A.Kennedy & Co. This is substantiated by Lovell’s Province of Prince Edward Island Directory of 1871. There is a photograph of the business premises of A. KENNEDY & CO. LTD. in Queen Street, Charlottetown, which was apparently still in existence in the early 1970s.
At the death in 1876 in San Francisco of his brother Captain William Kennedy aboard his command, the iron ship DUNBRITTON of Glasgow, Archibald had presumably taken into his business William’s nephew Duncan, born Greenock 1855, for the latter is shown in the 1881 census as being part of the Kennedy household.
The PATRIOT of 22 August 1891 had a short report of a trip that Archibald and his wife Mary took to Cape Breton, perhaps partly as a recuperative measure for Archibald who had been in poor health. They took the steamer STATE OF INDIANA (bound for Boston) as far as Port Mulgrave, Nova Scotia, and from there the steamer MARION to Cape Breton Island. She sailed presumably to Port Hawkesbury across the Strait of Canso. On the island they were to “visit some of the many places of interest on that picturesque isle”, and no doubt the places where he had lived there.
The childless Kennedys appear to have had no one near and dear to whom they could leave the family business. It therefore seems that the goodwill might have been sold or passed on in some way or other, perhaps in order at least to maintain the family name. This could perhaps be the reason for the continuing existence, at least into the early 1970s, of the firm of shipchandlers A. KENNEDY & CO. LTD. in Charlottetown, whose premises appear in the photograph mentioned above.
Archibald’s business was a prosperous one. His will, dated 14 July 1902 and proved on 4th March 1903, confirms both this and what was written in his obituary about his being “a most generous giver to the support of church work and various religious and philanthropic enterprises”. Archibald was long an elder of the kirk of St James in Charlottetown and, as superintendent of the Sunday School, had laid the cornerstone of the kirk hall in 1895. In 1901, after his wife Mary had died, presumably in Charlottetown, on 2 July 1899, Archibald erected in her memory a stained glass window in the church. Archibald died in Charlottetown on 22 January 1903. Their dates of death and ages are inscribed on their red granite tombstone at Lot 16 in the cemetery of their church.
Regarding Archibald’s connection with the PEI cable, it was a “long-lost cousin”, Mrs Helen Bearisto (1895 - c.1980), who presented the writer with the first clue in his investigation into the history of the cable. She had in a letter to the writer mentioned “Uncle Archibald’s help to Cyrus Field in the cable-laying”, and it was from that scanty information that the writer was able to start his quest.
Cyrus Field (1819-1892), although he must be recognised as the driving force behind the completion of the transatlantic cable, is often credited with the basic concept; some reports even say that he made this claim himself. However, in the history of the development of new ideas, there are usually many individuals who contribute along the way. The ones who are remembered are often those with the most forceful personalities, but sometimes they can be picked out for chauvinistic reasons. Most of the rest are forgotten afterwards. In writing this account there has been noticed a distinction between American and Canadian writing on the subject in which chauvinistic claims are made respectively for Cyrus Field and Frederick Newton Gisborne.
Another such individual, Samuel Finley Breese Morse, of Morse Code fame, for example, was in fact a professor of art in the University of New York - but he had the powers of organisation to muster help from his technical friends and colleagues; he had in 1843 obtained $30000 from Congress to construct a telegraph line between Washington and Baltimore, which was completed on May 22, 1844. Washington was connected to New York in 1847 and then from New York to New Orleans in 1848 and to San Francisco in 1860.
Halifax was Samuel Cunard’s hometown and an intermediate port of call of his steamers bound from the UK for the US. The development of the way in which messages were transferred from Halifax is of interest. At first, they were carried by stagecoach across Nova Scotia to Digby, then by steamer across the Bay of Fundy to St. John, New Brunswick, from where they could be telegraphed to Boston. By January 1850 it was possible to telegraph direct from Halifax to Portland, Maine, from where messages were taken by rail to Boston, but a year later Portland could re-telegraph messages direct to New York.
However, to have ideas is not enough. The most significant of the early contributors to both the idea and the actual construction of the transatlantic cable was Frederick Newton Gisborne (born 1824, Broughton, Lancashire, England, died Ottawa, Canada, 1892). He had arrived in Canada in the spring of 1845 but his initial interest in farming was soon dropped for the exciting new electric telegraphy introduced in 1838 by Morse.
After passing with honours in a course in the subject run by one of Morse’s pupils, Gisborne took a post with the Montreal Telegraph Co (MTC), which by August 1847 had completed a line from Montreal to Toronto and was building one to Quebec. Gisborne was offered the opportunity of taking over the Quebec office and here, as chief operator, being responsible for connections to Toronto and Amherst, Nova Scotia.
While there, Gisborne in late 1847 joined with other leading men to form the British North American Electric Telegraph Association (BNAETA), with the intention of constructing a line between the Maritimes and Canada. He left the MTC in November to become superintendent of the BNAETA and that winter was sent to New Brunswick and Nova Scotia in an attempt to persuade the governments there to become involved in a Quebec-Halifax line.
