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The Australian colonies relied exclusively on shipping to carry news and mail to and from Europe. In the 1850s, during the Gold Rushes, it typically took a message sixty to eighty days to reach Australia from Europe. There was talk of connecting Australia to the rest of the world by telegraph but long-distance undersea cables were not successful until Cyrus W Field laid a cable between Ireland and Newfoundland in 1865 establishing that it was possible to lay, and maintain, undersea cables between the continents. Many other underseas cables were soon laid including those connecting England with Batavia (Jarkata) in present-day Indonesia. A cable connection onward to Port Darwin in Australia was assessed as practical but not much use unless the undersea cable could connect with the cable network linking the Australian colonies.
Any consideration of connecting Port Darwin with any of the other colonies had to face the large obstacle that the arid and hostile centre of Australia had not yet been crossed. The Burke and Wills Expedition set out to explore the centre but failed with the death of the leaders.
Then John McDouall Stuart succeeded in 1862 in marking a trail and proving that the continent could be crossed north-south, and the South Australian government began planning to build a telegraph line between Adelaide and Port Darwin to link the colonial telegraph system with the overseas telegraph line. The Queensland Government wanted the line to run from Port Darwin into Queensland so South Australia ended up implementing the project unassisted. The project would be managed by Charles Todd, the South Australian Superintendent of Telegraphs who had connected South Australia to Melbourne by telegraph in 1865. He had installed a telegraph line between Adelaide and Port Augusta in 1870 as the first section of the line to Port Augusta.
The line between Port Augusta and Port Darwin was planned in three sections, the southern one from Port Augusta to Oodnadatta and the northern one from Port Darwin to the Roper River were let out to private contractors; the hardest central section of 970 kilometres was to be installed by the government. The route to be followed was that found by McDouall Stuart; John Ross was assigned the task of marking out the trail for the line which had to have enough water and timber but avoid mountains; Ross followed Stuart's track fairly closely except when crossing the MacDonnell Ranges.
|Overland Telegraph - page 2|
The contract specified eighteen months to build the line but the enormous task took two years being beset by drought, flooding, contractor incompetence on the northern section, and simply the inhospitable nature of the country. But on 22 August 1872 the Overland Telegraph between Adelaide and Darwin was completed. The Governor of South Australia declared a Public Holiday to celebration completion of the Overland Telegraph.
The Java to Darwin undersea cable began working two months later. Now, instead of a 40 days delay for news to come from England by sea (the time had been reduced since the 1850s), messsages from London to Australia took 24 hours. Arrival of news from England within a day of the event taking place caused a significant change in life in the colonies. Using the telegraph was not cheap, a 20-word telegram cost the remarkably expensive sum of 9 pounds, but the convenience and immediacy of the telgraph made the cost worthwhile for many users.
Initially cyprus pine and redgum were used for poles except for 3,000 iron poles used in the southern section. White ants quickly devoured timber poles and, over ten years from 1873, wooden poles were replaced by iron poles. Losses in the signal on such a long length of wire would have made the message unreadable at the end so repeater stations were built at about every 250 kilometres. At each repeater station a telegraphist received each message and re-transmitted it to the next station along the line. From Adelaide repeater stations were at Port Augusta, Beltana, Strangways Springs, The Peake, Charlotte Waters, Alice Springs, Barrow Creek, Tennant Creek, Powells Creek, Daly Waters, Katherine and Yam Creek before the line reached Port Darwin. Each repeater station had the same role; telegraphists repeated each message to the next station along the line and linesmen patrolled the section of the line associated with the station or responded to, and repaired, breakages. Nominal manning for a Telegraph Station is listed as two telegraphists and four linesmen but various accounts indicate there was considerable local variation in manning and probably cross-training of telegraphists in line maintenance.
More remote Telegraph Stations were, in every sense, pioneering ventures; they were the first settlements in hitherto unknown regions and became small, self-contained, villages. Alice Springs Telegraph Station has been partly restored to represent the original during the period 1899 - 1908 and gives an idea of the complexity of a Telegraph Station. These stations were required to be self-sufficient apart from a delivery of supplies once a year by camel train. They quickly became centres for hand-outs to local aboriginals as well as starting points for exploration expeditions; the track joining stations became the access route to the interior.
By the 1930s nearby townships had developed sufficiently and the overland telegraph function was transferred to the nearby town Post Office. The Overland Telegraph itself continued operating for many years and was the means by which the rest of Australia was told of the Japanese attack on Darwin in 1942. There are reports of parts of the Telegraph still being used in the 1980s but the date of final use appears not to have been recorded. Unlike the opening of the Overland Telegraph, which was fully recorded and reported, the end was neither recorded nor reported.
¶ From the Australian Heritage Council document on communications at
¶ Display material at Alice Springs Telegraph Station
¶ "Never-Never Telegraphist" by Frederick Goss at http://www.connectingthecontinent.com/ctcwebsite/pdf/nevergoss.pdf