New Brunswick Electric Telegraph Company

Sabotaged Telegraph Lines

Authoritative Contemporary Account

The Managing Director of the NBETC
describes the company's operations in 1849

"Shameful Abuse"     "Puerile Falsehoods"
"Slanderous Attacks"     "Ignorant Press"

From The New Brunswick Courier, Saint John, December 8th, 1849.
Note: Spellings, such as "connexion", "expence", and "enterprize", are shown here as they appeared in the original.  Also, italicizing is shown here as it appeared in the original.

For the Courier, Saint John,
and the Novascotian, Halifax

Electric Telegraph

To The Public

        Since the completion of the line of Electric Telegraph to Halifax, it has had to withstand so many rude unprincipled assaults, and its managers as much shameful abuse, by the puerile falsehoods so freely published by a portion of the press, both of St. John and Halifax, who in their ignorance, adopt the assertions of parties who they state to be "undoubted authorities," and who rack their imaginations to supply terms of execration to apply to the managers of the New Brunswick Company, but always with a proviso "if such is the case, &c., &c.," — that the public, not understanding the truth of the matter, may be led to do injustice to the reputation of all parties who are stockholders or officers of the several Telegraph Companies.

        I am very averse to appearing before the public in a newspaper controversy, feeling myself too humble an individual in the private walks of life, and therefore took no notice of the almost daily newspaper attacks, as they were so evidently slanderous, and bore upon their face so strong a desire to embroil the public with the New Brunswick Company, that their very virulence made them beneath notice.

        But the introduction of my name in connexion with another publication of editorial news making for the public digestion, in the Acadian Recorder of Halifax, Dec. 1, 1849, seems to call for a statement of facts in regard to the arrangements with the Associated Press, and I think it a duty I owe to myself and to the New Brunswick Company, not only to state the whole facts, but to give the reasons for adopting the resolutions which a few of the ignorant press have so much stigmatized.

        My contract with the Associated Press is such, that it can be set aside by either party at their pleasure, and no permanent contract for any length of time exists.  But, while the telegraph lines continue to forward their foreign despatch on the arrival of each steamer, the Associated Press are bound to pay a stipulated price for its transmission, and are also bound to allow each and every newspaper in New York and Boston that will pay their proportion of the expence of the despatch, to have a copy of the whole report.  At the same time they are also bound to admit the agents of the whole Southern and Western papers to a participation with them in the despatch, they paying their due share of the expence.

        The telegraph lines also retain the privilege to take copies of this public despatch at every way station on the several lines, and dispose of it to printers, or clubs, at their own price, for their own benefit — thus giving the whole public, from Halifax to New Orleans, the option of taking the despatch if they desire it.

        Now, I would like to ask these editors what kind of monopoly this is that they complain of, when the whole people of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, United States, and Canada participate, or can participate if they will, in its benefits.  Will these learned gentlemen please define the word "monopoly" before they go farther.

        The Associated Press are also bound to keep the despatch a secret, and not, directly or indirectly, to make use of or give to other individuals or companies the option of making use of the despatch, in speculation in any manner whatsoever, until it has been printed and distributed to the public.  In consideration whereof, the New Brunswick Company has and does willingly grant the exclusive privilege to the whole public, that they shall be served before private individuals, which is only following the Democratic rule that the majority should first be served.

        At the time of making the first arrangement with the Press, I had a number of offers from private individuals for the exclusive use of the line for six, twelve, and twenty-four hours, which offers, from a remunerative point of view would have been much better; and had I accepted these offers, I should not only have expected but deserved the execration of the whole North American Press and Public.  On my return from New York, I laid the whole subject before the President and Directors of the Company, who fully agreed with the arrangements, and for the following reasons: — The importance of the discovery of the Electric Telegraph, and its immediate and powerful control over the mercantile and commercial interests, has placed the Directors in a position to benefit or injure the Public materially, and unless they set down strict rules for the protection of the public as far as possible in all such important cases as the arrival of the Steamers' news, which news the telegraph forestalls in all markets in the United States, Canada, and New Brunswick, they do not do their duty.

        Some parties must have the foreign news, and will have it before others, for were there no telegraph, other expresses have been and would be used for that purpose.  Now the question arises, who are most entitled to its early receipt? The whole Public through the several presses that choose to serve the Public, or a few private individuals who desire to use the news report for their own personal profit, without admitting the whole into a participation of its benefits.  I do not think there can be a single dissenting voice in the whole community to having a preference given to the mass.  Again, self preservation forces us into thus granting and sustaining a preference, and the recital of a few instances will, I hope, be sufficiently satisfactory on that point.  The principle of "first come first served" has ever been the standing motto of all the telegraphs in the United States, and is still of this Company, but if there is no rule without its exception, the exception shows very practically here, in the position in which we are placed.

        At five o'clock, fifteen minutes, on the 30th day of August, 1849, while the terminus of the line was in Saint John, the following message was presented to the operator, and by him forwarded without second thought to New York, as addressed — "Consignees of Neptune write Boards advanced one fourth penny, Shingles 2 to 3 shillings per quarter, lower qualities Fish 6 pence lower."

