W.T. Collier and his family traveling by schooner down the coast, settling on Marco Island in 1870, finding four black squatters on the Island and paying their way to Ft. Myers. In addition Collier reported finding no white person living between Punta Rassa (the point of land that is now the east side of the Sanibel Island causeway) and Marco. John Weeks near Chokoloskee was said to be the only person living at that time between Marco Island and Key West.
The above description is typically provided to show how isolated Southwest Florida was at the time. However, totally ignored in this picture is that the Colliers schooner, the Robert E. Lee, which brought pioneer W.T. Collier and his family to Marco sailed above, and crossed over, a new high-tech submerged cable manufactured in London. The cable was made from natural materials located all over the world including copper, galvanized iron, tar, hemp, jute and a special insulation harvested in Malaysia. This cable was manufactured and laid at an enormous expense; today translating into the millions of dollars! Collier’s family sailed above a cable that was transmitting data beneath them at the rate of six words a minute. The data contained information delivered from Spain to Great Britain, and then directly by cable from Great Britain to New York, and south by wire and cable through Florida to Cuba (then a Spanish colony). It also transmitted messages sent north from Key West to most parts of the United States east of the Mississippi. Southwest Florida was perhaps not quite as remote as it was described!
In 1866, just one year after the end of the Civil War, The Inter-Ocean Telegraph Company of Newark, NJ was granted the right by a Special Act of Congress to lay wire through the peninsula of Florida. The installation was so important that the State of Florida granted easement rights at no charge as long as the company existed. The first work was done in covered wagons, placing telegraph poles and pulling line from the existing Western Union network north of Lake City, south to Gainesville through Ocala, Bartow, Fort Meade, and Pine Island to Punta Rassa at the tip of the Caloosahatchee River, where a telegraph station was constructed. The United States Coastal Surveyors had determined it was too difficult to string line south of Fort Myers through the barrier islands and Ten Thousand Islands, so the solution was a submerged cable to end in Key West. A vessel doing soundings determined the best location for the cable. On the vessel’s stern was a drum of coiled fine piano wire and a heavy weight added – it dropped at an average of 100 fathoms a minute. In the ocean the weight would take 38 minutes to drop 2 1/3 statute miles; however, along the SW Florida coast the shallowness of the bottom would later prove to be the installation problem.
Meanwhile, The London Times reported, in its June 27th, 1867 newspaper, that the special cable laying ship Narva (a 1,200 ton schooner steamer built in London in 1866) was going to start to lay cable from Cape Romano to Key West, Florida. As a guide to their readers, they referenced Cape Romano, as it was shown on English maps of the time while Punta Rassa was not. The submerged cable was manufactured by The India Rubber, Gutta-Percha and Telegraph Works Company of England in their huge industrial plant,described as being 10 acres under roof, on the Thames River; they were also chosen as the contractor for the installation. The distance between Punta Rassa and Key West (along the coast of the future Lee and Collier Counties as well as Monroe County) is 133 miles as a crow flies, and 191 miles of cable was submerged to make that distance. The cable weighed between two tons and 3/4 of a ton per mile! The Narva left London loaded with 242 miles of coiled cable in her specially-made holding tanks.
A year before in July of 1866, after three partially successful attempts, cable was submerged across the Atlantic connecting England with New York. That cable, like the cable constructed for use off of the coast of Southwes Florida, was made of seven copper wires insulated with gutta percha – a natural material from the plant of the same name grown in Malaysia – which would be heated, pressed to remove air bubbles, extruded and wrapped three times, along with a sticky compound made from Stockholm tar, around the conducting copper to waterproof it. This core was then wrapped with jute, galvanized zinc-coated iron wire strung parallel on all sides to provide strength, and a final wrapping of hemp to seal the outside of the cable.
