Connecting Adelaide and the rest of Australia, through Darwin, with England by means of a single wire in 1872, was one of the greatest engineering achievements of the nineteenth century. It was completed by South Australians, under the direction of Charles Todd, in less than two years. It turned out to be a top business deal and a political triumph. Today government inquiries, feasibility and Environmental Impact Studies would take twice that time before the job could even commence.
The Overland Telegraph crossed Australia
Before the completion of this line, Australians were fed on a diet of stale news, often months old. Charles Todd had already established a telegraph line from Port Augusta to Adelaide in 1865, connecting it with Victoria. A year later a telegraph station was completed at Melrose. Being well aware that a submarine cable from England reached as far as Java, it was planned to bring this cable to the nearest point of landfall, and Capital City, in Australia.
In 1870 the South Australian government, with the help and influence of Charles Todd, agreed to build a 3200 kilometre overland telegraph line connecting Darwin with Port Augusta, if the British-Australian Telegraph Company would lay a submarine cable from Java to Darwin. When completed in 1872 Australia could speak with the rest of the world.
Before it was completed though, John Ross, a Scottish born bushman in his fifties, had to mark out the trail which the line would follow. There had to be enough water and timber and no mountains. Ross followed John McDouall Stuart's tracks as close as possible but had deviated in the MacDonnell Ranges. It was during March 1871 that the Todd River was named and Simpson Gap and the Alice Springs were discovered by William Whitfield Mills, Sub-overseer of Sub-section C. On 11 March Mills wrote that he had found a dry riverbed, 'with numerous waterholes and springs, the principal of which is the Alice Springs, which I had the honour of naming after Mrs Todd'.
The task of constructing the line proved immense, involving the penetration into mercilessly cruel country of which little or nothing was known. Transport, of the 36,000 poles, many of them from the Wirrabara Forest, 36,000 insulators and pins plus the many tons of wire, had been one of the biggest problems. Todd bought horses from Beltana on his first trip north. As there was no refrigeration, fresh meat had to be transported alive, slaughtered and eaten when required. This herculean task through arid country of merciless heat, red sand dunes, little or no water but plenty of mosquitoes and flies was completed with the loss of only six men.
Several teamsters from Blinman found work carting poles for its construction. Among them were Kadmiel Keynes and James Heneker. Heneker had arrived at Holdfast Bay on 19 June 1839 and first found work as a shepherd. Within a couple of years he had his own bullock team and transported miners from Port Adelaide to the Burra mine. He worked for John Baker and also carted the big engine to the Callington mine with 44 bullocks. After having lived for some time at Nairne he moved north to Blinman in 1869.
The completion of this exceptional feat, stimulating colonial pride, resulted in His Excellency the Governor in Council to declare in November 1872, that 'Friday the 15th instant shall be observed as a Public Holiday, in celebration of the construction of the Overland Telegraph, which has brought Australia in telegraphic communication with Europe and other parts of the world'.
The building of this line opened up the Northern Territory, speeded up settlement, and the growth of pastoral and other industries. One of the side effects of the building of this line was the discovery of gold deposits at Yam Creek, Sandy Creek, Pine Creek and many other sites. This naturally gave rise to a gold rush, gold fever, speculation and the formation of hundreds of Gold Mining Companies, in particular during the early 1870s. Maintaining the line proved to be a major problem. Many times poles and lines would be washed away as a result of heavy rains and floods.
Another problem was the supply of food to the several repeater stations. Alfred Giles who had previously worked on the Overland Telegraph Line now became involved in supplying the telegraph stations with meat. On his first trip he successfully drove 7000 sheep and some horses from South Australia to the northern stations taking just over a year to complete the job.
The line was a single galvanised iron wire which connected Australia with the rest of the world. In 1899 a second wire was added but this time it was a copper wire. In 1941 a second copper wire was added.
Within twelve months of its completion four expeditions had struck out to explore the west using the line as a starting point. Two expeditions were started by Ernest Giles, one by W.C. Gosse and another one by sixty-one year old Philip Egerton Warburton.
Another problem during its early days were attacks by Aborigines. A particular serious one occured on 22 February 1874 at the Barrow Creek Repeater Station. This resulted in the death of James Stapleton and John Franks. A number of Aborigines were shot later by a party under the command of Samuel Gason.
During the summer of 1895 rain washed out the line, and railway, just north of Strangways Springs. The stationmaster wired to Charles Todd, 'Tried to get wire across but, when the blackboy was nearly over, the binding wire broke and he was washed down stream and lost the wire. I was unable to do anything till the binding wire arrived by special train from Hergott. This afternoon I got the assistance of a good swimmer and we worked hard till evening. The wire proved too heavy to swim with, so we passed over a strong wire with the binding wire attached. The line was finally joined on the other side in complete darkness. When we hauled the wire with blocks and tackle, and got it almost out of the water, it caught on a snag in the middle of the stream. If it doesn't break we will have it joined after daylight'. Forty-seven years later, news of the bombing of Darwin in 1942 was sent in Morse code down this line.
On 22 October 1999, a plaque was unveiled at the G.P.O. in Adelaide, commemorating the reception of the first messages from overseas via the new line in 1872. It reads:
ADELAIDE TO DARWIN, 1872.
The 3178 kilometre line was built in less than two years and joined on 22 August 1872. It linked Australia to an undersea cable from Indonesia that came ashore at Port Darwin and made communication between Australia and the rest of the world possible in hours rather than weeks. The project was under the direction of Sir Charles Todd, KCMG, MA, FRS, FRAS, FRMS, FSTE, Superintendent of Post and Telegraphs. The first telegraph messages from overseas were received in Morse code in this building on 22 October 1872 via the Overland Telegraph Line.