Web and Book design,
Copyright, Kellscraft Studio
(Return to Web Text-ures)
Click Here to return to
Off To The Geysers
OFF TO THE GEYSERS.
Off to the "Geysers." — Wash's Letter. — The Sailing of "Curlew." — The Cold Storms of the North Atlantic — The Atlantic Cable. — Over the "Telegraphic Plateau." — The Bottom of the Ocean. — Honor to Mr. Field. — An Icebergs. — A Whale.
"COME on to-morrow. We're off for the geysers." This telegram came to hand the 17th of May, the spring after our voyage to Hudson Straits, which forms the subject of Wash's narrative of "Left on Labrador."
I was in Baltimore on a visit to my mother and sisters at this time, and had not been present at the "council" which the boys had held about a fortnight previous. Wash had kindly kept me posted, however. The plan for the summer cruise will appear from the following extract from one of his letters received a few days before. Under date of May 8 he writes, —
"Held our final grand powwow yesterday. Gave up the idea of trying to go into Hudson Bay again, — this season, at any rate. Raed then proposed Greenland, — the southern and south-western coast from Julianashaab to Upernavik. His idea was to sail direct for Julianashaab, and, as the season advanced, make our way as far north as Upernavik; examining, as we went, the fiords, or bays, and the great glaciers that move down into them from the mountains, and break up to form icebergs.
"Greenland, he argued, is the home, the nursery, of icebergs. Let's examine it thoroughly. Ice has been in the past, and is still, to a great extent, the agent by means of which the rocks have been ground up to make soil. Let's go see for ourselves how this is done.
"But Kit thought we had better go to Iceland to see the geysers and the fire jokuls, and study the geology and mineralogy of that strange volcanic island. There, too, were the quaint and curious sagas, — stories of the rough Northmen of early days. How impressive and pleasing to hear these tales from the mouths of Icelanders, who are said to spend the hours of their long winter nights poring over these books, never tiring of their wonders!
"Well, we had quite a discussion. Wish you had been there! The pros and cons of both propositions were set forth at length. Come to talk it over, we all three came to like the Iceland plan best, and voted for it. So Iceland it is, this summer. Hurrah for the geysers!
"Now hurry up, Wade. Get 'mamma' visited as soon as possible. We are busy as beavers getting ready. We're having 'The Curlew' fixed up nice, painted new; and we've got a bonny new silk flag, — a beauty! You know we're in funds just now.1 Capt. Mazard is seeing that every thing about the schooner is put in tip. top, apple-pie order. We can't get Donovan this year: he's gone up to the Banks, master of a cod-fisher. Pretty good for Don. Wish we had him, though! Remember how he slung those Huskies round for us? Old Trull, too, has gone back to the navy: seems to me it's 'The Franklin' he's on now. Poor Corliss, you recollect, was lost from a brig last winter. But we've got Weymouth, Hobbs, and Bonney left us, besides Palmleaf and Guard. We have hired four new men. Two of them, Smith and Trevers, are from Gloucester. Another, by the name of Elder, is from Nantucket. Then there's a New-Bedford chap who calls himself Truax: funny name, that!
"We are getting in a better lot of 'grub' than we had before. Mean to live better. Then we have bought a nine-by-eleven tent: that is for land-travel after getting there. We are going to take all of our great-coats and things that we had last season, as well as about a thousand dollars in money, — gold. Come now; be on hand.
"My duty to your mother, and my warmest regards to my pretty cousins, whom I hope to have the pleasure of seeing next winter.
This explains it as well as any words of my own would do. I set out for Boston the next morning after getting the despatch, and arrived at daybreak the morning after This was the 19th instant. We sailed on the afternoon of the 20th. Had favorable weather, with the exception of one heavy shower and squall the night of the 23d, till the morning of the 25th, while off Cape Race, when we encountered a strong north-easter for thirty-six hours. A cold, stormy time. All our great-coats and blankets were needed to keep us comfortable. Comfortable, did I say? — to keep us from freezing, I had better said. Withal, we were a little seasick. Oh these North-Atlantic storms and chilling fogs, and blasts fresh from the lair of icebergs! — they are enough to chill the very marrow in one's bones. But with a stove as hot as we could get it for the interrupted draught, buffalo-skins, wool-blankets, and plenty of hot coffee, we managed to live. These discomforts we expected. Our last year's voyage had taught us how the North Atlantic looks and feels.
