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Paul Sparkes: A frantic hike to get the news through


Communications had become nothing short of amazing! Think of it — little, old Newfoundland had a telegraph line right across the island. It snaked through bog and goowithy, around rocks and eventually dived under Cabot Strait.

Rising from the salt water at the edge of Cape Breton, it went on to feed the great continent. The only slow part in the process of getting the news from Europe to North America (and vice versa) was the 1,640 miles of Atlantic Ocean between us and Ireland. But we had the mail packets and we welcomed them to St. John's regularly. From our telegraph station here, we took the news from the boats out of Europe and sent it on further west.

It was 1858 and the world had become a much faster place.

This was the communication scenario just over three years later when The United States was descending into a dirty, murderous civil war. At the time, it was still a matter of the overland cable, coded impulses, the great Atlantic gap and crews of troubleshooters who babysat the cable as it traversed the land.

When war among the states erupted, there was confidence among the southern states for, although outnumbered (nine million people as compared with the northern states' 22 million) and the North had heavy industry, gold, silver and agricultural resources (“A Basic History of the United States,” Charles and Mary Beard, 1944), the South was certain Great Britain would come in on its side. One reason was the South's vast export of raw cotton. British cotton mills were useless without it.

Britain was weighing what role, if any, it should take. In the White House, Abraham Lincoln fretted that if Britain came in on the side of the South, the North might just as well concede. Northern hotheads wanted to take on Great Britain right then and there. Logically, Lincoln refused, but only with great difficulty could he keep his people at bay.

One Saturday night in June 1861, a steamer carrying significant news from London entered St. John's harbour. Britain had made up its mind and the decision absolutely had to be transmitted to the president in Washington and to American newspapers without delay. The critically important dispatches were carried from the vessel to the telegraph office. But there was a huge problem. Our line was “down” all the way from St. John's to LaManche at the top of Placentia Bay. We had a dead cable for 100 miles.

In their 1930s “Stories of Newfoundland: Source Book Teachers,” Joseph Smallwood and Leo English tell the story of how a Brigus boy, one Thomas Scanlon, sprang to the aid of all as “the fate of two great nations, and the fate of two million Negro slaves hung in the balance.”

Smallwood gives us the likely scene in St. John's: “Suddenly in that little group of despairing telegraph officials there came a voice; an eager, yet quietly confident voice. They looked at him, this young telegraph operator who volunteered to do the impossible — to get the messages delivered in New York and Washington before Sunday was over.”

If Scanlon could get speedily to La Manche, the dispatches could be sent to the United States from there.

“With dispatches strapped securely in a knapsack on his back, Scanlon left St. John's at midnight by horse and wagon for Kelligrews.”

Two-and-a-quarter hours later he had arrived there and sought a sailing boat, but the wind had dropped completely. Without delay, Scanlon walked to Lance Cove where at dawn he awakened a fisherman and convinced him to take him on to Brigus. No horse was available at Brigus, so Scanlon walked to Spaniard's Bay where he secured a horse and wagon to take him over to New Harbour. Four miles out of Spaniard's Bay, the horse “went completely lame.” Scanlon sprang from the wagon and proceeded on foot — half walking, half running — to New Harbour.

Smallwood writes that at New Harbour, Scanlon “swiftly gathered four strapping fishermen to take him across to the head of Trinity Bay, at Rantem.

Within 10 minutes of landing in New Harbour, they were on their way.”

But — such desperate luck — a strong breeze forced the fishermen to land Scanlon some miles short of Rantem. One of the men from New Harbour now accompanied Scanlon. When they had finally covered the seven or eight miles to Rantem, it would be necessary to cross a portion of saltwater. The ferryman, however, was on the other side and could not hear their frantic shouts. They called at houses looking for a shotgun, found one and returned to the ferry-landing and signalled to the ferryman to come across.  From Scanlon's landing point on the other side, it would be three miles to Placentia Bay.

Smallwood writes of Scanlon that he was “famished from lack of food and dog-tired from his desperate race against time, but buoyed by the knowledge that he held the fate of two great nations in his hands.”

Scanlon found the telegraph key at La Manche was out of order. He set to work “swiftly and deftly” to repair the apparatus … and then he sat at the key and swiftly sped the fateful words over the line. Smallwood adds, “not for a moment did Thomas D. Scanlon stop until the last word had gone forward — not once until he had the supreme joy and delight of getting back the news from New York that every word of the precious dispatches had been received.”

  On Monday morning, the American papers “simply rang with the joyful news” of England's decision to remain neutral. Within a few hours, dangerously rising feelings against England were put to rest.

