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.