The successful installation of the Trans-Atlantic cable in 1866 started the first revolution in telecommunications worldwide; submerged cables sunk through the seas and telegraph lines installed over land allowed residents of civilized countries to be only a “few clicks away” and, for the first time in human history, information was transmitted almost instantaneously.
After the installation in 1867 of submerged cables from Ft. Myers to Key West and Key West to Cuba, there was regular direct communication between Cuba, the U.S. and Europe. A ten word message sent in 1870 from Havana to Key West, then sent via another submerged cable along the S.W. Florida coast to the telegraph station at Punta Rassa near Ft. Myers, and finally over land to Lake City, Florida, cost the sender $4.00 in gold. A forty cent per word charge sounds expensive, but even 140 years ago, time was money. Prior to the opening of the submerged telegraph cable link through Florida, communications from Cuba and the Caribbean islands to their Spanish and English home countries had taken three weeks one way, while afterward only 2 or 3 days were needed for a message to be transmitted. Three years after the first cable was installed, in 1871, a second cable was added from Punta Rassa to Key West; by 1873 the Punta Rassa to Havana line handled 51,899 messages. The Inter-Ocean Telegraph Company added yet another cable from Punta Rassa to Key West in 1875 and in 1878 the company was doing so well they reported net earnings of $254,204.
It is not surprising that Punta Rassa, located near Ft. Myers, was selected to be the cable telegraph station as the area was already well established before the U.S. Civil War. In fact, the station was set up in old Army barracks still bearing bullet holes from the Seminole Indian wars. Punta Rassa was a shippingand departure point for thousands of head of cattle shipped to Cuba and to northern markets from ranches throughout Southwest Florida. In 1870 Jacob Summerlin received an “unlimited order” for cattle from the Spanish Government in Cuba and, more remarkably, between 1870-1880 a total of 165,000 head of cattle were shipped out of Punta Rassa with $2,441,856 collected in that decade by “Cattle Kings” with names like Summerlin, Hendry (the county north of Immokalee is named after him), Whidden, Henderson and others.
The establishment of the cable station at Key West was also strategic, as not only was Key West said to be the wealthiest town per capita in the U.S. (resulting from income from wrecking operations), but was also the largest city in Florida with 5,675 residents in 1870. In addition, because of its location, it was an integral part of the U.S. defense system and an important trading center in an age when all transportation was by water. Between 1870 and 1880 the population of Key West almost doubled and by 1890 it more than tripled to 18,080 residents, all on a very small three to four square mile island (note that due to landfill projects started in the1940s, Key West has since doubled in area).
For early pioneers of Southwest Florida like Ludlow, Barfield, Horr, Watson, Collier and others who started an agricultural based economy (the growing and shipping of pineapples, winter vegetable crops, sugar cane and fruits) and those like Burnham, Doxsee, Storter and many others who started a commercial seafood economy (clams, mullet, etc.) the cable link at Ft. Myers and Key West was essential. It was just as important to the regional wholesalers in both cities, providing quick communication with northern markets, critical for the sale of perishable products.
The news that shocked the world flashed through the submerged cable, located just off our coast, during the evening hours of February 15, 1898. Unrest in Cuba for independence from Spain and the agitation of numerous cigar workers in Key West for thiscause made it clear that something was going to happen. Key West was full of reporters from all major newspapers who, upon hearing that the U.S. Battleship Maine had blown up in Havana harbor at 9:40 pm that night, immediately wrote news stories which were sent north via cable to Punta Rassa and on to New York and to all major media markets. The sinking of the Maine was no small story, she had been built ten years before in 1888 at a cost of $2.5 million, was a modern battleship 318 feet long with a 57 foot beam, displaced 6,682 tons and was fully staffed with a crew of 370 men and 29 officers. Of that number, 258 perished the night she sank.
The rallying cry: “To hell with Spain… Remember the Maine!” started the Spanish – American War, bringing Southwest Florida to the nation’s attention. President McKinley received an appropriation of $50 million to fight the war and, when he asked for 125,000 volunteers to fight, over one million men tried to enlist. Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders were part of the military shipped out of Tampa harbor destined for Cuba.
On April 12, 1898, two months after the sinking of the Maine, to protect the heavy ship traffic, which was expected between Tampa and Key West, from the dangerous and heavy shoaling south of Cape Romano into Gullivan Bay, President William McKinley issued an executive order permanently reserving the southern point of Cape Romano for a lighthouse. Twenty years earlier, in 1878, the official government surveyors noted that the U.S. Secretary of Treasury had also ordered that Cape Romano should be used for those purposes. While that lighthouse was never built, the military immediately deployed U.S. Revenue Cutters to protect the lighthouse at Sanibel as well as Florida’s west coast.
The Key West cable manager, Martin Hellings, acted as an intelligence agent for the U.S. obtaining and relaying direct information from a spy (later revealed to be Havana telegrapher, Domingo Villaverde) who worked insidethe Cuban Governor General’s Palace. Needless to say, after the Declaration of War, communications flowed quickly via cable and telegraph north to the White House War Room. The results of the distance back to Spain, intercepted communications, the number of Cuban allies on the island supporting the revolution, and a strong U.S. force resulted in a war which had started with the U.S. Marines landing in Guantánamo Bay on June 10, 1898 and ending 64 days later. Very quickly the U.S. Army wanted out of Cuba as yellow fever was spreading. General Shafter described his force as an “army of convalescents” – saying that 75% of the U.S. troops in Cuba were unfit for service by August. The Red Cross and its founder, Clara Barton, attended to the wounded and sick soldiers. At the conclusion of the War, not only did Cuba have its independence, but Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines became U.S. Territories, with Guantánamo Bay in Cuba remaining a U.S. military base. The U.S. also annexed Hawaii to keep a strategic position in the Pacific.
For 29 years the cable link between Punta Rassa and Key West was the sole conduit for communication to Cuba and the Caribbean; however, in 1896 European countries installed their own direct cables across the Atlantic Ocean and reached the Caribbean, Central and South America. A Key West to Miami cable was installed in 1899, ending the communication monopoly that Ft. Myers had enjoyed. Shortly after World War II, the submerged cables to Punta Rassa were abandoned, and throughout the world underwater telephone lines quickly replaced telegraph cables. Huge companies like Telcom and Seimens Brothers, who had started in business with submerged cables, got a huge jump over their competition in the new world of modern communications. In 1957 The Inter-Ocean Telegraph Company was acquired by Western Union.
It is unlikely that students in our local schools learn that the news of the sinking of the Maine first received national attention as it flashed along a submerged cable just off of our coast.