THE OVERLAND TELEGRAPH Port Darwin to Port Augusta
Building the Overland Telegraph Line was an enterprise of epic proportions. A single wire crossing Australia 1800 miles (3200kms) north to south through country largely unknown.
It was to connect the few telegraph lines in Australia with an undersea cable linking into an international network. It would mean the end of communication isolation. News would be received in a few hours, not in three months time when the mail steamer arrived.
In 1870 discussions on possible telegraph line routes had been taking place for the past fifteen years between the British Australian Telegraph company and the Colonial Governments. There were various propositions.
The prospectus drawn up by the British and Australian Telegraph company, as well as laying cable from Java to Darwin, included constructing the telegraph line overland to Burketown. Sanction was then sought from the South Australian Government as the line would pass through the Northern Territory (then part of South Australia).
The South Australians had long entertained ambitions to secure the overland route. They were aware of the immense economical and political advantages. It would also be means for settlement of pasture country in the north. Stuart's explorations with the 2000 pounds reward offered had been for this very purpose.
Competition evoked bold action! They replied offering to build the line to Port Augusta, relieving the Company of the cost. A bill was rushed through the S.A.Parliamentt in June 1870 authorising funds of 120,000 pounds to construct a telegraph line from Port Darwin to Port Augusta.
The Queenslanders were outraged. They responded with a counter offer pointing out the advantages of building the shorter route versus the absurdity of the S.A. scheme over huge tracts of little known country that had been crossed only once. Most of it contained no timber, little feed for horses and doubtful water supplies. The idea was incredible.
It was a political triumph for the S.A. Government, however, and they assumed sole responsibility for construction and maintenance for the overland line. It was to be operational by the time the submarine cable reached Australian shores by 31st Dec, 1871. If not finished oschedulele, penalties would apply for every day thereafter.
The project was immense. Charles Todd, telegraphic superintendent who had estimated the cost, was in charge. "I fully realised the vastness of the undertaking" he said "but the short space of time allotted to me, only 18 months, greatly increased my difficulties. Need I tell you how many sleepless nights and anxious hours I have spent as all these apparently insuperable difficulties stared me in the face. How eagerly I read Stuart's journals and with what feeling I tried to realise all I had to contend with.
Todd divided the construction into three sections. Northern and southern to go to private contractors and the least known, moinaccessibleble central section was to be constructed by government parties. He supplied meticulous instructions to the Overseers of the working parties, detailing the work and all contingencies.
A flurry of activity began in Adelaide with harness makerskers, cartmakers and timberyards striving to complete orders.
John Ross with an exploring team travelled to the Centre to select the best route and explorer Benjamin Babbage advised on vital water supplies and geographical features on the southern section.
A massive movement of men left Adelaide - surveyors, labourers, linesmen, carpenters and contract carters. Transport was crucial. Everything was carted over roadless and often waterless country. There were horses, bullocks and carts loaded with tools, tents and provisions for many weeks. Three thousand wrought iron poles (nineteen feet long), most of wire, batteries, insulators and other equipment were imported from England. Two camel trains in the care of Afghans and the store contractor with two thousand ration sheep joined them. Later Doctor Renner and Doctor Rix were appointed as surgeons.
Contractors Joseph Darwent and William Dalwood arrived at the remote northern outpost Darwin on the ship SS Omeo fully laden almost to its bulwarks with 80 men, horses carts, bullocks and equipment.
The line was to beconstructedd in "a most substantial manner and the poles are to placed not fewer than 20 to the mile." Work continued six days a week with a break in the hottest part of the day. They toiled over gibber plains, sand hills, stony deserts and in the north through dense vegetation. Often temperatures would exceed 100 F (40 C) and tools put down in the sun would be too hot to handle. The track route was surveyed and cleared of vegetation. Poles were cut by hand and dropped along the track. Holes were dug by hand, poles erected and wire strung. It was tough, unremitting work. Sometimes if a tree was close to the line, it would be topped to regulation height and used where it stood. The enterprising use of two poles scarfed together to make one was also used. Angle poles were strutted with an extra pole for strength. Lightening conductors were added in the Darwin area. Tinned bully beef was the mainstay of a monotonous diet and lime juice prevented scurvy.
