Orig­i­nal cable of­fice stands

Western Union work­ers han­dled many im­por­tant mes­sages

Cape Breton Post - - NORTHSIDE / CAPE BRETON - Gor­don Samp­son

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 gh.samp­son@ns.ca.


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.

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