This week's article takes us across San Carlos Bay to the long gone telegraph station that was at Punta Rassa near where the Sanibel Causeway is today.
The brass plaque on that telegraph station read:
"THIS TABLET MARKS THE SPOT WHERE AMERICA FIRST LEARNED OF THE SINKING OF THE UNITED STATES BATTLESHIP MAINE IN HAVANA HARBOR FEBRUARY 15, 1898. TABLET PLACED BY THE CALOOSAHATCHEE DAUGHTERS OF AMERICAN REVOLUTION 1929".
Some Background: In the late 1800s Cuba was going through unrest as Cubans struggled for independence from Spain. After riots began President McKinley ordered the battleship USS Maine to Havana to protect American interest. The battleship arrived on January 25, 1898. All was peaceful until February 15th, when at 9:40pm a terrible explosion on board the Maine sunk the ship and left two hundred and sixty-six men dead. The ship's Captain, Charles Sigsbee, and most of the officers survived because their quarters on the ship were well away from the explosion.
The destruction of the USS Maine was immediately blamed on the Spanish in Cuba. Several leading newspapers in the United States used the event to publish stories that created a national outrage across the country. Two months after the sinking of the Maine the Spanish American War began.
A Couple of Details: In 1898 there were three undersea cables from Punta Rassa to Key West. The International Ocean Telegraph Company was responsible for both offices. There were two undersea cables from Key West to Havana. The telegraph office in Havana was under the control of the Spanish government and all telegrams in or out of this station were normally through a government censor. Any information that arrived in Key West from Havana regarding the USS Maine was immediately turned over to the military.
New Evidence: From the out of print but digitally available book "The Relations of the United States and Spain: the Spanish-American War" by French Ensor Chadwick, comes the following account (page 9) as described by Captain Gleaves, who was in charge of telegraphic communications between Key West and Havana. An internet link to the book can be found here: catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/006582567.
"On the night of the 15th of February, about 10 p. m., the quartermaster informed me that there was a gentleman on deck who wished to see me on a very important matter. I went on deck immediately, and found our secret agent. He told me that he had just received a telegram from his representative in Havana stating, 'that the Maine had been blown up by her powder magazine,' and adding, 'that it was a curious sight to see a man-of-war sinking in the harbor.' I expressed doubt as to the truth of this report, as rumors were circulated in Key West every day of either the destruction of the consulate in Havana or the assassination of General Lee. The agent, however, was so thoroughly satisfied himself that I decided, in accordance with my orders, to confer with the senior officer afloat, Lieut.-Commander W. S.Cowles, commanding the Fern. I suggested to Captain Cowles that we three go to the cable office, and there await further news, which would be sure to come by the preconcerted message if the report was true. In the cable office at the time Captain Sigsbee's dispatch was received were the operator, Captain Cowles, the secret agent of the government, and myself. We sat in silence in the operating-room and waited for some time. Finally about 11 o'clock, the instruments began to click, and the operator wrote out the message as it came in. When it was about half through, the operator exchanged a glance with the secret agent, who himself was an operator, and had been reading the message. It was quite evident to me then that the report was true. When the message was finished, the operator handed it to the agent, and after reading it he passed it to Captain Cowles, who handed it to me. It was the telegram addressed to the secretary of the navy by Captain Sigsbee announcing the destruction of the Maine, and suggesting that public opinion be suspended until further reports. There was no one else present when this telegram was received." (Notes of Captain Gleaves to author.)
I found the above passage noted in the book "The Spanish War" by G.J.A. O'Toole. He related the story (page 33) and referred to his source in the Notes Section (page 402).
In the book "A Ship To Remember" by Michael Blow, this author also notes the telegraphs announcing the sinking of the Maine arrived at Key West. And he stated that the telegraph operator on duty at the time, Thomas Warren, "sat down at the telegraph and began to transmit the news to Washington" (page 404). One of those telegrams from Key West to the Secretary of the Navy accompanies this article.
Conclusion: There is strong sentiment in southwest Florida that the telegraph office at Punta Rassa was the first place in America to hear of the sinking of the USS Maine. The Daughters of the American Revolution and the Periwinkle Garden Club have each erected brass plaques at Punta Rassa commemorating the event. I have even heard it was taught in some local schools. The Punta Rassa telegraph office played a pivotal role in providing the nation news from Cuba leading up to, and during, the Spanish American War. But whether that office were the first to hear of the Maine, I leave it up to the reader to decide.
Special Thanks to Bill Burns of the web site atlantic-cable.com for his research for this article and his extensive knowledge as to how telegraph communication functioned.
That is your Museum of the Islands This Month in History Tim Knox-Museum Historian
For more history of Pine Island visit us Tuesday through Saturday: 11am - 3:00 pm. and Sunday 1pm 4.00pm
We are conveniently located next to the library.
Tim Knox is museum historian at the Museum of the Islands.