New Brunswick did not favour the plan, preferring a Boston-New York connection. Gisborne arrived in Nova Scotia in March 1848, just when a select committee of the legislature was meeting to inquire into and report on the feasibility of supporting the construction of telegraph lines. The government was impressed by Gisborne’s extensive testimony before this committee and agreed to construct a line from Halifax if Gisborne would leave the BNAETA to superintend the project.
Despite the efforts of Gisborne and his associates, the BNAETA line from Quebec had only reached Rivière-du-Loup by 1849, when Gisborne left to join the Nova Scotia Telegraph Co. at Halifax to superintend the Nova Scotia government telegraph lines. These were the only lines then operating in the province. He immediately began to experiment with methods of laying telegraph cables underwater.
In 1851 he was investigating the connection with Newfoundland and a transatlantic cable, and in 1852 resigned his Nova Scotia post to concentrate on this enterprise. One possible first stage he apparently visualised was to connect Cape Ray, Newfoundland with Cape North, Nova Scotia ; another was with Prince Edward Island and from there to New Brunswick.
That year, Gisborne contacted Joseph Howe, the provincial secretary and a member of the Commisssion established to oversee the operations of the province’s telegraph system, with a plan for submarine telegraphic communication between Newfoundland and the North American continent at Halifax . The Commission backed Gisborne who was despatched to St. John’s to secure support there for the project.
While in Newfoundland Gisborne successfully contracted for a land-line from St.John’s to Harbour Grace and Carbonear. Gisborne returned to Halifax with the astonishing additional proposal to connect Newfoundland with Ireland by a transatlantic cable, an idea that was rejected out of hand as impossible and Gisborne was dissuaded by the Commission to make any attempts to seek capital for it.
In March 1851 the Nova Scotia legislature incorporated the privately owned Nova Scotia Electric Telegraph Company (NSETC) to take over the government lines and build additional connections. When the process of privatisation was complete, Gisborne left the employ of the government on 1 July and travelled to St. John’s to begin the construction of the line across Newfoundland. There he persuaded the Newfoundland assembly to incorporate the Newfoundland Electric Telegraph Company (NETC) for the purpose of surveying a line from St. John’s to Cape Ray, to connect with Cape Breton via carrier pigeons, steamer, and eventually, Gisborne hoped, a submarine cable.
By 1 September 1851 the St. John’s-Harbour Grace-Carbonear telegraph line was complete and Gisborne turned in earnest to the St. John’s-Cape Ray route survey. He started from St. John’s with six men to traverse more than 300 miles of unexplored and particularly harsh wilderness. All his men deserted him about 100 miles into the journey at Long Harbour on Fortune Bay, where a nearby lake still bears his name. Four Indians took their place, one died from the rigours of the expedition within a few days, two deserted shortly after and the fourth, who survived to the end suffered broken health for the rest of his life. Gisborne and his last remaining helper finally returned to St. John’s on 4 December.
Yet only weeks after this ordeal, Gisborne was off on a round of visits to promote his transatlantic cable project. He went first to Boston but finding no interest there, continued to New York, where some businessmen offered some capital. He also met Brett in London who also made an initial contribution. While there, Gisborne heard that the Nova Scotia Electric Telegraph Company (NSETC) had set such exorbitant royalties for the use of its lines in any Newfoundland connection, that he decided to by-pass them. His projected route was via Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick and he ordered the cable there and then while he was in England. He returned to St. John’s in time to catch the spring sitting of the Newfoundland legislature.
In 1852 he was granted funds by the Newfoundland Assembly to form the Newfoundland Electric Telegraph Co. (NETC) with the idea of passing shipping information quickly to Halifax and New York. The scheme interested the Post Office and Samuel Cunard, who no doubt saw advantages in this for his shipping interests in Halifax. Gisborne was to survey a land line from St. John’s to Cape Ray, which he intended to connect with Cape North, across Cabot Strait, at first via carrier pigeon and/or steamer, but eventually by submarine cable.
Upon his return he arranged, with new capital, the reconstitution of the NETC, which gave him exclusive rights for land cables in Newfoundland for 30 years. It was however with the stretch between New Brunswick and PEI that he succeeded in becoming the first ever to lay a submarine telegraph cable on the continent of America. For use in the laying of the cable, Gisborne bought a small paddle steamship, 81’ x 14.3’, of 3993/100 tons rigged as a two-masted schooner, from the New York & Galway Steamship Co. She had been built at Philadelphia in 1852. Gisborne renamed her Ellen Gisborne after his wife. On 18 November Ellen Gisborne arrived in Charlottetown harbour, and left again on 19 November for Cape Tormentine with the brigantine Eliza, to make the second attempt at laying the cable. Ellen Gisborne had on the previous Sunday, 11 November stuck on the reef making out from the Cape and beat over it in five feet of water. She suffered considerable damage, and Eliza lost about fifty fathoms of chain cable and two anchors. However, on 22 and 23 November 1852, the laying of the cable from Cape Tormentine, New Brunswick, to Carleton Head (now called Borden Point), Prince Edward Island, was accomplished by Gisborne’s team, as reported in the Islander newspaper on 26 November. Gisborne paid tribute there to Captain Kennedy of Charlottetown for his very valuable assistance, adding that without Captain Kennedy, the laying of the cable would have had to be postponed from the autumn. It seems likely that Captain Kennedy was in command of the brigantine Eliza which, in a small item in the Islander newspaper of 19 November 1852, is mentioned as helping in the operations. Although this Captain Kennedy’s first name is not mentioned in the references to him so far studied, it is reasonable to assume that he was in fact Archibald, partially substantiated as it is by the family story passed on by “long-lost cousin” Helen.
