Rye Reflections

July 2005 News

Cable came ashore 131 years ago this month in Rye

Two-way messaging whisked way through 2 1/2-inch 'wire rope'--but wasn't a first

Jack Driscoll

Stereoview of Faraday off Rye in 1874 (Image courtesy of Atlantic Cable
website http://atlantic-cable.com)

The sign heralding the Rye Cable House alongside Route 1A needs a footnote.  

In part the sign reads:  “The receiving station for the first Atlantic cable, laid in 1874, is located on Old Beach Road opposite this location…”

Trouble is, the first transatlantic telegraph cable was laid between Newfoundland and Ireland in 1858.  It only worked for six weeks, but another was completed in 1866 between Valentia Island, Ireland, and Newfoundland and reportedly worked well.

So the Rye cable was a significant achievement but not a first.   Brought ashore at Rye 131 years ago this month, the line ultimately spanned some 3400 miles from Rye to Nova Scotia to Ballinskelligs, Ireland, and performed admirably for more than 40 years, being particularly useful during World War I.

Much of what we know about the drama of the Rye connection, between July 13 when it was scheduled for hookup and July 15 when it was accomplished, comes from the account in a book entitled, “Rye on the Rocks”, by William Varrell who describes the large crowds drawn to Rye Beach for the event.  He characterizes them as “a curious assortment of silk bustled ladies from the Farragut and rubber booted fishermen from Sandy Beach who had gathered on Straw’s Point…”   After waiting expectantly for three days, the crowd had mostly dispersed at about 9 p.m. on the night of the 15th when the spliced cable arrived near shore on a barge.

A national magazine called “Leslies” recounted the scene:  “It was a very dark night and the procession of boats with their lanterns formed a gloomy appearance as it moved through the stillness broken by the heave-ho of the cable hands and the wild uncouth songs with which they accompanied their clock-like motions as they worked along the ropes.”

Varrell says the Farragut ladies, reporters and fishermen all lent a hand pulling the cable through a trench and then onto shore, apparently in the location of the sunken, rarely-visible petrified forest on the beach area almost directly behind the Cable House.  A cable-laying vessel called the Faraday had uncoiled the “2 ½-inch wire rope” from Tor Bay in Nova Scotia to somewhere near the Isles of Shoals where the steamer Ambassador then took over to get the line through the shallow waters and closer to shore.  A year later the Faraday laid the longer leg of the cable from Tor Bay to Ballingskelligs.

Initially 16 telegraphers from England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland operated from the Rye Cable House, built a year later.  The “duplex cable” enabled them to send and receive messages simultaneously.  A gabled structure with a mansard roof, the Cable House is now a private residence and has been declared an official historic site.  

How ironic it seemed recently when I was at the Rye Library and turned from the table in the New Hampshire Room to find Varrell’s book on special display behind me.  I had just sent email to a classmate who lives in Madrid, Spain, using my laptop on the Library’s wireless system.  You could say that email isn’t that much of an improvement over the cable line, except that a few minutes later I received an answer from my friend.

It included an attachment with photos from his daughter’s painting exhibit in Madrid.  I don’t think the Rye cable could have pulled that off.  Still, in its day—with or without footnotes—the “wire rope” was a remarkable communications milestone.

The Rye Cable House was a telegraph station a hundred years ago.

July 7, 2005



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