The southern and central sections were progressing on schedule. Ross's exploring party had climbed Central Mount Stuart where they located the cairn of stones build by Stuart and Kelwick ten years earlier. They found the bottle with the note, took it back and passed in on to Todd.
The northern section too made substantial progress until November. Then came the wet season. The rain poured down, up to ten inches a day. Dry rivers became raging torrents. The ground turned to swamps. Animals foundered; some drowned. Carts were bogged. Fresh supplies could not get through the floods. The humid weather sent food bad and weevils rampaged through the flour. Telegraph line holes filled with water as soon as they were dug. The men became fed up and on 7th March the first industrial strike in the Northern Territory occurred. By mid March Overseer McMinn warned the contractors that work was unsatisfactory.
On his next visit he found work at a standstill from lack of supplies. Although replenishment depended on good weather, which would soon begin, McMinn panicked, cancelled the contract and declared the work would be completed by government contractors. He sailed for Adelaide in the supply ship Gulnare, his actions putting the whole line project in jeopardy.
Thus it was that the best weather of 1871 passed without any more poles being erected on the northern section. Todd joined in frantic consultations in Adelaide. Robert Patterson, Resident Engineer of Railways was appointed to lead the new government team,
An additional 200 men, 170 horses, 500 bullocks with more plant and equipment arrived by ships in September and early October. They should have gone to the Roper River, close to the work site, but politics dictated landing at Darwin to increase prosperity there. Land had been subdivided for sale. It was hoped land sales would help finance the Overland Telegraph Line.
To add to Patterson's frustrations, unloading work was delayed by a mutiny on the Himalaya. The country was bare of feed after the long dry season and there was a shortage of water. Many of the bullocks were landed in a very weak state and died soon afterwards.
Patterson divided the work into four sections with three sorting parties completing the most northerly sections leaving an option for the last section to be carried by pony express, if necessary. Work progressed slowly because of the effort in locating water.
The beginning of November, with time running out and the wet season fast approaching, Patterson sent word via the Queensland telegraph line, for more reinforcements. He was most despondent and noted in his diary "flies and mosquitos are unbearable. I am utterly weary of the whole thing. Can see nothing but blackness and suffering ahead."
Meanwhile, lying in harbour at Port Darwin Bay were the company ships Edinborough, Hibernia and Investigator. The shore cable was landed on 18th November 1871. The following day Australia was linked to the international connection and was in touch with the rest of the world.
Darwin received the first memorable message. "Advance Australia" Captain Haplin of the Cable Fleet sent to Captain Douglas the Governor's Resident. "I have the honour to announce to you in the name of the Telegraphic Construction and Maintenance Company, that we yesterday completed perfect submarine cable communication with Java, the Mother Country and the Western World. May it long speak words of peace".
By now the southern and Central Sections were substantially advance and well on the way to completion. But panic and chaos reigned in the north. Penalties of 70 pounds per day were looming. The northern section was far from finished.
"A wet season of remarkable intensity was upon them.", Todd said soon after. "Very severe stock losses were sustained. " Over twenty inches of rain fell in December.
To add to their troubles, the Queensland Superintendent of Telegraphs had struck out publicly and published letters in several of the other colonies' newspapers. He poured scorn on the impractical route of the telegraph line and urged that it be abandoned.
On the day the contract expired, there were still over 300 miles to be completed. By the end of Janurary, Todd was at the Roper River bringing good cheer and confidence as well as more manpower, horses, bullocks and equipment.
It was April before construction on the northern line could be resumed. Meanwhile, the Central parties were continuing poling northwards.
On the 22nd May, Todd sent the first Trans - Australian telegram from Darwin to the temporary stations on the Elsey. Knuckey then rode with it across the long gap to Tennant Creek where it was telegraphed to Adelaide. It was received nine days after it was sent.
By June the northern section had reached Daly Waters. A pony express was organised to carry messages over the now rapidly diminishing gap in the line of 260 miles. Then the cable failed between Java and Port Darwin. There was no more talk of compensation.
Finally on the 22nd of August the two ends met near Frew's Ponds. It was joined by patterson. He said "Adelaide was in communication with Darwin. It would have been with England, had the cable not broken down."
Todd, returning overland to Adelaide was at Central Mount Stuart. By evening he was inundated on his portable relay set with congratulatory messages from governments, foreign consuls and well wishers from all over the Colony. It was a bitterly cold night and an exuberant Todd called for hearty cheers from his companions. He said "No line passing through a similar extent of uninhabited country, where the materials had to be carted over such long distances, no line of equal length and presenting similar obstacles has been constructed in the same short space of time."