A stanch craft, and sailors practised amid its sleet-storms and inured to its colds, are only able to brave its reckless black billows, that forever war against the adventurous mariner.
On the morning of the 28th we were in latitude 48° 35', longitude 25° 57' east of Washington, or 51° 3' west of Greenwich, — about a hundred and fifty miles east of Newfoundland.
"Right over the Atlantic Cable," Raed remarked.
He had the chart spread out on the table. "The New World and the Old are talking with each other along this little cord lying somewhere under us, down amid the cold, black ooze of the ocean-bottom."
"What a grand thought that is!" exclaimed Kit, " — two nations conversing easily and instantaneously across this stormy black ocean! Two thousand miles of wild, wrecking waves crossed in a second! It's the greatest achievement of this century, or any century!"
"How deep under us do you suppose the cable lies?" Wash queried.
"Not over a mile and a half here," Bit said. "What they term the Telegraphic Plateau is at no point between Newfoundland and Ireland much over twelve thousand feet under water. That is why they call it a plateau, — because it is a plain raised higher than the ocean-bed either to the north or the south of it. To the southeast of the Grand Bank, the Atlantic is nearly six miles deep; and, not three hundred miles to the north of us, the depth is scarcely less than four miles. But according to Lieut. Berryman of our navy, and Capt. Dayman of the Royal Navy, the depth along the telegraphic plateau nowhere exceeds twenty-four hundred fathoms, — fourteen thousand four hundred feet."
"Here's Dayman's report," remarked Raed, opening our snug little bookcase (for during the last six months we bad been getting together quite a library of scientific books and reports); "and here's what he says: 'This space has been named by Maury the Telegraphic Plateau; and although, by multiplying the soundings upon it, we have depths ranging from fourteen hundred and fifty to twenty-four hundred fathoms, these are comparatively small inequalities in its surface, and present no new difficulty to the project of laying the cable across the ocean. Their importance vanishes when the extent of the space over which they are distributed (thirty degrees of longitude) is considered."'
"Here's something else on the same subject," said Wash, taking down another book, — a "History of the Atlantic Telegraph," I think. "Hear this: 'The ocean-bed of the North Atlantic is a curious study; in some parts furrowed by currents, in others presenting banks, the accumulations, perhaps, of the débris of these ocean-rivers during countless ages. To the west, the Gulf Stream pours along in a bed from a mile to a mile and a half in depth. To the east of this, and south of the Great Banks, is a basin, eight or ten degrees square, where the bottom attains a greater depression than perhaps the highest peaks of the Andes or Himalaya: six miles of line have failed to reach the bottom. Taking a profile of the Atlantic basin in our own latitude, we find a far greater depression than any mountain elevation on our own continent. Four or five Alleghanies would have to be piled on each other, and on them added Frémont's Peak, before their point would show itself above the surface. Between the Azores and the mouth of the Tagus this decreases to about three miles.'"
"But where was that 'submarine mountain' that there was so much said about in 1865?" I asked "It was somewhere along the telegraphic plateau; because I remember that a great many persons argued that, as there was a cliff two or three thousand feet high over which the cable had to hang, the motion of the water would soon wear it off."
"I recollect something about that," said Kit.
"Yes, there was such talk," replied Raed. "Lieut. Berryman found it. It occurs about two hundred miles west of Ireland. While making soundings for the telegraph, Capt. Dayman spoke of it as follows: 'In 14° 48' west we have five hundred and fifty fathoms' rock-bottom, and in 15° 6' west we have seventeen hundred and fifty fathoms' ooze. This is the greatest dip in the whole ocean. In little more than ten miles of distance a change of depth occurs, amounting to seventy-two hundred feet.
"And here, in the Report of the second Telegraph Expedition of 1858, while they were laying the cable, it is recorded, that, 'about five o'clock in the evening, the steep submarine mountain which divides the telegraphic plateau from the Irish coast was reached; and the sudden shallowing of the water had a very marked effect on the cable, causing the strain on and the speed of it to lessen every minute. A great deal of slack was paid out to allow for inequalities which might exist, though undiscovered by the sounding-line.' Afterwards the British admiralty had Capt. Hoskins sound more carefully; and the result showed, that, although there was a considerable descent, the idea of there being a stupendous cliff was all a humbug. Here's a slip that I cut from an English paper, and put into this report shortly after the last cable was laid. I'll read it, if you say so."