        By substituting Cotton for Boards, Indian Corn for Shingles (not usually quoted by quarter), and Flour for Fish, they give the exact quotations of the Foreign despatch for the Associated Press.  The day was most intensely foggy, so much so that all had despaired of the Express Steamer [across the Bay of Fundy] making her appearance, but about five minutes before six o'clock, about one hour after the message had been sent, she came suddenly to the Saint John wharf, to the surprise of all parties.  The Saint John telegraph operator had left the office for tea before her arrival, but was immediately notified, and I believe, left his tea untasted to attend to his duty.  He had been communicating with Calais up to the moment he left for tea with a good circuit, but found no current on his return, and supposing that the operator at Calais had left his key open while he was at tea, he waited for his return.  After waiting the usual time for tea, one hour, he still found no current, and sent out a man to the Falls, who soon returned and reported that what with the fog and the darkness he could not see the wire.  He was therefore obliged to wait until morning, when the wire was found severed within a few rods of the Falls, apparently by some dull hatchet or old pair of iron shears, as the cuts were very irregular, and the wire appeared to have suffered some wrenching.

        How this news was received in Saint John and placed in the office nearly one hour before the arrival of the Associated Press's horse and steamboat Express, is still a mystery to the Company, and I suppose, to the public; but the fact that the wire was absolutely broken by some person with a dull iron instrument is undoubted, as is also the fact that this message was operated upon to a large extent in New York before the Associate Press despatch was sent forward.

        Again, since the line has been brought through to Halifax, an arrangement was made to supply the News Room of Saint John with 300 words, after the Associated Press despatch had passed, as the whole press of Saint John did not feel able to pay for the whole number of words taken by the Associated Press, (3000) and the reason they give for not taking a copy is, that the public of Saint John are not liberal enough to purchase their newspapers in sufficient quantity to pay.  On the 24th of November, 1849, at 11 o'clock at night, the operator at Saint John found that the current to Calais had ceased, while that to Halifax remained good; at daylight the next morning a man was started express to repair, as the arrival of the steamer was hourly expected.  She arrived at Halifax at 7½ o'clock, and the operator was then beset to have the despatch for Saint John Club Room forwarded from Halifax, inasmuch as no despatch could be sent to the States;— this being contrary to the strict orders he had received, he could only refuse, and sent for instructions in the case to the proper officer.  The answer returned was, the rule cannot be broken — no despatch of whatever name or nature must be received or sent.  At a little before 11 o'clock a.m. the line to Calais was repaired, and within a few minutes the line to the Bend (now known as Moncton) was broken, and the man was immediately sent express to the East, and found the first break about thirty-two miles [about 50 km] from Saint John; at half-past two o'clock p.m.  He then returned and found another break a few miles on this side of that point, on the very ground over which he had just travelled.  In the mean time, a person coming through from the Bend, arrived here at seven o'clock in the evening, and reported two breaks, one five miles [8 km] from Saint John, the other thirteen miles [21 km]. Another man was immediately started with lanterns, who found and repaired those breaks within two hours, and then returned; but still no current to the Bend, therefore the wire must still be broken.  At daylight he started again, and found and repaired two more breaks within a few miles of each other, and rode on until he met the first repairer returning, who had mended one more break on his way down.  These men report that in nearly all the breaks the wire appeared to be badly twisted and wrenched, and in one instance over 100 feet [over 30 metres] was taken from between two poles, coiled up and thrown into the bushes a little way off.  In one case a tree had been cut down by the axe and fallen directly across the wire.  The whole appearance of these breaks, and their regular continuance, were so evidently done for a specific object, and were so systematically done, that further proof would be useless.

        Now the question arises — what could be the object? This I cannot answer; but let the object be what it might, it was defeated by the rules so strictly adhered to; and providing it was to monopolize the news to the States, it was doubly defeated, and will prevent any repetition of the thing as long as the same rules are carried out.  Now, suppose an attempt of this kind had not been foreseen, and, as the news could not be forwarded to the whole North American press, and the market report had been forwarded to Saint John from Halifax, the commercial news having arrived as far as this point before the wires were broken East — and we had 3½ hours to do so — then the parties, if any there were, would have expected the use of the telegraph to the States, and their correspondent would have had two days to sweep the market before any news could have arrived, and they would have monopolized the news with a vengeance, as, within five minutes, the wires could have been cut again near the Falls, unseen, and before that could be repaired the same game would have been played on the Western line between Saint John and Calais as was played East, and the public, instead of yielding the telegraph for six hours for the benefit of the whole body politic, will be found to be without its convenience until the steamer arrives in Boston or New York.

        These things have happened on other telegraph lines, and the public must draw its own conclusions from the facts above.  I do not say that this was the object of the breaking of the wires so continuously; but I do not know of any other object, and I do know that these things have been done.  The managers of the New Brunswick Company have been severely animadverted upon for not being more prompt in making the repairs, and that, too, by gentlemen who are entirely excusable for so doing, as in their ignorance they know no better.