In Adelaide, the town hall bells were rung, flag poles decked with bunting adorned the GPO and the clerks were given a holiday for the afternoon. "This great work, the greatest ever accomplished in the Australias is now complete and we have received the first message right through from Palmerston to Adelaide." reported the Adelaide Advertiser on 23rd August 1872.
There were eleven telegraph repeater stations set up along the line to boost the morse code signal as it faded over distance. They were located at Beltana, Strangeways Springs, The Peake, Charlotte Waters, Alice Springs, Barrow Creek, Tennant Creek, Powell Creek, Daly Waters and Yam Creek. They were staffed by a stationmaster, up to four operators and a linesman to repair line faults.
It was two months before the cable was repaired. On 22nd October 1872, the first of many messages between Australia and London transversed the lines.
In the first year of operation there was a bumper wheat harvest. Being in touch with world markets greatly benefited the community.
Undoubtedly the Overland Telegraph Line with its road/stock route wending North and the telegraph repeater stations, greatly facilitated settlement of Central Australia and the Northern Territory.
In later years the news of the sinking of the Titanic and the start of the Boer War was relayed through the Overland Telegraph line.
The Vision to build a transcontinental railway from Adelaide to Port Darwin began in the 1870's. The first contact for the Port Augusta to Government Gums (Farina) section was built by British tradesmen with Chinese workers, indentured to the Victorian Government, because of acute labour shortages. Its purpose was to service the mineral, pastoral and wheat areas of the northern Flinders Ranges. The 1870s were boom times.
The railway reached Quorn in 1879, Hawker in 1880, Beltana in 1881 and Farina in 1882. The track was extended to Hergott Springs (Marree) in 1882. Extensions northwards to Oodnadatta were built under a State government unemployment relief scheme.
Hergott Springs to Coward Springs opened in 1888, William Creek and Wirrina in 1889 and then Oodnadatta in 1891. Oodnadatta became the railhead, transhipment centre for the Afghan Cameleers, the camels transporting supplies to the isolated north. Gold had been discovered in the MacDonnell Ranges. Drought and depression hit in 1884 and the railway went no further.
Meanwhile the northern railway was constructed from Darwin to the goldfields at Pine Creek again built by Chinese labour. It was eventually extended to Katherine in 1917 and Birdum, south of Larrimah in 1929.
The Northern Territory was transferred from South Australian administration to the Federal Government in 1911. Part of the agreement stated that the transcontinental railway would be completed: however technical details omitted were "when" and "over what route".
In 1927 the railway was extended. For economy and haste, railway sleepers were laid on top of the ground with no formwork; the construction gangs enduring hardships of the hot and parched land and tentlife.
Amidst great excitement, the first train reached Stuart (Alice Springs) in 1929. It was 5 hours late. It brought an end to an era- the supply route for the cameleers and in honour of the men it replaced became known as the Ghan.
A journey on the legendary Ghan would take anything between 3 days to 3 months to complete. Washaways were a problem after rain. Overnight, dry creeks would be running "bankers", sweeping large sections of the track away. On one such occasion, the engine driver shot wild goats to feed his passengers.
During the war, the railway filled the gap of transporting troops and hundreds of tons of supplies to the northern shores. In the summer, the train driver and firemen endured incredible temperatures in the engine. Troops travelled in converted cattle trucks, up to 30 trains a day and then overland by road from Alice Springs to Larrimah. The North Australian Railway, from Birdum to Darwin, increased its once weekly service to upwards of 147 trains a week at the peak of operations.
As late as 1967, there were washouts on the old Ghan line and sections would still be traversed as slow as 20ks per hour because of the condition of the line.
Both sections of the narrow gauge line no longer exist. In 1976 the North Australian line closed and in 1980 the Central Australian line was replaced by a new standard line via Tarcoola.
$3,000,000 was committed by the Commonwealth Government to survey the line in 1993. Surveying is now completed; hydrological survey still to finish. The Northern Territory Government is developing Port Darwin. In Tennant Creek, the townsfolk got into the swing of things with their Grand Opening of the Railway Station. It didn't bother them that there are no railway lines.
The Vision continues.....