"Speaking of the telegraphic plateau, the writer says, 'The dangerous part of this course has hitherto been supposed to be the sudden dip, or bank, which ocean off the west coast of Ireland, and where the water was supposed to deepen in the course of a few miles from about three hundred fathoms to nearly two thousand. Such a rapid descent has naturally been regarded with alarm by telegraphic engineers; and this alarm has led to a most careful sounding-survey of the whole supposed bank by Capt. Dayman, acting under the instructions of the admiralty. The result of this shows that the supposed precipitous bank, or submarine cliff, is a gradual slope of nearly sixty miles. Over this long slope, the difference between its greatest height and greatest depth is only eighty-seven hundred and sixty feet: so that the average incline is, in round numbers, about a hundred and forty-five feet per mile. A good gradient on a railway is now genially considered to be one in a hundred feet, or about fifty-three in a mile: so that the incline on this supposed bank is only about three times that of an ordinary railway. In fact, as far as soundings can demonstrate any thing, there are few slopes in the bed of the Atlantic as steep as that of Holborn Hill. In no part is the bottom rocky; and with the exception of a few miles, which are shingly, only ooze, mud, or sand, is to be found.'"
"It is said that these soundings show that the ooze on the ocean-bottom is just as soft and light as it is on the bottom of a mill-pond, despite all the immense weight of water resting on it," observed Kit. "That's a joke on the old philosophers, who used to say that the very water itself, at the depth of a mile, was solid as a rock from the vast pressure. I suppose the cable lies embedded deep in this ooze. How easy it would be for some big shark to bite it asunder!"
"There don't many fish go town so deep in the set, as the cable lies buried," replied Raed. "There is more danger from the anchors of fishing-smacks off Newfoundland. It is reported, that, last season, a fishing-schooner raised the cable on the fluke of her anchor to the top of the water. They got it off, and let it drop back as easy as they could."
"That will do for a fisherman's story," said Capt. Mazard, who had just come down. "I should sooner think it was some old hawser lying on the bottom that they pulled up."
"So should I," said Kit. "I don't believe they could have raised the cable: it would have been too heavy for them. When they grappled for the lost cable on The Great Eastern,' they had to connect the windlass with the engine to pull it up; and they broke any amount of iron cable raising it."
"I should think, that, after a while, the water would soak through the outside covering of hemp and gutta-percha, and come to the wire inside the cable," said Wash. "That would kill it, as I understand it. The electricity would then go into the water."
"It would injure it," Raed replied. "But I believe a naked copper wire will carry the electricity through water without any coating. Isn't that so, Kit?"
"Yes. When they were laying the cable, they experimented on that. They stripped a foot of the copper wire bare, and let it down into the water, and sent the signals through the bare wire almost as well as before."
"But there isn't much danger of the water wetting through the coating," said Raed. "It is very impervious."
"You've got a history of the telegraph there, Wash," remarked Kit. "Read how the cable was made."
Wash turned over the book, and read: "The inside, or core, of the cable, consists not of one single straight copper wire, but of seven wires of copper of the best quality, twisted round each other spirally, and capable of undergoing great tension without injury. This conductor is then enveloped in three separate coverings of gutta-percha of the best quality, forming the core of the cable, round which tarred hemp is wrapped, and over this the outside covering, consisting of eighteen strands of the best quality of iron wire, each strand composed of seven distinct wires, twisted spirally, in the most approved manner, by machinery specially adapted to the purpose."
"That was the old cable," said Raed, — "the one that gave its last kick in 1858. The cable of 1866 is better than that. Turn along to that. You'll find it farther over."
"You're right!" exclaimed Wash. "Here it tells about the last one: 'First, the central copper wire which was the spinal cord, the nerve along which the lightning was to ran, was nearly three times larger than before. The old conductor was a strand consisting of seven fine wires, six laid round one, and weighed only a hundred and seven pounds to the mile. The new was composed of the same number of wires, but weighing three hundred pounds to the mile. This was made of the finest copper that could be obtained in the world. making a perfect conductor. To secure insulation, this conductor was first embedded for solidity in Chatterton's compound, a preparation impervious to water, and then covered with four layers of gutta-percha, which were laid on alternately with four thin layers of Chatterton's compound. The old cable had but three coatings of gutta-percha, with nothing between. Its entire insulation weighed but two hundred and sixty-one pounds to the mile, while that of the new weighed four hundred pounds.
