Original cable office stands
Western Union workers handled many important messages
We have lost many important buildings in North Sydney over the years.
Among them, the Samuel Plant House built on Purves Street in 1834 and the Western Union cable office building that was constructed on Court Street in 1914.
But there still stands one that was very important in its original role and that’s the one on the corner of Commercial and Union streets. It is the first Western Union cable office that was constructed in town and is currently occupied by Salter Ratchford Insurance Brokers Ltd.
Military secrets that were sent form London, England to Washington and Ottawa were transmitted through this building. Imagine its importance. Later, of course, the messages were sent through the new Western Union cable office on Court Street.
The North Sydney Historical Society presented a heritage award plaque to Salters in 1990 for preserving the original building so well.
The Western Union has played a very valuable role in North Sydney for many years, as Elva Jackson tells us in her book, “Windows On the Past.”
Jackson writes, “The largest single payroll in North Sydney for many years came from the Western Union Telegraph Company, which, at the end of the First World War, had over 325 employees on its staff.”
This original building has a long and varied history. It was constructed in 1875. It had a staff of 25 with W. S. Snyder as its first superintendent (he died in 1879). By 1900 there were between 50 and 60 people on staff. On one day in 1901, 2,300 messages passed through in four hours — a record at that time.
Why was North Sydney selected for this important office? Well, the simplest and shortest answer is its nearness to Europe.
All messages were transmitted from the other end of the transatlantic cable in Valentia, Ireland. North Sydney and Valentia were the two nearest points. That’s why the tall ships always cross on the same route, because it’s the shortest and most well known one.
The transatlantic cable was a major accomplishment: with major disappointments and major victories over the ocean, it was finally brought across the Atlantic, a long story in itself.
As Jackson continues, “In 1866, after several unsuccessful attempts, a cable was laid between Valentia, County Kerry, Ireland, and Cape Race, Newfoundland. From the latter place, messages then went overland to Cape Ray and thence to Cape Breton. This began a new era of international communication. Europe was linked by cable with the North American continent.”
To finish this part of the story properly, we must quote Jackson once more, “In May 1872, for $150,000, the Western Union Telegraph Company purchased the Nova Scotia Telegraph Company from the government. In 1875, they brought the Cape Breton end of the cable from Aspy Bay to Lloyd’s Cove, Sydney Mines, and the main cable office from Port Hastings to North Sydney. Thereafter, messages on the Western Union lines from New York ran to the Western Union cable station at North Sydney, were relayed to Placentia, Newfoundland, and thence to Valentia, Ireland, and on to London.”
We hope then that the original Western Union cable office building here on the corner of Commercial and Union streets will stand for a long time into the future, as it is symbolic of a very important part of North Sydney’s history.
Gordon Sampson founded the North Sydney Historical Society on Jan. 7, 1980 and selected the library as the centennial project out of 10 possible projects in 1985. He was an educator and administrator for 38 years, the last 28 at the Canadian Coast Guard College. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Still standing is this building on the corner of Commercial and Union streets in North Sydney, owned by Salter Ratchford Insurance Brokers Ltd. It is the original Western Union cable building constructed in 1875.