Prince Edward's Early Warning System


I suspect that the problem with any review of history is to make the characters whom we have known only by date and name come alive, to know them as three dimensional persons - individuals whose ideas were plagiarised or stolen, whose successes were fewer than their failures and both of them less than their attempts.


In the next few issues of InterComm, I hope to introduce you to some of the unsung heroes who were pioneers in the field of communications in Atlantic Canada.


Innovative communication methods are not new to this region. Twenty-four year old Prince Edward, Duke of Kent, established one of the earliest known systems in Atlantic Canada back in 1799.


Edward, whose chief claim to fame was that he fathered Queen Victoria, was not all that likeable a chap. He was moody, opinionated, self-centred and had a reputation as a womanizer. He did have the smallest province named after him whatever that signifies. In any case, Edward was concerned about the rising threat of invasion by the French and saw the need for some sort of "timely" communication system to warn the Halifax garrison of any impending attack from the Fundy Shore. He implemented a system of signal flags, pennants and wooden balls covering the 130 miles between Annapolis and Halifax as the first "distant early warning system" in Canada. Of course, he had the line branch off into Bedford where he was more likely to be spending time in the arms of his mistress Madame Julie de Montgenet de Saint Laurent. What the young prince would have done with this information from the comfortable bosom of his lady love is another matter.


The system worked as well as could be expected from any line of sight system contending with the rain, snow and fog, and it ushered Nova Scotia into the latest in 18th century communications technology. Of course, it required the cooperation of the "enemy" to attack only during daylight hours and in fine weather to be a complete success.


Prince Edward was later reassigned to Gibraltar and nothing much else was done to speed the news from a distant Europe to an equally remote Montreal or Toronto,... but then again... who cared?


To Maritimers, the "have not" population of Upper and Lower Canada were as distant and inaccessible as Britain and Europe which by sea were actually closer. Maritimers on the whole were more interested in what was going on in the "Boston States" to the south. After all, they were only two or three days distant by ship compared with the six weeks required to get news to Montreal.


The two Canadas did develop a communication systems of their own. There was the "fast coach" for mail. In one case, a mad dash trip between Toronto and Montreal was accomplished in 36 hours compared to the usual 4 days. It took a relay of horse changes every 15 miles, but they did it!


The News Flash and the Pony Express


Telegraph made its appearance in the "Canadas" in October of 1846, but that was in the "never never" land of Toronto, a booming metropolis of 20,000 inhabitants. It was not until 1849 that New Brunswick was blessed with the lightning wire, and then it connected to Calais, Maine and the blossoming network in the United States. This emerging system gave impetus to one press service to develop a method of using it, along with any other means possible, to find a way of getting t he news from Europe to New York faster than the competition. Again the Atlantic region's "technological heritage" came into play. In the spirit of Prince Edward, a immensely complex labour intensive method was devised.


On February 21,1849, the Cunard Royal Mail steamer'Europa' slipped into Halifax Harbour after leaving Liverpool 11 days earlier. A small boat rendezvoused with the 'Europa' and a sealed container filled with European news dispatches was tossed into the waiting hands of its crew. On shore, a young man waited impatiently for the craft to dock, then snatched the container and galloped off at breakneck speed. A change of horses every 12 miles and a stirrup cup of water (or whatever) and he was off to the next relay. At each stop, an anxious groom would be waiting expectantly with a fresh horse., A trumpet call from a half mile distant warned of the approach of the pony express rider. In a matter of minutes, it would be all over as the rider bounded onto the next mount and was gone. Around Kentville, he would pass the container to another rider who would complete the journey to Annapolis. At Digby Neck, it would be passed to the crew of a small boat who would row it out to awaiting packet, and thence on to Saint John where it was carried by the lightning wire to New York.


The expense was considerable; but, during the nine months it existed, these legendary young men thundered acroWell that was the start. We have since played a more significant part in the development of communications, but that is another story, for another time.