The Overland Telegraph Line - Adelaide to Darwin.

Alice Station
The Telegraph Station at Alice Springs.

Telegraph Line
The central & northern sections of the line.
Telegraph Line
The southern section contracted to private enterprise and finished on time.
Speculation and discussion about various routes to connect Australia with a new telegraph cable to Java, and then to the world, began around 1855. Among possible connection points were Ceylon to Albany in Western Australia, and from Java to Darwin, then on to Burketown in north western Queensland to connect the eastern states.
The South Australian Government recognised the benefits which would flow from being the epicentre of a telegraph network across Australia and the opportunities for developing the unknown northern region of the state, which at that time also included the Northern Territory.
Competition to develop a route between the south and the north of the continent was fierce. Victoria sent out an expedition led by Burke and Wills to cross the continent from Broken Hill to the Gulf of Carpentaria in 1860. This ill fated expedition resulted in the loss of life of many.
The South Australian Government offered a reward of £2,000 ($4,000) to encourage adventurers to mount expeditions to find a route from South Australia to Darwin.
The proposition attracted John McDouall Stuart.
Stuart had accompanied Captain Charles Sturt on his 1844 expedition to Central Australia, after surveying extensively throughout South Australia. In 1860, Stuart, accompanied by William Kekwick and Ben Head, set out on their first attempt. The party reached Attack Creek, north of Tennant Creek, before being forced back through lack of supplies and hostile natives on June 27th 1860. Stuart, with Kekwick and 10 others, set out again on New Year's Day 1861, and reached Newcastle Waters, but was again forced to return, this time because of the dense bushland.
They left Adelaide again in December, 1861 and seven months later, on July 24th 1862, finally reached the north coast at a place which they named Chambers Bay, after a sponsor of their expeditions.
This epic achievement pioneered a path for the Telegraph Line and in 1870 the South Australian Parliament authorised $250,000 to construct a telegraph line connecting Adelaide with Port Augusta, 300 kilometres to the north.
This provocative action outraged Queensland who considered the route from Darwin to Burketown was a far better option.
Deadlines were involved. The cable from Java was to reach Darwin on the 31st. December 1871 and severe pemalties would apply if there was no land link to connect to. There were 18 months to construct 3,200 km. of line, telegraph stations and residences.
The South Australian Superintendent of Telegraphs at the time was Charles Todd. He grasped the challenge and worked out a timetable to complete the immense project on schedule. He divided the route into three distinct sections, the northern and southern sections would be handled by private contractors and the central section by his own department. Surveyors, linesman, labourers, carpenters, cooks and teamsters left Adelaide with horses, bullocks and carts loaded with provisions and equipment for many weeks.
Some 3,000 steels posts of 6 metres, telegraph wire, insulators, batteries and other equipment were raced from England to construct the line. Afghan camel trains were contracted to keep up supplies and 2,000 sheep were taken to ensure fresh meat.
Exploring parties moved ahead finding waterholes and surveying the route.
Explorer John Ross led a party to central Australia to survey the line for that section and private contractors William Dalwood and Joseph Derwent arrived in Darwin aboard the 'SS Omeo' with 80 men and equipment to begin the northern section from Darwin to Tennant Creek.
The southern section from Port Augusta to Alberga Ck., north of Oodnadatta, was contracted to Edward Meade Bagot who completed his section on time.
Poles were to be placed no less than 20 to the mile 264 yards apart (250 metres) with work continuing over 6 days a week. Where possible, timber poles were cut and used. Holes were hand dug, the poles erected, and the wire strung. It was frantic work, sometimes in temperatures well over 100 degrees. Lime juice was provided to fight scurvy.
In the north the line was progressing well until the wet season struck in November. Monsoon rains, sometimes up to 10 inches a day, barred the teams as ground became water-logged, animals foundered, and carts were bogged. Conditions were appalling. Holes filled with water as soon as they were dug, humid conditions caused food to beome rancid, weevils infested flour, and mosquitoes wreaked havoc. On the 7th. March the men went on strike. A few weeks later overseer McMinn decided to rescind the contract and left Darwin. His decision put extra pressure on the government teams who now had to install an addtional several hundred kilometres of the line. It took 6 months for fresh teams comprising 200 men, 170 horses, 500 bullocks and all the equipment needed to arrive in Darwin under engineer Robert Patterson, to continue the northern section. In addition, the 6 months of the 'dry season' had been lost.
Patterson decided to divide the area into 4 sections with three parties finishing the most northerly sections. if the deadline was missed, a 'pony express' could be set up to cover the last section while it was being completed.
In the meantime, the cable from Java arrived in Darwin early on the 18th November and was connected from Darwin the next day.
The souther, and central sections were now nearing completion but the troubled north was receiving criticism from the Queensland Government who were attaking the project at every opportunity and calling for its abandonment.
At the due date, there were still over 300 kilometres of unfinished line and in January Todd personally visited the workers near Mataranka to revive their spirits. On the 22nd of May Charles Todd sent the first telegram from darwin to a temporary station at Elsey near the Roper River. This was then raced by pony express to to Tennant Creek where it was transmitted along the completed southern section to Adelaide. the communication took 9 days in all.
By June, the southern section had reached Daly Waters, leaving a gap of only 320 km. The gap was diminishing rapidly. It was then that luck intervened - the cable between Darwin and Java failed. This erased any talk of compensation and on the 22nd August the line was joined at Frew's Ponds. A monument beside the road marks the spot where it was joined by contractor Patterson.
Eleven Telegraph Stations were set up along the line which would receive and retransmit messages. These were at beltana, Strangeways Springs, The Peaks, Charlotte Waters, Alice Springs, Barrow Creek, tennant Creek, Powell Creek, Daly Waters, and Yam Creek. each had a stationmaster and up to 4 operators and a linesman..
The cable to Java was repaired on the 22nd. October in 1872 and the first telegram between Australia and Britain became a reality.

© Copyright Peter W. Wilkins