Early Transpacific Telecommunications
Editor’s note: The following was adapted and reprinted with permission from articles in the Guam Recorder, January – March 1973.
From San Francisco to the Philippines
The first step in telegraphic communications for Guam took place soon after Guam and the Philippines were taken over by the United States following the Spanish American War in 1898. John W. Mackay, an American silver magnate, offered to lay a cable across the Pacific, planning to set the rate of $1 per word instead of the $1.72 then being charged for cablegrams in other parts of the word.
Guam, at this time, was an important part of the East-West trade route because of its location, its deep water harbor and because of the plentiful fresh water supply. The necessity for telegraphic communications between the US and the Philippine via Hawai’i and Guam became of prime importance.
The first section of the cable between San Francisco and Honolulu was in use by 1 January 1903. About three months later, the steamer Hanalei left San Francisco with men and supplies to install cable stations at Midway and Guam.
Sumai was selected as the site for the cable station building in Guam. When the Hanalei arrived at Guam there were no telephones or roads between Hagåtña and Sumai. The boat channel at Sumai was so shallow that it could only be used at high tide in calm seas.
In the meantime, two of the world’s largest cable steamers, loaded with submarine cable, had begun the task of laying cable across the Pacific Ocean. One ship traveled from Manila, and the other from Honolulu, laying cable along the route previously selected by the US Navy.
Navy soundings, taken along the route, showed the average depth to be three miles. Of the four great ocean stretches – a total of 7,613 miles of cable to be laid – the 2,593 mile link between Midway and Guam was the roughest, varying from 2,600 to 4,000 fathoms.
Guam first had telegraphic communications with the outside world on 5 June 1903, when the cable between Manila and Guam was completed. The cable from Guam to San Francisco was completed the following month. On 4 July 1903 President Theodore Roosevelt formally opened the transpacific cable service.
By 1906 Guam had become an important hub in Pacific cable network. Cables had been laid from Guam to Yap and on to Shanghai, and from Guam to the Bonin Islands. The extension to the Bonin Islands made it possible to communicate with Japan via cable that was already in operation between those two points.
Guam Transpacific Cable Station
The site that the Navy provided for the cable station was located in a dense jungle adjacent to the village of Sumai. There was no telephone, no road either to Sumai or Hagåtña and the boat channel was shallow and could only be used at high tide. Passengers could only be taken from ship to land in a rowboat.
Sumai was a small village and little English was spoken there. Mexican currency was in general circulation throughout the island, the rate being about one Mexican to 40 cents American money. Getting fresh water at Sumai was also a problem, as it had to be carted in.
People were hired to clear the land for the office and dig a trench from the hill down to the beach in which to lay the cable. A road was also made from the cable station office to Sumai.
The original group of people who came to Guam to build and operate the cable station consisted of nine Americans and four Chinese servants. Carpenters built four rough wooden buildings to serve as office, sleeping quarters, kitchen, dining room and servants’ quarters. Each building had an accompanying water catchment tank.
The Naval authorities decided that these cable pioneers of Guam were not permitted to purchase ice or meat from the government stores. For the first three weeks they lived entirely on canned food washed down with iceless water and beer, which had been furnished by the company. Much of the crew broke out with tropical ulcers and a couple of the men were affected quite seriously.
Once Guam Naval Governor George Sewell learned of this, he gave orders that the station was to be supplied with a small quantity of ice daily from the USS Supply and also to be permitted to store freshly killed meat in the cold storage of that ship and to withdraw it as needed.
There were no health clinics or American schools in Sumai or Hågat then and the quickest way to obtain medical attention was to proceed by boat to the Supply.
Eventually a flag signally system was put into place. Upon receipt of a cablegram for the Naval authorities the procedure was to hoist flags requesting the Supply send a boat ashore to get it. The message would usually reach Hagåtña by the mail orderly who made two trips daily between the Supply and Hagåtña .
In 1904, the Mary L. Cushing arrived in Guam from San Francisco with a company of engineers and mechanics and all the materials needed to erect the permanent buildings for the cable station. It took several weeks to unload the materials and haul them to the site. A light railroad was built to assist in bringing the materials from the wharf up the hill to the site. Earthquakes had been frequent and severe that year. Consequently the new buildings were designed to be earthquake, typhoon, and fireproof.
Additional mechanics and laborers were brought in and the construction was completed within one year. The station was then self contained, with a reservoir and water distribution system, sewer system, cold storage and ice plant and illuminated by acetylene gas manufactured on the premises.
A telephone was installed between Hagåtña and the cable station in 1906, increasing the speed-of-service between those two points by several hours. The flag signaling system was discontinued at that time.
The first telephone contact with the outside world was made on 16 May 1936 when US Navy First Class Radioman AB Carter with his ham station, call letters unknown, worked V6LLQ in California.
Service interrupted by War
The cable network remained in use until 1941 when the service beyond Midway Island was abandoned due to the capture of Guam and the Philippines by Japanese forces.
Following the end of World War II the Midway Island – Guam – Manila cables were repaired at a price of $1.5 million. The cables to China and Japan were not repaired due to the high cost. The cable laying ship, the CS Restorer, by then 50 years old, was in need of an extensive refit or replacement. In 1950 less than 1,000 messages passed between the US mainland and Midway Island and only 11 percent of traffic between the US mainland and Manila passed along the cables.
Without the links to China and Japan the network was no longer viable and the company applied to the American Federal Communications Commission to cease operations. The FCC approved and the service shut down in October 1951. The cables were sold to Cable & Wireless who recovered a considerable amount using CS Restorer. A large part of the recovered cable was used elsewhere.
For further reading
Burns, Bill. “The Commercial Pacific Cable Company.” History of the Atlantic Cable & Undersea Communications. Last modified 9 February 2019.
Driver, John D. “From Outrigger to the Satellite: Guam becomes a Pacific communications center.” Guam Recorder 3, no. 1 (1973): 3-4.
Taylor, Herbert. ”The First Cable Reached the Island in June 1903.” Guam Recorder 3, no. 1 (1973): 26-27. Reprinted from Guam Recorder 8, (July 1936).