The Day When Flora Ross's Farm Connected Vancouver Island to the World
On April 24, 1866, hundreds of Victoria residents gathered on Government Street, surrounded by banners and international flags, waiting for the dawn of a new era. At any moment, the final connection in an international telegraph line would be complete, and Victoria would finally join the new world of instant international communication.
About ten miles to the east on San Juan Island, the homesteaded farm of Paul Kinsey Hubbs, Jr., and his wife Flora Amelia Ross, was the center of these events. The farm was located at the end of the peninsula that arcs to the southeast tip of the island, and points towards Lopez Island across the San Juan Channel. It is the narrowest channel between the two islands, and it was the initial crossing point for the international telegraph from Lopez Island to "the southern extremity of San Juan Island" (see cite below).
Flora and her husband had separated three months earlier, but Flora remained in possession of the family farm. She had been raised on farms, while her husband had never had farming experience, and she was remembered by other pioneers as the partner in the couple who had operated the farm while her husband had pursued other endeavors: one of which was mistresses.
Newspaper reports don’t mention whether there were island residents gathered at the Hubbs farm to watch the events of the day, as the gunboat Forward lowered the last mile of cable into the channel. But it is hard to imagine that such a moment in history would have gone unnoticed by island residents. It was about 2:00 p.m. when the connection of the cable on San Juan Island was first completed. And following a brief disruption, the first messages were sent from Victoria to locations in the United States. As might be expected with a new technology, the initial messages were sent by government officials and businesses. Governor Kennedy sent messages of congratulations to U.S. President Andrew Johnson, and to the British Ambassador and Consul in Washington and San Francisco, respectively. The U.S. Consul sent a message to U.S. Secretary of State William Seward, while the mayor of Victoria exchanged messages with the mayors of New Westminster, Portland, and San Francisco.
Reports note that there was busy traffic passing through the telegraph station south of Snohomish, Washington Territory, which points to an additional Ross/Hubbs family connection to the events of the day. Flora’s brother-in-law, Charles Hubbs, had obtained employment as “agent” at the Snohomish Station in 1865, though there does not appear to be any surviving record to demonstrate whether he spent the day involved in the physical connection of the line, or the transmission of messages once it was complete.
Initially, the communications were with recipients in the U.S., and in parts of eastern Canada and British Columbia that connected to the U.S. telegraph system. Completion of the telegraph line across the Atlantic Ocean to Europe was still a few months away. But Victoria residents knew on this notable day that their isolation from the world had come to an end, and that they would no longer be relying on news reports that were weeks or months behind.
Eventually, the decision to choose the narrowest crossing for the telegraph line was proven to be a poor decision. The current that passes through the narrow channel between San Juan and Lopez Islands is quite strong as the tides change, and the line that lay along the floor of the channel was frequently broken by its force. By the early 1870s, the telegraph company had resorted to the band-aid solution of establishing a cabin on each island, and having a technician row across with messages to be re-typed into the line on the other island.
On July 25, 1872, the Victoria Daily Standard reported that the line was being moved north, from its original location between Lopez Island and the "southern extremity of San Juan Island," to a wider portion of the channel, in an effort to prevent the frequent breakage in the line. The 1872 article described the difficulties encountered on the portion of the line running:
"across the narrow passage between Lopez and San Juan Islands. There, owing to the very uneven bottom, the ledges of rocks which traverse it in all directions, and the swift tidal currents which prevail, the cable is subject to so much chafing that interruptions and repairs were not only of such frequent occurrence ... it is now injured to such an extent as to necessitate the procuring of a new one in its stead which will, however, when obtained, be laid across that body of water about six miles further north, from Careen Creek on Lopez Island to Park Hill on San Juan Island ... In the meantime telegraphic communication will be kept up by stationing operators at the end of the line on Lopez and San Juan Islands, all messages being written out by one operator and sent across the narrow passages in small boats, and then, by repeating, forwarded on by the other."
Victoria Daily Standard, July 25, 1872, page 3.