        In all these things I leave the public to judge; and men two hundred miles away from the scene of the action can hardly be expected to be well informed, especially when falsehoods are beating at their door to stir up the fiends, doubt and jealousy.  But I am digressing, and this is not my purpose.  After the question of precedence had been fully settled on this line, no difficulty arose until the line had been finished to Halifax; and now a new issue is made.

        The Associated Press claim their accustomed performance, for the benefit of the whole public, while an agent of some three or four evening newspapers in Boston claims to be served first, on the same terms, providing he gets into the office with his despatch first.  The agent, Mr. John T. Smith, of Boston, a gentleman of good standing and high regard, should and does have due consideration.  He informs me that these Boston evening papers do not now belong to the Association, and take no copy, but I do not know whether they withdrew, hoping to monopolize the news themselves, or were refused a copy of the despatch on other accounts.  This matter being still in a semi unsettled state at Halifax, it remains yet to be permanently decided whether three or four evening papers (who have, or can have, a copy of the public despatch at the same time it passes to the others) shall be allowed to monopolize the news for their own purposes, or whether the whole of the press shall be served at the same time.

        Let every honest man judge, and the Telegraph Lines are ready to abide the decision.  One or two of the papers, and one or more of the gentlemen of Saint John, have been somewhat loud in their denunciations, because the Foreign news is published in the United States before they get it here.  Would it not be well for these persons to get up a fund sufficient to pay the costs of paper, pen and ink, and at least pay for the telegraph operator's time to get to get a copy of the despatch?

        The citizens of the United States support the press liberally, and therefore the press can be as liberal in giving the citizens the earliest news at the greatest expense.

        Let the citizens of Saint John be equally liberal, and the press can afford to pay a small stipend to assist in supporting the Telegraph; but let neither citizens nor press do injustice to the Telegraph or its management, when they are not ready to pay their mite.

        Again — the subject is broadly broached, whether the telegraph lines are not abusing the public, by allowing the Associated or any other press the use of the telegraph six successive hours.  Will the papers and the public please remember that at the very first inception of an intention to build a telegraph from the United States to Halifax, it was fully stated, in publications through the most of this same public press, that in addition to the private messages, it was anticipated that the public press would send those same despatches; and every reader of newspapers must be aware that the receipt of this expected sum from the press, was held out as an inducement to all parties to enlist their capital in the enterprize.  The public, therefore, were fully aware of the use it was intended to make of the telegraph; and I can now state positively, that without this source of revenue, it would be difficult to maintain the telegraph and keep it in condition for public use the remainder of the time.

        Again — it is stated in the Acadian Recorder that in justice to the Commissioners, they must say that they were entirely unprepared for the exclusive demand of six hours by the Associated Press.  May I ask the Recorder, on whose undoubted authority this assertion is made? The matter had been frequently talked over between myself and the Commissioners, and the public press of Saint John had freely discussed the matter nearly a year since, severely animadverting upon the telegraph for granting this exclusiveness.

        I will now leave the matter in the hands of the public, premising that if any future question arises, in which the public or the press desire to interest themselves, they will first ask for information from the proper quarters; and it will, I doubt not, be freely given by every officer or manager of the telegraph lines, so far as his knowledge extends.

L.R. Darrow

Saint John, December, 1849


L.R. Darrow was Managing Director of the New Brunswick Electric Telegraph Company.

"The operator had left his key open" means the telegraph system was unable to transmit messages in either direction.  These electric telegraphs were series circuits.  All stations were connected in series, and the standby condition was that, at all stations the circuit was closed and electric current circulated continuously through all stations from one end of the line to the other.  When any station opened the circuit it became the sending station.  Only one station could send at any one time; all other stations in both directions heard the message, but only the station to which the message was addressed would copy it (write it on paper).  When the sending station completed its transmissions, the circuit had to be closed at that point, to restore the circuit and enable other stations to transmit as required.  Each telegraph key had a special switch, called the "keeper"; the "keeper" was opened to take the circuit and begin transmission, and the "keeper" had to be closed at the end of transmission, to release the line, before any other station could transmit.  If an operator forgot to close his keeper, the whole line was disabled.

"Sent out a man to the Falls" means to the Reversing Falls, in western Saint John, where there was a long span of telegraph wire across the Saint John River.

"Within a few rods": In the old days, a "rod" was a unit of measure of distance.  Continuing through the 1960s, every schoolchild in the Maritime Provinces was expected to memorize numerous definitions of assorted Imperial measures; one of the required items was the definition of a rod, which was given either as 5½ yards, or as 16½ feet (the two are equivalent).  In modern terms, one rod is slightly more than five metres.  "Within a few rods" may be interpreted in this context as "within a few metres."

"300 words" or "3000 words" — The universal measure of the length of a telegram (telegraph message) was (and still is) the "word", and a "word" was carefully defined in the rules as five letters.  For telegraph purposes, the word "commercial" was counted as two words, because it contained ten letters.  The phrase "to the store" was counted as two words, because it contained ten letters.

"animadverting upon" — criticizing, adversely commenting upon

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Go to:   A Fierce War – The Electric Telegraph Lines Between New York and Halifax
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