The ‘Information Century’ looks back at a century of information - Wednesday morning, September 3
We’ve passed so many places claiming to be the ‘First’ of something that we get jaded sometimes. We start not to take them seriously. Then one comes along that just blows us away - and so it was today.
We are on the Avalon Peninsula, nearing St. Johns. Before we go to St. Johns there is one more peninsula we want to check out - the one that separates Trinity Bay from Conception Bay. This peninsula has no name that we know of, but it’s western shore is home to the towns of Dildo, Heart’s Delight, and Heart’s Desire - a trio that’s guaranteed to get anyone’s attention.
Had I known back in March where this journey would take us, I might have named the trip journal 2008Intercourse2Dildo. That would have upped the readership significantly - but it’s too late to change it now. Besides, you don’t find anything interesting to write about until you get to the town of Heart’s Content - and then things get interesting fast!
The tiny town of Heart’s Content has a history so unique that it is easily one of the most fascinating places we’ve visited. It was here that the first successful Transatlantic Cable was landed and put into operation. It’s sister station on the other side of the Atlantic has long since been dismantled and destroyed, an act that Ireland now regrets. But in Newfoundland the First Transcontinental Telegraph Station in North America has been lovingly preserved. Little restoration was necessary because the original equipment was never dismantled or removed. It sits today where it has for 140 years, and if a collection of archaic electrical and mechanical equipment can be said to be ’beautiful’ this one certainly is.
We started our visit by reading a sign on the grassy bayside park across the street from the Cable Station. The sign describes the landing of the first cable, and tells how it changed the town as it went about the business of changing history. Heart’s Content was a poor fishing village and the transition to a ‘company town’ was not welcomed by many. There was tension and drama to be sure, but from the landing of the cable in 1866 to the closing of the station in 1965, there is no doubt that this station and the people who worked here changed history.
I walked to the edge of the grass and looked down at the rocky shore, wondering where the cable might have come ashore. To my astonishment, there lay the remains of the actual cables! They are still there - just as they’ve lain for over a century. Five rusty cables emerge from a wooden conduit under the road, and lie in a tangled array that descends toward the water. One just like them emerges from the water and comes a ways up the shore. Today all are broken and in a state of decay. The tar coating is mostly gone, and the iron protective cables are rusted and bent and broken, but you can still find the inner core and see the copper wire that transmitted the messages. You can touch it, and hold it in your hand.
You can imagine seeing the Great Eastern with it’s five stacks and six masts sitting out in the harbor. You can feel the excitement of the telegraphers decoding those first messages from Europe. You think about the momentous events that transpired in a hundred years - births and deaths, marriages and coronations, revolutions, civil wars and world conflicts - all told of in the electrical impulses that traveled these wires. We’ve become so accustomed to instant communication that it’s hard to imagine a time when messages took weeks to cross the Atlantic by ship. But you have to imagine that to appreciate the impact the cable made.
Inside the immaculately preserved station we watched an excellent video, and then were treated to a guided tour by a man who’s father worked at the station. He gave us a wealth of information, and then let us wander the rooms by ourselves. It was a moving experience and one we will not forget. Outside we took another look at the cables before leaving, and I just had to go down and touch them again.
On our way out of town we stopped at a Royal Canadian Bank to pick up some commemorative ‘loonies’ Canada had struck for the Beijing Olympics. Then we continued on up the peninsula to Winterton and another amazing stop.
Winterton is home to a fine little museum honoring both the community, and it’s historic place in the local boatbuilding industry. Here lived men who were experts in building the punts and skiffs used by the local fishermen. Their skills were so renowned that they built boats for communities all around them, and today there are examples of their craftsmanship in the museum, both in boats that have been donated for display, and one that is partially built so you can see the construction. The boats are solid fir and are heavy beyond belief, but they are sturdy and seaworthy, and a remarkable testament to the men of the fishery.
And speaking of testaments - our guide for the tour was an expatriate American preacher from Oklahoma! Cory is his name, and he is a fine and personable young man married to a woman from Newfoundland he met on the internet. He gave us a great tour, and told us a very warm and intriguing story of how he met his wife and came to Newfoundland via Saskatchewan.
From Winterton we continued north to the end of the peninsula, where this journal will continue on the next page to make the maps work out right.