Alice Springs Northern Territory History

In the middle of nowhere a gateway to anywhere.

Alice Springs (Mparntwe) NT

The original, or Alice Springs proper, is situated some six kilometres up the Todd River from Heavitree Gap. Today this is better known as the Old Telegraph Station. It was during the building of the Overland Telegraph Line that W.W. Mills discovered the dry riverbed and, following it down, found pool after pool of clear water. That night he wrote in his diary, 'numerous waterholes and springs, the principal of which is the Alice Spring which I had the honour of naming after Mrs Todd'. Mills also named the pass Heavitree Gap after his school in Devon, England.

Among some of the first white speculators or settlers to take up land in Central Australia were Edward Meade Bagot, who had contracted for the southern portion of the Overland Telegraph line, and Joseph Gilbert. On 1 April 1872 they gained pastoral leases in the Alice Springs region.

Since that time Alice Springs has had a long and proud association with Australia's communication link to the rest of the world. The first connection was made on 3 January 1872 by Benjamin Clarke. He then went further north to install the Barrow Creek and Tennant Creek repeater stations, leaving Johannes Ferdinant Mueller in charge.

The Alice Springs Telegraph Office was opened on 22 August 1872 on the very day that Patterson connected the wires between Adelaide and Darwin at Frew's Ponds. In 1874 an area of 25 square miles was proclaimed around the station as a reserve and in 1888 the new town of Stuart surveyed within its boundaries.

In 1878 a Post Office was opened, followed on 28 April 1879 by a Police Station. On 4 August 1882 William Willshire was posted to the station. Born in Adelaide on 5 March 1852 he had worked as a drover before joining the police force on 1 January 1878. Erwein Wurmbrand was posted to the Alice on 9 November 1884 and in 1888 William Garnett South was transferred from Barrow Creek to the Alice. He was placed in charge of the station and also served as Mining Warden.

In 1885 Francis Gillen was at Alice Springs. Born at Little Para in South Australia on 28 October 1855, he had joined the Telegraph Department at Clare in 1877. While at the Alice he studied Aboriginal culture and later published several books in conjunction with Professor Baldwin Spencer. However, he also was a keen photographer and took hundreds of pictures of his surroundings as well as many of the local Aborigines.


Todd River

In July 1888 the South Australian government commissioned David Lindsay to lay out a town on the banks of the Todd River. On 29 November 1888 the town of Stuart was proclaimed. The first blocks were sold in January 1889. Born in Goolwa on 20 June 1856, Lindsay had been appointed surveyor in the Northern Territory in 1878.

Alice Springs, with its Telegraph Station and the newly proclaimed town of Stuart remained separate communities. Some of the first buildings and businesses at Stuart were opened during 1889 when Billy Benstead built the Stuart Arms Hotel and F.B. Wallis opened a store.

Very little progress was made at Stuart during the first decade. The Bradshaw family arrived in 1899 when Thomas Bradshaw took over from Francis Gillen at the Overland Telegraph Station. Gillen had been in the Alice for twenty-five years and had Mount Gillen named after him. The arrival of the Bradshaws pleased Mrs Meyers, wife of Charles Meyers, who up to that time had been the only white woman at Stuart. Charles Myers operated a saddler's shop for many years whereas his wife ran a boarding house. The other white woman, the wife of Mounted Constable Charles Brookes, lived with her husband at the Heavitree Gap police camp. The Bradshaws remained at Stuart until August 1908.


Heavitree Gap

In 1887 Thomas Bradshaw married Atlanta Allchurch in Adelaide and he worked as the night shift operator at the Adelaide Telegraph Office. With Bradshaw being a distant relative of Aeneas Gunn's cousin Joseph Bradshaw, he too liked to see a bit more of Australia and applied for the job of station master in Alice Springs. He was successful and promptly left by train for Terowie, where he had to change trains for Oodnadatta and from there by horse and buggy to the centre. His wife and children followed him a few months later. Thomas was also appointed a Special Magistrate and had at times to travel as far as Barrow Creek to hear cases.