 Paul Sparkes is a longtime journalist intrigued by the history of Newfoundland and Labrador. E-mail:  psparkes@thetelegram.com.

Rising from the salt water at the edge of Cape Breton, it went on to feed the great continent. The only slow part in the process of getting the news from Europe to North America (and vice versa) was the 1,640 miles of Atlantic Ocean between us and Ireland. But we had the mail packets and we welcomed them to St. John's regularly. From our telegraph station here, we took the news from the boats out of Europe and sent it on further west.

It was 1858 and the world had become a much faster place.

This was the communication scenario just over three years later when The United States was descending into a dirty, murderous civil war. At the time, it was still a matter of the overland cable, coded impulses, the great Atlantic gap and crews of troubleshooters who babysat the cable as it traversed the land.

When war among the states erupted, there was confidence among the southern states for, although outnumbered (nine million people as compared with the northern states' 22 million) and the North had heavy industry, gold, silver and agricultural resources (“A Basic History of the United States,” Charles and Mary Beard, 1944), the South was certain Great Britain would come in on its side. One reason was the South's vast export of raw cotton. British cotton mills were useless without it.

Britain was weighing what role, if any, it should take. In the White House, Abraham Lincoln fretted that if Britain came in on the side of the South, the North might just as well concede. Northern hotheads wanted to take on Great Britain right then and there. Logically, Lincoln refused, but only with great difficulty could he keep his people at bay.

One Saturday night in June 1861, a steamer carrying significant news from London entered St. John's harbour. Britain had made up its mind and the decision absolutely had to be transmitted to the president in Washington and to American newspapers without delay. The critically important dispatches were carried from the vessel to the telegraph office. But there was a huge problem. Our line was “down” all the way from St. John's to LaManche at the top of Placentia Bay. We had a dead cable for 100 miles.

In their 1930s “Stories of Newfoundland: Source Book Teachers,” Joseph Smallwood and Leo English tell the story of how a Brigus boy, one Thomas Scanlon, sprang to the aid of all as “the fate of two great nations, and the fate of two million Negro slaves hung in the balance.”

Smallwood gives us the likely scene in St. John's: “Suddenly in that little group of despairing telegraph officials there came a voice; an eager, yet quietly confident voice. They looked at him, this young telegraph operator who volunteered to do the impossible — to get the messages delivered in New York and Washington before Sunday was over.”

If Scanlon could get speedily to La Manche, the dispatches could be sent to the United States from there.

“With dispatches strapped securely in a knapsack on his back, Scanlon left St. John's at midnight by horse and wagon for Kelligrews.”

Two-and-a-quarter hours later he had arrived there and sought a sailing boat, but the wind had dropped completely. Without delay, Scanlon walked to Lance Cove where at dawn he awakened a fisherman and convinced him to take him on to Brigus. No horse was available at Brigus, so Scanlon walked to Spaniard's Bay where he secured a horse and wagon to take him over to New Harbour. Four miles out of Spaniard's Bay, the horse “went completely lame.” Scanlon sprang from the wagon and proceeded on foot — half walking, half running — to New Harbour.

Smallwood writes that at New Harbour, Scanlon “swiftly gathered four strapping fishermen to take him across to the head of Trinity Bay, at Rantem.

Within 10 minutes of landing in New Harbour, they were on their way.”

But — such desperate luck — a strong breeze forced the fishermen to land Scanlon some miles short of Rantem. One of the men from New Harbour now accompanied Scanlon. When they had finally covered the seven or eight miles to Rantem, it would be necessary to cross a portion of saltwater. The ferryman, however, was on the other side and could not hear their frantic shouts. They called at houses looking for a shotgun, found one and returned to the ferry-landing and signalled to the ferryman to come across.  From Scanlon's landing point on the other side, it would be three miles to Placentia Bay.

Smallwood writes of Scanlon that he was “famished from lack of food and dog-tired from his desperate race against time, but buoyed by the knowledge that he held the fate of two great nations in his hands.”

Scanlon found the telegraph key at La Manche was out of order. He set to work “swiftly and deftly” to repair the apparatus … and then he sat at the key and swiftly sped the fateful words over the line. Smallwood adds, “not for a moment did Thomas D. Scanlon stop until the last word had gone forward — not once until he had the supreme joy and delight of getting back the news from New York that every word of the precious dispatches had been received.”

  On Monday morning, the American papers “simply rang with the joyful news” of England's decision to remain neutral. Within a few hours, dangerously rising feelings against England were put to rest.

 Paul Sparkes is a longtime journalist intrigued by the history of Newfoundland and Labrador. E-mail:  psparkes@thetelegram.com.

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