Gisborne seems to have suffered the fate of the genius engineer who is not a businessman. After his success with his first cable laying, he ran into troubles on the overland section of the Newfoundland Telegraph Co’s cable. Some reports even suggest that there occurred malicious sabotage of the lines there. Gisborne has been suggested as the originator of the procedure of burying landlines to cope with this type of interference. Lack of financial backing however became his biggest problem in the end, made more tragic just then by the death of his young wife.
It was at this stage, in March 1854, that Cyrus Field came into the picture, after he had succeeded in obtaining the financial backing he required to form the new company, New York, Newfoundland and London Telegraph Co which was to carry out the laying of the transatlantic cable. In the meantime, the cable between Cape Ray and Cape North was laid in August 1855 by the US steamer James Adger in tow of the bark Sarah Bryant.
The 500-ton iron s.s. Propontis of the General Screw Steam Shipping Co., on the first direct steamship sailing from the UK to Newfoundland, from London for St. John’s on 2nd June 1856, carried the submarine cable which she subsequently laid from Newfoundland to Cape Breton Island and from Nova Scotia to Prince Edward Island. [Bonsor, North Atlantic Seaway (Newton Abbot, 1975, page 274)]. This made possible the first connection between New York and Newfoundland.
For this section, Cyrus Field had purchased the rights of the system devised in 1856 by English-born David Hughes, a Kentucky school teacher, in order to circumvent Morse’s patents and thus avoid paying him royalties. Hughes’s system used an apparatus that converted the electrical signals into a printed message. It was used on the lines between New York and Newfoundland when the first temporarily successful cable was laid in 1858. The Hughes system later became very popular in Europe after Hughes himself had gone there to promote it. This is one of the early examples of the forerunners of the modern fax, although not the first: the originator was in fact the Scot Alexander Bain, who obtained a British Patent on 27 May 1843 for “an automatic electro-mechanical registering telegraph”.
Cyrus Field’s capacity as a fixer, especially to organise capital, led finally to the successful laying of a viable transatlantic cable by yet another company which he had a part in forming: the Anglo-American Telegraph Co using Great Eastern on 27 July 1866).
The pioneering efforts of Gisborne had been duly recognised at a public dinner in Newfoundland in May 1857, when he was presented with a silver statuette, but after that his contribution was largely overshadowed by Cyrus Field’s involvement. It took over 80 years after Gisborne’s feat for outward signs of public recognition finally to be given him, when a bronze tablet in his honour was fixed on 21 September 1933 to the Provincial Building in Charlottetown. Even then, as an example of the patchy recognition he continued to receive, at least one long Charlottetown newspaper report of the event did not mention his name at all, although it was at least honoured in the inscription on the tablet, which reads as follows:
The Dictionary of Canadian Biography, Volume XII, 1990, presents an extensive treatment of the amazingly wide-ranging life of Gisborne, and concludes the entry on him as follows:
“Despite his key role in engineering and promoting the transatlantic and other cables and discovering and developing the Cape Breton coalfields, Frederic Newton Gisborne died in obscurity. His partners had repeatedly tried to steal his inventions, enterprises and reputation, and in several cases succeeded. However, ‘the indomitable Electrician’ as one of his English friends called him, is a landmark figure in the history of science and technology in Canada, as well as a picturesque examplar of the Victorian scientist-adventurer”.
Ellen Gisborne appears on the registry in St. John’s, Newfoundland with registration No. S 853095 (1853, #95; she was built at Philadelphia, USA in 1852. She had 1 deck, 2 masts and was a steam/sail vessel with no specific rig designated, 81’ x 14’ x 4’ deep. Her registry was closed in 1853 and she was re-registered at St. John’s. She was owned by Frederick Gisborne. Her next registry is S 853132 when she changed ownership to Andrew Melroy and the Bank of British North America. Her registry was finally closed in 1855.
A photo of the MARION prior to her loss can be found in the book ‘Disasters at Sea - Nova Scotia’ by Tony Cranston, printed by Sentinel Printing, of Yarmouth, NS., published in 1986 (now out of print). This book is possibly available through ‘document delivery’ (interlibrary loans).
Ships owned, or part-owned by Archibald Kennedy:
Last revised: 4 August, 2020