When gold was discovered in the MacDonnell Ranges, Mounted Constable William Willshire was appointed Warden of Goldfields in July 1887. H.Y.L. Brown, Government Geologist said in 1890 that he regarded the Alice Springs District as one of the most favourable areas for gold prospecting. However he did realise that the lack of water would be a great problem. To overcome this he suggested the sinking of wells.

In December 1907 the first car arrived at Stuart driven by Henry Dutton and Murray Aunger. It must have created some excitement for the population of about fifteen white people. It also would have been some trip on more than a thousand kilometre of dirt road, which was not graded regularly as it was done much later. Petrol would also have to be taken for most of that distance.


Stuart Town Gaol

Constructed during 1907-1908 by well known stone mason Jack Williams it replaced the original Heavitree Gap Goal. This building was used until 1938. Being one of the coolest places in town it was occasionally used as a school room in the 1920s when there was a lack of suitable buildings.

In 1910 Public Telephone offices were opened at the Alice, Stuart, Horseshoe Bend and Charlotte Waters. From the first of January 1911 the Northern Territory administration was transferred from South Australia to the Commonwealth Government. Sergeant Robert Stott was doing the rounds at Stuart during that time and for many years thereafter. Born on 13 July 1858 in Scotland he had joined the South Australian Police in 1882. After service at Roper River and Borroloola he was transferred to Stuart. Stott retired on 13 April 1928 and moved to Adelaide. Sadly he did not enjoy a long retirement as he was killed on 5 May while crossing the railway line at Wayville.

Ida Standley opened a school in June 1914 and also became the matron of the Bungalow home for part Aborigines. Standley Chasm was named for her. Mrs Standley lived at the hostel and had the care of the children as well as the school. When C.T. Madigan visited the place he was suitably impressed, but showed little understanding referring to the aboriginal children as 'natural little animals'. Later Ida lived at Myrtle Villa which had been home for some years to Sister Jean Finlayson from the Australian Inland Mission.

In October 1921 the first plane, flown by Francis Briggs, landed at Stuart. The population had increased to 30 whites and about 300 Aborigines. It was enough for Bob Laver, publican of the Stuart Arms Hotel who also had many visitors from down the track.


Adelaide House

Adelaide House completed in 1926. It became the social and nursing home. First nurses were Sisters I.Pope and E.Small. It had been brought about by John Flynn when he visited the Telegraph Station in January 1913. Until 1939 it remained the only hospital in Central Australia when the Alice Springs Government Hospital was completed. Previously Flynn had been instrumental in building a hospital at Maranboy in 1917 and Victoria River Downs in 1923.

On 1 February 1927 the town of Stuart was proclaimed the administrative capital of Central Australia. During that same year the Railway extension from Oodnadatta to Stuart was surveyed by David Douglas Smith. The Isolation of Stuart, or Alice Springs was broken finally in 1929 when it was connected by rail to Adelaide providing employment for nearly 900 men. On 30 August 1933 the name of Stuart was changed to Alice Springs.

In 1932 the Post and Telefraph Office was closed and all services removed to the town. For the next 31 years the old station and buildings were used as The Bungalows, a native settlement. To help with the changes and removal Harry Hawke had been dispatched to the Alice in November 1931.

Major developments and expansion occured during the second world war. In many ways Alice Springs gained a good deal from WWII. Most of all it put an end to its isolation by becoming a military base. Many of the local men enlisted but because of the formation of the Darwin Overland Maintenance Force some 750 military personel moved into the town. During the first years of the war nearly 200,000 men passed through. Even better was the sealing of the road as far as Larrimah. Alice Springs also became the railhead and centre of activity with as many as 60 trains a week giving employment to over a thousand people.


Alice Springs Troop train 1944.

The Government took over the mining around town as well. During the war years Alice Springs also gained a much larger and better water supply, a power station, a new airport and a newspaper. Whereas its population in 1933 had been just over 500 it now had more than 2000.

enly on Todd was the brainchild of Reg Smith in 1962 when the Rotary Club was scratching its head for something different to raise funds for charity. It is now the only place in the world where a boat race is cancelled when the river has water in it.

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