French Transatlantic Cable
In the 1870's, several communication corporations were formed as speculative ventures. One such organization, the Compagnie Francaise du Telegraphe de Paris a New York, began in 1879 with the objective of laying a transatlantic cable. In Great Britain, the company was known as the P.Q. Company after its president, Monsieur Pouyer-Quertier. Shortly after its inception, the corporation settled on a route from Brest, France, to the island of St. Pierre in the Miquelon Island group and then to Cape Cod. The cable was manufactured in England by Siemens Brothers of London, and laid by the same company using their cable ship Faraday. The work began in June 1879 with the laying of the 2,242 nautical mile main cable from Brest in France to the island of Saint-Pierre off the coast of Newfoundland. From there a further 827 nautical miles of cable was laid to Cape Cod. The work was completed in November 1879
At the North Eastham terminal on Cape Cod, the company constructed a large building that served as a cable station. Here the messages were received in international code and, in turn, transmitted via an overland telegraph line to New York. The station had offices, quarters for the staff, and space for social gatherings. Because the cable arrived approximately two weeks before the structure was completed, office space was provided during that period in the basement of the Nauset Light Beach lighthouse keeper's dwelling. When the station was completed, the cable was transferred from the dwelling to the station.
The married workers built homes near the cable station at Nauset Light Beach. These men, however, subsequently complained that the isolated location created a hardship on them and their families. The school that their children attended, churches, and stores were far from their homes.
Building the Cable Hut
Because of the workers' plight, the cable company decided to center its Cape Cod operation in Orleans, Massachusetts, and opened a new station house in March 1891. A cable from the old station at Nauset was laid across Nauset Marsh to the foot of Town Cove at Orleans and then to the new cable station house. Maintaining the large, old station merely as a connection point proved too costly, and, as a result, the Nauset station house was sold in 1893 to A. W. Reed. At the same time, a small hut that measured about ten by fifteen feet was constructed near the old station as a connecting point for the cable. That hut currently forms part of the structure known as the French Cable Hut. It was common practice to erect cable huts if the station house were set a distance back from the shore.
When the hut was constructed, it had shingle siding on the exterior and cedar shingles on the roof. The inside was not finished, with the studs visible. It was devoid of furniture. Only a connection box, fixed to the corner of the southwest wall above where the cable entered the structure, occupied the room.
The French Cable Company operated the cable until France surrendered to Germany in June 1940 during World War II. While that war continued and for several years thereafter, the cable hut stood vacant. In the spring of 1949, Alice Snow's husband, who worked for the company, went to the cable hut and found it padlocked. After making an inquiry, he found that the hut had been sold to Dorothy LePage in 1946 for nonpayment of property taxes, even though the cable company had never been notified of such action.
Undersea Communications in General
Beginning in 1851, and continuing into the 1940s, hundreds of telegraph cables were laid all around the world. The connection across the Atlantic was first attempted in 1857 and was partially successful in 1858, but that cable soon failed. In 1866 a new Atlantic cable between Ireland and Newfoundland was successfully laid, and many more soon followed on this important (and highly profitable) route.
With two exceptions, the early Atlantic cables all ran between Ireland and Newfoundland or Nova Scotia, connecting overland to New York. The 1869 cable of the French Atlantic Telegraph Company (La Société du Câble Transatlantique Française) connected Brest, France to St. Pierre Island off Newfoundland, and from there to Duxbury in Massachusetts; and the 1879 cable of La Compagnie Francaise du Telegraphe de Paris a New York connected Brest to Cape Cod, also via St. Pierre. These were the first submarine cables to connect the United States to the European mainland.
In 1897 the French Cable Company (La Compagnie Française des Câbles Télégraphiques) laid the first cable directly between the United States and Europe. It ran 3,173 nautical miles from Brest, France, to Cape Cod. This second cable to Cape Cod did not pass through the Nauset cable hut but went directly to the Orleans station, which had been built in 1891. In 1898, a connecting cable was laid between Orleans and New York.
Although short telephone cables had been laid between Britain and Europe as early as 1891, technical limitations of undersea cables restricted their use for telephone communication to runs of no more than about a hundred miles, and longer cables such as those across the Atlantic could be used only for telegraph messages. Beginning in 1927, radio circuits across the Atlantic were able to carry voice communications, and these provided some competition for the cable companies for the next thirty years. With technological advances, in 1956 the first Atlantic telephone cable was laid between Scotland and Newfoundland, and this soon regained all the traffic from the wireless companies.
As with the telegraph cable boom of the second half of the 19th century, many more high-capacity cables soon followed on this important route and elsewhere in the world, and within only a few years this led to the demise of the telegraph systems. The Orleans cable station closed in 1959 and is now preserved as a museum, one of only three remaining original telegraph stations in the world.
Today, millions of miles of fiber optic undersea cables carry over 99% of all communications across the Atlantic and worldwide.
Special thanks to Bill Burns for expanded text added in 2014.