On August 3rd, 1867 the ship Narva started in Key West to lay the one-and-half mile shore portion of the cable, which was two inches in diameter (as the shore cable was subject to much greater stress and abuse being closer to the surface and to wave action); next laid was 20 ½ miles of medium cable heading toward Cuba. After placing a buoy at the end, they proceeded to Cuba to lay the shore portion of that line. As they approached, they saw the fearsome look of:
“A thick dense yellow fog hanging over all the city, not smoke or anything like it, but regular unmistakable malaria. The sun shone through this fog on to the white houses, and lighted them up with a dull lurid glare, making the place exactly correspond to one’s ideas of Pandemonium steeped in burning brimstone. To add to the effect, the pilot we had on board was strikingly like Gustave Doré’s pictures of Satan.” Philip Crookes, aboard the Narva off the coast of Cuba August 5th, 1867.
On August 5th, the cable was connected to the shore of Cuba, and on the 6th and 7th the Narva ran the line across the Florida Straits toward Key West; but, after a fog lifted, they found that the Gulfstream had pushed them 20 miles to the east and they were now running out of cable. They spliced on more cable and then lost the end of it trying to recover the buoy and line previously laid from Key West. For seven days, bad weather precluded any real work and then it took another three days to locate and join the line to Cuba. After searching the bottom and breaking numerous grapnel hooks against the coral bottom off the south coast of Key West, this was completed on August 17th. A New York Times story reported that on the 21st the Mayor of Key West had exchanged telegram congratulations, over the cable, with the Captain-General of Cuba.
On August 24th, the Narva arrived off the coast of Fort Myers to lay the shore cable to Punta Rassa, but it was too shallow for the Narva (which stayed about six miles off shore). Eight miles of coiledcable was placed into a cattle steamer “Emily” of New Orleans to get the shore cable laid. In a letter sent by Narva telegraph operator Philip Crookes to his mother, he wrote: “There was bad news (on the 27th); on board ship one man had died of yellow fever early that morning… (another, the carpenter) dying after a few hours, and (another, the cook’s lad) two days later.”
To further complicate matters, as cable was laid it was continually monitored by signals sent from the shore station to the end of the cable located in a telegraph station on the ship to determine if there were any breaks in the line. On August 28th, 1867, off the coast of the future Collier County, a fault was found. About a mile of cable had to be pulled back in. It was discovered that, where the cable had become very hot in the sun, while lying on the deck, the internal copper wire had come through the gutta percha requiring it to be cut and spliced. They continued laying cable south at the rate of 5 mph, passed through Florida Bay and arrived, on August 30th, seven miles north of Key West. For the next week, there were more problems: the Narva ran aground; they had to use smaller vessels to run the shore cable; and they ran completely out of cable and had to wait for more cable from Cuba. Finally, on Saturday, September 8th, the cable was completed and connections verified as good from Punta Rassa to Key West and from there to Cuba. After 8 p.m. that same evening, it was reported that the cable had already earned $550 in revenue! On September 11th, U.S. Secretary of State William Seward exchanged greetings over the full length of the cable with the Cuban Captain-General Joaquin del Manzano.
The contracting company guaranteed the cable for fifteen days, so the Narva stayed in the area and used the time to clean the tanks where the cable had been stored and refilled their coal supply. The crew of the Narva did not want to go to Cuba for coal but had no other choice. In July, Cuba had reported 1,219 cases of yellow fever and 226 deaths, as well as 134 deaths from smallpox. By the completion of the cable installation, almost one half of the twenty telegraph hands on board the Narva had died of yellow fever. However, since the deck hands that worked and slept in other parts of the ship were not affected, it was believed that the problem lay in the large tanks where the cable had formerly been stored. Unknown at the time was that the disease was carried by mosquitoes with the prime breeding ground being the water in these tanks. Philip Crookes mentioned in another letter to his brother how bad the situation was for the Narva crew: “We have now no difficulty in preventing them from going ashore and getting drunk; as they would soon think of committing suicide.”
Philip Crookes, who had turned 21 the day after he fixed the cable break off of Collier County’s coast, died of yellow fever the following month on September 22nd, 1867. Death from yellow fever is not an easy death as it is usually preceded by internal hemorrhage, delirium and coma.
For the incredible economic impact of this cable, located off the coast of Southwest Florida, and the shocking news that flashed through it, please read Part 2 in our next issue.