ORLEANS, Mass. — Lucien Ozon came to Orleans when he was 15, when his father, Clement, moved his wife and seven kids from St. Pierre and Miquelon for a job with a French cable company.
The Ozon family represents a pocket of French culture — among about 10 families in town today — that dates from the late 1800s when two communication cables were sunk along the floor of the Atlantic ocean from Brest, France, to Cape Cod.
“None of us could speak any English at all,” Ozon, 80, said of his siblings when they moved to town in 1952. “We were 100 percent French.”
Ozon would eventually marry, have three children and rise to the rank of acting police chief in Orleans, known perhaps best for his July 15, 1979, seizure of 2 tons of marijuana on Snow Shore. It was after his retirement in 1993 that he was tapped to volunteer at the French Cable Station Museum, which is 125 years old and packed with original communications equipment.
“My father was a telegraph operator here, and eventually some of that rubbed off on me,” Ozon said.
The 1898-built cable that extended directly from Brest, France, to Orleans, known as “Le Direct” and stretching about 3,200 miles across the Atlantic, is abandoned now. But it once pulsed with life at depths of 4 or 5 miles before coming through Nauset Marsh into Town Cove and snaking up to shore at Champlain Road.
The messages relayed strictly French business — news, war communiques and government information — starting in Paris, and sent through the relay stations at Brest and Orleans, onward to New York City, or vice versa. The French cable communication had been in response to and in competition with English cables laid from Ireland to Newfoundland in the mid-1800s.
Either way, though, the cable communications, transmitted in international code through the ocean cables and then via telegraph lines when on land, were serious business.
“Nothing like ‘happy birthday,'” Ozon said of the messages that were sent.
A few exceptions occurred, though.
When aviator Charles Lindbergh landed at Le Bourget Field in France in May 1927 after his first solo, nonstop flight across the Atlantic, the telegraph operators in Orleans were the first in America to know. One of the off-duty operators rushed down to Eldredge Park to a baseball game. The umpire announced the good news “to fans who scarcely 32 hours before had heard his plane flying overheard,” according to the historical records at the museum.
The station in Orleans opened in 1898 and operated for 60 years, until 1959, interrupted only by wars and cable breaks, which were primarily caused by earthquakes. At the station’s height of activity, two dozen people worked there on round-the-clock shifts. These days, a rainy summer afternoon can draw as many as 40 people to see the 125-year-old building and inspect the antique equipment, museum president Joseph Manas said.
The Orleans cable station is one of only three remaining original telegraph stations in the world, according to the National Park Service.
Today, fiber optic undersea cables carry communications across the Atlantic and worldwide.
Information from: Cape Cod (Mass.) Times, http://www.capecodtimes.com