On 2 April 1859, John McDouall Stuart left Oratunga station on an expedition to the north of Lake Torrens. During that trip seven artesian springs were discovered by Joseph Albert Herrgott, a German Botanist, travelling with John McDouall Stuart. Stuart named them Hergott Springs. That same year the spot was visited by the South Australian Governor, Sir Richard MacDonnell. A year later the area was surveyed by GW Goyder and the Hergott pastoral run put up for auction on 7 September 1860. The springs though were declared a government water reserve in 1860 and have remained so ever since.
Pastoral development was often hampered by drought conditions in the north and particularly during the severe drought between 1863-1865. However on 18 January 1866 the drought broke and Hergott Springs was soaked for forty hours with more than 25cm of rain. During the 1870s wheat, sheep and cattle producers kept on pushing north, believing that 'rain would follow their ploughs'. With the building of the Overland Telegraph, Hergott Springs became a maintenance camp for the line in 1872.
Drover calling in at Marree.
A M Hopewell Collection.
With the extra money coming in from land sales and leases, the government decided to build a railway from Port Augusta to Farina. In 1881 a further bill was passed, and assented to on 18 November, for the construction of a railway from Farina to Hergott Springs, to connect with the main stock route from Birdsville in Queensland. A major settlement had already developed near the springs, including William Gunter who ran a butcher shop. In 1882 a general store and hotel were added to cater for the drovers and station people.
Since that time Marree (Map) has waxed and waned with the fortunes of transport, camel, railway and truck and the pastoral industry. With the influx of more and more people, including many Afghans, a police station was opened, manned by three mounted constables in 1883, a post office, run by John Arthur O'Brien, and another store operated by C.E. Stokes. During that year a government town was surveyed at the end of the railway, near the springs, proclaimed and named Marree on 20 December 1883.
Afghan children at Marree.
A M Hopewell Collection.
The Great Northern Hotel at Marree is a solid prominent two-storey building in the main street. It has been host to members of several inland expeditions and numerous people travelling on the Ghan. At the opening of its Centenary celebrations, Assistant General Manager of Australian National, ME. Gigney, said,
There are people here today whose ancestors lived in this land long before the advent of white settlement and who found at Marree water and a place to rest. There are people here today who are the descendants of the Afghan camel drivers and were born in this town and who continue to have an attachment for Marree which perhaps passes the understanding of others. There are people here today whose forefathers settled in this demanding country which can never be taken for granted but which is rich in reward from time to time for those who understand it. All of these people have contributed to the development of the Inland and all have found in Marree a base, a home, companionship, friendship and a tempering of the spirit. For there is no doubt that small towns like Marree breed big people and towns like Marree have had and will have an influence on the nation far beyond their size, for Marree has for a long time been in the forefront of development and from its inception a transport and supply town.
In those few words Mr Gigney was able to sum up the main cycles of Marree's history and the contribution made to it by the Aborigines, Afghans and white migrants who called the town home.
Although the official name was Marree, which comes from the Aboriginal word Mari meaning place of many possums, the name Hergott Springs was used until World War I, when it was dropped in 1918 as a result of the ill feeling towards Germany and German migrants in South Australia. Not everyone was in favour of this and when efforts were made in 1929 to restore these names the Rev. John Blacket, wrote to the Advertiser,
'When the committee sat some twelve years ago to wipe out the German names given to various towns and localities, an injustice was done not only to all our German colonists, but especially to some very worthy pioneers. Even our most famous explorer (John McDouall Stuart), who crossed and recrossed the continent, suffered.
Hergott Springs, so named by him, was changed to Marree. This, to me, is like an outrage. Hergott was one of those self-sacrificing men, who, like Stuart, risked his life in attempting to penetrate the interior. In 1859, writing in his journal, Stuart said, Hergott did not return until noon to-day. He states that he has found a batch of springs three miles on this side of the ponds, with abundance of water.
They are twelve in number. As a reward to Hergott for this valuable discovery Stuart named the Springs, for all time, after Hergott: but he was a German, so the committee in 1917 set aside Stuart's nomenclature and substituted for it Marree. A self-evident, wrong has been done to both Stuart and his associate who discovered the Springs. That wrong historically must be put right'. It never was!
From its earliest days Marree provided a base for the Afghans and their camels and in 1872 a vital link in the Overland Telegraph line, connecting Adelaide with London and the rest of the world. When it became also a railway terminal in 1884, Marree provided most of the transport services along the Birdsville and Oodnadatta Tracks. Camel teams travelled to Broken Hill, Coolgardie, Alice Springs, Innamincka and almost any other place in Central Australia. No place was too far or too isolated. On their return trip they often carried wool to be railed to Adelaide.
In 1884 Samuel Gason was quick to establish his presence in the new town.
Hergott Spring, or little Asia as it was often referred to, soon had date palms and by the turn of the century nearly three hundred, some of them yielding a hundred pounds of dates. Later many of these palms provided shade in far away towns such as Barmera in the riverland. Camels were also used extensively in the building and maintenance of the Overland Telegraph, railway to Alice Springs, and for local and inland police patrols until 1949.
Both the telegraph and the railway have been important to Marree. When they declined, and were later taken away altogether it meant a slow but steady decline for the town. When Ernest Allchurch, who had married Elizabeth Williams at Hermannsburg, was appointed at the telegraph station in 1908 the town was at its peak even though it no longer was the end of the line. This had now moved further north to Oodnadatta.
Although the town, and its cemetery, were divided into three sections, Aboriginal, Afghan and White, there have been very few racial problems. Everybody 'knew their place'.
Ahmed Moosha, Last of the Marree Cameleers died on 19 September 1999, age 86, and was buried at the Stirling North Cemetery.