"'But a conductor ever so perfect, with insulation complete, was useless without proper external protection to guard it against the dangers which must attend the long and difficult process of laying it across the ocean. The old cable had broken a number of times. The new must be made stronger. To this end it was incased with ten solid wires of the best iron, or rather of a soft steel, like that used by Whitworth for his cannon. This made the cable much heavier than before. The old cable weighed but twenty hundred-weight to the mile, while the new one reached thirty-five hundred-weight and three-quarters. But mere size and weight were nothing, except as they indicated increased strength. This was secured, not only by the larger iron wires, but by a further coating of rope. Each wire was surrounded separately with five strands of Manila-yarn, saturated with a preservative compound, and the whole laid spirally round the core; which latter was padded with ordinary hemp, saturated with the same preservative mixture. This rope-covering was important in several respects. It kept the wires from coming in contact with the salt water, by which they might be corroded; and, while it added greatly to the strength of the cable, it gave it also its own flexibility: so that, while it had the strength of an iron chain, it had also the lightness and flexibility of a common ship's-rope. This union of two qualities was all-important. The great problem had been to combine strength with flexibility. Mere dead weight was an objection. The new cable, though nearly twice as heavy as the old in air, when immersed in water weighed but a trifle more; so that it was really much lighter in proportion to its size. This increased lightness was a very important matter in laying the cable, as it caused it to sink slowly. The old cable, though smaller, was heavy almost as a rod of iron; so that, as it ran out, it dropped at an angle which exposed it to great danger in case of a sudden lurch of the ship. Thus, in 1857, it was broken by the stern of "The Niagara" being thrown up on a wave just as the brakes were shut down. Now, the cable, being partially buoyed by the rope, would float out to a great distance from the slip, and sink down slowly in the deep waters.'"
"But even that was not the cable which now spans the ocean," said Kit. "The one described there was the one lost from 'The Great Eastern' in 1865, — the one they fished for so long. The 1866 cable is an improvement on that even. You look along a little farther, Wash, to where they laid the 1866 cable: you'll find it."
"Oh, yes! here it is: 'In the cable to be made for the new line there was but little change from that of the last year, which had proved nearly perfect. Science, however, aided by experience, was constantly devising some improvement. So now, while the general form and size were retained, a slight change in the outer covering was found to make the cable both lighter and stronger. The iron wires were galvanized, which secured them perfectly from rust or corrosion by salt water. Thus protected, they could dispense with th preservative mixture of the former year. This left the cable much cleaner and whiter. Instead of its black coat, it had the fresh, bright appearance of new rope. It had another advantage. As the tarry coating was sticky, slight fragments of wire might adhere to it, and do injury, — a danger to which the new cable was not exposed. At the same time, galvanizing the wires gave them greater ductility; so that, in the case of a heavy strain, the cable would stretch longer without breaking. By this alteration it was rendered more than four hundred-weight lighter per mile, and would bear a strain of nearly half a ton more than the one laid the year before."'
"But this last one was laid from 'The Great Eastern,' was it not?" I asked.
"Yes. 'The Great Eastern' is the champion cable-layer," said Kit; "but that's about all she is good for. It's a grand big snip, though."
"How many tons burden?" Wash inquired.
"From twenty-eight thousand to thirty thousand, including her engines," Raed replied.
"Well, how many without them? How much cargo can she carry?"
"Fifteen thousand tons, I think it is. That includes her coal, though. For a voyage across the Atlantic, she has to ship from six thousand to eight thousand tons of coal. That's one reason why it doesn't pay to ran her for freight or passengers: it costs too much. She's too big for the public demand, at present."
"Do you recollect how much the cable weighed?" Kit asked.
"Not far from four thousand tons," said Raed; "and the iron tanks that held it weighed a thousand tons more. If it bad not been for 'The Great Eastern,' we might not have had a cable down yet: so she has done the world good service if she never has another job."
"Whom do you think the honor of starting the Atlantic Cable belongs to?" Wash asked.
"Mr. Cyrus M. Field, to be sure," replied Kit.
"Some say Prof. Morse ought to have as much praise as Field," said Wash. "He was the inventor of the telegraph."
