Lay­ing the un­known cable


In 1898, the Hant’s Har­bour na­tive, Richard H. Pelley (1874-1944), left his home­town for Hal­i­fax, where he looked around for a ship.

The cable ship, Min­nia, was ly­ing at the wharf. “Does she want a man?” he asked. “She needs a lead­ing seaman,” he was told, “ but he must have a knowl­edge of the lead line.” A lead line (or sound­ing line) is an in­stru­ment used for mea­sur­ing wa­ter depth.

Ex­pe­ri­enced in tak­ing sound­ings, Pel ley o f fered him­self to the boatswain.

“Be at the ship­ping of­fice to­mor­row at 11 o’clock and I’ll sign you on the ar­ti­cles.”

The Min­nia was owned by the An­glo-Amer­i­can Tele­graph Com­pany, but also worked for Western Union and the Di­rect United States Cable Com­pany. She was used for re­pair­ing and lay­ing new ca­bles in the At­lantic.

She sailed un­der Bri­tish registry and worked un­der Navy riles. A 100man crew, of al­most all na­tion­al­i­ties, were decked out in uni­form.

A few days later, or­ders were given to get up steam. The Min­nia was about to pro­ceed to sea.

But no­body knew their des­ti­na­tion. Their or­ders were sealed, not to be opened un­til at sea. The ves­sel was on a top-se­cret mis­sion.

Pelley was given his first op­por­tu­nity to prove his ap­ti­tude with the lead line. He passed with f ly­ing colours.

Once at sea, the ship’s or­ders were bro­ken open. They were phrased as a ques­tion, “ Would the ship’s com­pany be will­ing to go south and lay a cable from Key West to Cuba?”

Most of the crew will­ingly ac­cepted the as­sign­ment.

The United States had de­clared war on Spain on April 25, 1898. By the time the war was over — three months later — Cuba had gained in­de­pen­dence from Spain. Amer­ica wanted to get into com­mu­ni­ca­tion with Cuba.

The Min­nia steamed south for a few days.

One night, the car­pen­ter’s mate be­gan act­ing strangely around decks.

“ I saw my wife in the cabin,” he said.

The next day, he at­tempted to jump over­board.

“ We’re go­ing down to fight the Spa­niards,” he raved. “ We’re now go­ing through the Red Sea. See, it’s the colour of blood.”

The sick man was locked up, and guarded by a crew mem­ber.

Ar­riv­ing at Key West, the Min­nia landed one end of the cable at Dry Tor­tu­gas, a small group of is­lands at the end of the Florida Keys.

One night, she steamed at a high speed for Cuba. The av­er­age speed for cable lay­ing was six knots per hour. The speed was now in­creased to nine knots.

The Min­nia was tak­ing a big chance land­ing cable in the vicin­ity of Ha­vana. Some of the best ships of the Span­ish fleet were at or close to the city. Those on the cable ship didn’t know when a Span­ish war­ship might show up.

The Min­nia had no guns; her two can­nons were used for salut­ing pur­poses only.

Ma­neu­ver­ing the ves­sel as near to land as pos­si­ble in the shal­low wa­ter, the men coiled the ca­bles in cut­ters and brought them close to the shore.

As in any war, ev­ery­thing had to be done in a rush. All hands jumped over­board and, wad­ing ashore, se­cured the end of the cable.

With no time to lose, the cut­ters were rushed back to the ship and put back in place.

Within min­utes, the stern of the Min­nia was turned to­ward Cuba. She had suc­cess­fully com­pleted her sealed or­ders. The job was there­after known as the “un­known cable.”

At Key West, they found ev­ery­thing in good work­ing con­di­tion. At Nor­folk, Vir­ginia, Pelley re­ceived what he later re­ferred to as “ the sad­dest and most un­ex­pected news of his life­time.”

The Green­land Dis­as­ter of 1898 had just oc­curred. Pelley’s brother, Ge­orge, was one of the 48 seal­ers who died as a re­sult of the mar­itime tragedy.

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