Historical Cable Locating (Part 3)
As published in the September Issue of SubTel Forum Magazine
By Philip Pilgrim
September 29, 2022
This is the third and final article is a series that offers encouragement and guidance for you to spend time at a coastline and hunt down a submarine cable. In this issue, my good friends Chris Janson and Kyle Hollasch, provide accounts and background on cables they each found on the shores of New England.
Spotting the French Cable
Chris Janson, Nokia
On a cold winter morning, I was walking the beach in Eastham (Cape Cod), Massachusetts and noticed something sticking out of the dune, protruding back into the sand towards the water’s edge. Taking a closer look, I thought it could be a water pipe uncovered by recent storms. But then it occurred to me that I was standing near the point where an old submarine telegraph cable between France and the United States made landfall. This stretch of beach is constantly changing, with sand washing out sections of dunes as winter storms pound the fragile coastline. Lighthouses, buildings, parking lots, anything manmade have all fallen to the Atlantic’s battering. Yet this cable was prominently obvious, looking as though it was recently left by a construction crew. It looked old yet in remarkably good condition.
The French Cable
For sure, this was part of the French Cable. The French transatlantic telegraph cable was built in 1879, stretching from Brest, France to North Eastham, Massachusetts (US). Around 1891, the US landing site was moved to a more accessible location in Orleans, requiring a several mile-long connecting cable directly over where I stood in Eastham. The connection was built safely away from the ocean dune at the time, running parallel to the shore for a mile before veering inland, across the Nauset Marsh and Orleans town cove, coming ashore at a present-day town boat ramp adjacent to the cable landing station, now a museum. This cable was in-service until 1959, operated by La Compagnie Française du Télégraphe (i.e. The French Cable Co.), offering telegraph services spanning 5,878 km.
By today’s standards, the French cable offered impossibly slow capacity. But consider that 131 years ago, we had no internet, smart phones, voice phones, TV or radio. Wireless radio transmission was just an idea in the minds of Tesla and Marconi. Information transmitted faster than a steamship would prove remarkable, with profound economic effect. By 1890, telegraph cable transmission speeds had improved through various compensation techniques. But it would take a long time to reach speeds approaching just 100 words per minute.
Coast Guard Beach and the Cape Cod National Seashore
The location where my dog Kai and I accidentally spotted the cable is at Coast Guard Beach within the Cape Cod National Seashore. It’s named for the nearby coast guard station, long out of service, perched atop the dune near where the cable protrudes. Writings from the Eastham historical society indicate that the existing structure was built long after the 1891 cable landing station relocation and addition of the Eastham-Orleans connecting cable. It’s likely that the cable is placed very close to this newer structure as it makes its way from the now exposed ocean beach to the Nauset Marsh and on down to Orleans.
This beach has been battered since the dawn of time. Locals know that the ocean here takes several feet of sand each year in winter Nor’easters. The most notable here was during the great storm of 1978, when an entire parking lot, access road and several structures were destroyed in a matter of days. At that time, the connector cable would have been safely 50-100 feet back from the dune. But by 2021, when we spotted the cable, it was exposed just a few feet above the high tide line. It is fascinating to me to witness this seemingly simple piece of metal placed here over 130 years ago and used for decades to help the world communicate. To see this right at that point where the ocean meets the land, subjected to the fury of our climate, makes one contemplate how small we are in this world.