At first the Niagara went slowly ahead to avoid a mishap, but as the cable ran out easily she increased her speed. The night fell, but hardly a soul slept. The utmost vigilance was maintained throughout the vessel. Apart from the noise of the paying-out machinery, there was an awful stillness on board. Men walked about with a muffled step, or spoke in whispers, as if they were afraid the sound of their voices would break the slender line. It seemed as though a great and valued friend lay at the point of death.
The submarine hill, with its dangerous slope, was passed in safety, and the 'telegraph plateau,' nearly two miles deep, was reached, when suddenly the signals from Ireland, which told that the conductor was intact, stopped altogether. Professor Morse and De Sauty, the electricians, failed to restore the communication, and the engineers were preparing to cut the cable, when quite as suddenly the signals returned, and every face grew bright. A weather-beaten old sailor said, 'I have watched nearly every mile of it as it came over the side, and I would have given fifty dollars, poor man as I am, to have saved it, although I don't expect to make anything by it when it is laid down.'
But the joy was short-lived. The line was running out at the rate of six miles an hour, while the vessel was only making four. To check this waste of cable the engineer tightened the brakes; but as the stern of the ship rose on the swell, the cable parted under the heavy strain, and the end was lost in the sea.
The bad news ran like a flash of lightning through all the ships, and produced a feeling of sorrow and dismay.
No attempt was made to grapple the line in such deep water, and the expedition returned to England. It was too late to try again that year, but the following summer the Agamemnon and Niagara, after an experimental trip to the Bay of Biscay, sailed from Plymouth on June 10 with a full supply of cable, better gear than before, and a riper experience of the work. They were to meet in the middle of the Atlantic, where the two halves of the cable on board of each were to be spliced together, and while the Agamemnon payed out eastwards to Valentia Island the Niagara was to pay out westward to Newfoundland. On her way to the rendezvous the Agamemnon encountered a terrific gale, which lasted for a week, and nearly proved her destruction.
On Saturday, the 26th, the middle splice was effected and the bight dropped into the deep. The two ships got under weigh, but had not proceeded three miles when the cable broke in the paying-out machinery of the Niagara. Another splice, followed by a fresh start, was made during the same afternoon; but when some fifty miles were payed out of each vessel, the current which kept up communication between them suddenly failed owing to the cable having snapped in the sea. Once more the middle splice was made and lowered, and the ships parted company a third time. For a day or two all went well; over two hundred miles of cable ran smoothly out of each vessel, and the anxious chiefs began to indulge in hopes of ultimate success, when the cable broke about twenty feet behind the stern of the Agamemnon.
The expedition returned to Queenstown, and a consultation took place. Mr. Field, and Professor Thomson, who was on board the Agamemnon, were in favour of another trial, and it was decided to make one without delay. The vessels left the Cove of Cork on July 17; but on this occasion there was no public enthusiasm, and even those on board felt as if they were going on another wild goose chase. The Agamemnon was now almost becalmed on her way to the rendezvous; but the middle splice was finished by 12.30 p.m. on July 29, 1858, and immediately dropped into the sea. The ships thereupon started, and increased their distance, while the cable ran easily out of them. Some alarm was caused by the stoppage of the continuity signals, but after a time they reappeared. The Niagara deviated from the great arc of a circle on which the cable was to be laid, and the error was traced to the iron of the cable influencing her compass. Hence the Gorgon, one of her consorts, was ordered to go ahead and lead the way. The Niagara passed several icebergs, but none injured the cable, and on August 4 she arrived in Trinity Bay, Newfoundland. At 6. a.m. next morning the shore end was landed into the telegraph-house which had been built for its reception. Captain Hudson, of the Niagara, then read prayers, and at one p.m. H.M.S. Gorgon fired a salute of twenty-one guns.
The Agamemnon made an equally successful run. About six o'clock on the first evening a huge whale was seen approaching on the starboard bow, and as he sported in the waves, rolling and lashing them into foam, the onlookers began to fear that he might endanger the line. Their excitement became intense as the monster heaved astern, nearer and nearer to the cable, until his body grazed it where it sank into the water; but happily no harm was done. Damaged portions of the cable had to be removed in paying-out, and the stoppage of the continuity signals raised other alarms on board. Strong head winds kept the Agamemnon back, and two American ships which got into her course had to be warned off by firing guns. The signals from the Niagara became very weak, but on Professor Thomson asking the electricians on board of her to increase their battery power, they improved at once. At length, on Thursday, August, 5, the Agamemnon, with her consort, the Valorous, arrived at Valentia Island, and the shore end was landed into the cable-house at Knightstown by 3 p.m., and a royal salute announced the completion of the work.