"Oh, yes! and, as such, the world honors him," replied Kit. "But he wasn't the man who put the Atlantic Cable through. Field was the man who did that, aided by the London capitalists."
"And the New-York capitalists," Raed added.
"Yes; the New-Yorkers did something: but it was those London men who really pushed the thing through, after all. No use to try to hide that fact."
"The United States furnished the man who started the thing," Raed interrupted, "and who stuck to the idea, and never gave up till the cable was laid. Brains go before money. The honor is due us, rather than to England, I say."
"Of course; but then brains can't work without money to back them up. If it hadn't been for English capital, there wouldn't be any Atlantic Cable to-day."
"If it hadn't been for Mr. Field, there wouldn't be any Atlantic Cable today," retorted Raed. "So there you are again."
"To be sure. Let's divide the honor, then, between the two countries."
"Yes; but not equally. America ought to have the larger share," said Raed.
"I think half and half would be fair," replied Kit. "Not that I want to deprive Mr. Field of any of the honor so justly due him. I believe him to be the man. of all others most worthy of the imitation of all American young men, for the indefatigable energy and perseverance with which he stuck to the Atlantic-Cable scheme. The failures and discouragements which attended that enterprise were greater and more disheartening than those of any other I ever heard of or read about. For twelve years be labored, often almost single-handed and alone. After the failure of the 1858 cable, he was ridiculed, abused, and suspected of the most dishonorable motives. Most men would have given it up in disgust, and let it gone to rain. Served the public about right for its meanness too. But Field didn't give it up. Then the Rebellion came on: that served to stop every thing for a while. He still clung to the idea. Why, that man has crossed the ocean something like fifty times, I think, trying to push on the cable. More than that, he embarked almost his whole fortune in it, not from any hope of doubling his money or any thing of that sort, but out of pure public spirit, and love for the great enterprise. Detract from that man's fame! — no, sir! The man who tries to do that is a mere blackguard."
"And that is why I say," continued Kit, "that there isn't a man in this country so worthy to be taken as a model of energy, perseverance, and real true philanthropy, as Cyrus M. Field."
"How about Mr. Frederick Gisborne?" I queried. "Some say he's the man who first projected the Atlantic Cable."
"Mr. Gisborne is the man who first proposed a telegraph from St. John's, Newfoundland, to Halifax," said Kit. "He worked hard to accomplish that, and is deserving of a good deal of praise. But there's no evidence that he ever dreamed of a cable across the Atlantic. Some have said so since, I know; but I never heard that he claimed it himself."
"Dinnah all ready, sah!" exclaimed Palmleaf, thrusting his head into the midst of our debate.
During the forenoon of the 30th we passed a large iceberg about half a mile to the north-west, bearing slowly southward. A wreath of thin fog hung over it. Two or three seals lay on a projecting mass just above the water-line, and a flock of gulls wheeled about its lofty pinnacles. There is scarcely a grander sight in nature than one of these enormous ice-masses drifting grandly down from the poles towards the equator, never to return. The sun is its sworn foe: its grave is the warm waters of the tropics. What becomes of the seals that cling to it on its southern march? To be left in mid-ocean a thousand miles from land, with the water three miles deep, must be an awkward predicament, even for a seal.
On the 1st of June we had the company of a large whale for several hours. We saw him blowing quite early in the morning, several miles to the north. Gradually we came up with him. Immediately on perceiving the schooner, he came rushing down across our bows. At first we thought he was going to butt us; but his movements soon showed that he had no hostile design. I think be mistook the hull of "The Curlew" for another whale: indeed, he was nearly as long as the schooner. After moving around us several times, he fell in our wake; and, although we were sailing eight or nine knots an hour at the time, the huge creature kept following us from seven, A.M., till a quarter of eleven. Wash wanted to fire at him with the big rifle;2 but Capt. Mazard said that he was too large a customer to provoke. He might run his head against our side, if angered.
The 2d, 3d, and 6th of the month were windy and cold, with an occasional scud and sleet. We spent the time reading up on Icelandic matters. We had Lord Dufferin's "Letters from High Latitudes," Mackenzie's "Travels in Iceland," Metcalfe's "Oxonian in Iceland," and several others.
1 Our ten thousand dollars which had been invested in Back-bay land had been sold out a few weeks previous for seventeen thousand three hundred and sixty dollars
2 The "famous weapon" used during our last season's cruise.