Reconnect with Heart's Content

  • Downhome Magazine
  • Posted: Jul 21, 2016 12:00 AM
The Heart's Content Cable Station operated from 1876 to 1965. It's now a Provincial Historic Site and museum. (Dennis Flynn photo)

The elderly gentleman walking the dog near the 1901 lighthouse local fisherman nicknamed "The Candy Stick" watches me take a photograph and says with a warm greeting and a gesture to the west, "The evening sun is drawing water. We will get some rain out of this, my son."

Closing in on the black cliffs on the far shore of Trinity Bay is a darkening ceiling of clouds with an underbelly of gold. Roughly parallel bands of light reach up on a diagonal slant from sea to sky in the atmospheric phenomenon known as crepuscular rays (a.k.a. “the backstays of the sun”) that has inspired this bit of weather folklore. To me the sun shining through breaks in the clouds and highlighting particles of dust resembles individual strands of wire reaching up to form a great cable at some point just out of sight. It is a fitting image to capture in Heart's Content, the place where European and North American communications were physically linked for the first time on July 27, 1866.

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The SS Great Eastern successfully delivered the North American end of the transatlantic cable to Heart's Content on July 27, 1866. (Holloway photo)

It took roughly 12 years and several attempts before the first transatlantic communications cable from Valencia, Ireland, was successfully landed on this shore of North America and thereby transformed a remote fishing village into a vital hub of global communications. The Heart's Content Cable Station, built in 1876 by JJ Southcott of St. John’s, NL, will be the centre of attention this month as the 150th anniversary of this historic event is commemorated. 

The Town of Heart's Content has a full week of events planned for July 25-31, beginning with an unveiling of a new mural at the Cable Station. A special welcome is extended to former residents to partake in the town’s Come Home Year, which coincides with the anniversary celebrations.

Whether it’s your first visit to Heart’s Content or a return home to see family and friends, it won’t be complete without a tour of the Cable Station Historic Site. The intricacies and importance of the equipment and the cable itself in revolutionizing global communications cannot be overstated; messages that once took weeks to deliver one way could be sent and replied to in a matter of minutes. A guided tour is the best way to experience this first-hand and to appreciate the tremendous obstacles that had to be overcome and the technological innovations developed to make it all possible.

The Station Tour
The Cable Station is a fascinating place and a time capsule of industrial technology and upper society recreation and lifestyle. I was somewhat surprised at the size of the operation. By the time it closed in 1965 (largely due to the deterioration of the 100-year-old telegraph cable, financial struggles and advances in transatlantic telephone technology), there were only 18 people working there. Contrast this to the peak period in 1919, when more than 300 men and women were employed at the station. It was also a very progressive and prestigious place to work, where women not only earned as much as their male counterparts, they sometimes surpassed them. In the period from 1900 to 1934, a female senior multiplex supervisor (a particularly intricate communications machine) could earn $110-$130 per month. Compare this to the salary of a teacher, around $37 per month, and you begin to understand these were important and desirable jobs.

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A tour of the Cable Station building offers a peek into the past of global communications. (Dennis Flynn photo)

Not only were employees well paid, they were also offered a quality of lifestyle not found in many outports in those days, as evidenced in the Cable Station’s recreational displays. Workers passed the time playing billiards, tennis and curling on nearby Mizzen Pond, and they had a 5,000-volume library at their disposal.

Before leaving the building, you should have a poke around Cable Crafts gift shop, with its array of souvenirs and handmade goods such as knitted trigger mitts and socks, and wooden model dories. 

“My sister and I have owned this gift store here independently for 28 years,” says Valerie Hindy. “It is all local crafts, and it started out as a means for people to make a little money when the downturn came in the fishery.”

Valerie grew up in Heart’s Content and recalls a time when she, like all members of the public, was barred from the premises. “We were not permitted in this building when it was a functioning station. This building was almost like a sanctuary and people held it and those who worked here in high regard. Even after it closed there was really nothing touched here. It was well-preserved and looked after, and there was even a caretaker looked after it constantly,” she recalls. 

Now the public admiration comes not from the mystique of the unknown inside, but rather the charm and history that welcome visitors find there. Valerie says she receives postcards and Christmas cards from patrons who’ve come through by the busload. 

After my tour, and talking to Valerie, it occurs to me that what started as a link of communications 150 years ago remains so today, as the Heart’s Content Cable Site continues to connect people, past and present, while preserving and sharing culture.

The signal is different, but the message is as strong as ever. By Dennis Flynn

Click here to find out more about Come Home Year and 150th anniversary events. In the following clip, a long-time resident of Heart's Content discusses the impact that the arrival of global communications had on the tiny town.