Home' Stuart Highway Guidebook : Stuart Highway 2016 Contents 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,
instead of 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. To bring the cable from Ceylon to Albany in Western
Australia was one. Another (which was most favoured) was from Java to
Darwin and then overland to Burketown near the gulf of Carpentaria in
Queensland. In anticipation the Queensland and New South Wales
Government were extending their telegraph system to terminate at
The prospectus drawn up by the British and Australian Telegraph
Company, as well as laying the 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 telegraph route. They were aware of the immense economical
and political advantages of the line terminating in their territory. It
would also be means for settlement of pasture country in the north.
Stuart’s explorations with the £2000 reward offered had been for this
Competition evoked bold action! They replied by offering to build
the line to Port Augusta, relieving the Company of the cost. A Bill was
rushed through the South Australian Parlament in June 1870 authorising
funds of £120,000 to construct a telegraph line from Port Darwin to
join lines at 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 South Australian 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
It was a political triumph for the South Australian Government,
however, and they assumed sole responsibility for construction and
maintenance of the overland line. It was to be operational by the time
the submarine cable reached Australian shores by 31st December, 1871.
If not finished on schedule, penalties would apply for every day
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 feelings I tried to realise all I had to
Todd divided the construction into three sections. Northern and
southern to go to private contractors and the least known, most
inacessible 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 harnessmakers,
cartmakers and timberyards striving to complete orders.
John Ross with an exploring team travelled north to the Centre to
select the best route and explorer Bemjamin 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 a 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 the 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, hay and
The line was to be constructed in “a most substantial manner and the
poles are to be 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. Lightning conductors were added in the Darwin area. Tinned
bully beef was the mainstay of a monotonous diet and lime juice
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 built by Stuart and Kekwick ten years earlier.
They found the bottle with the note and passed it 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 floundered; 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.
THE OVERLAND TELEGRAPH LINE Port Darwin to Port Augusta
Left to Right: J A G Little (Darwin Post Master), R C Patterson, Charles Todd and
A J Mitchell (Surveyer)
The ceremonious erecting of the first pole was a gala day for the population of Darwin
(50). Miss Harriet Douglass, daughter of the Governor’s Resident tamped down the soil;
with a polished wooden rammer.
pp 73-128 8/8/05 9:20 AM Page 94
Australia’s Explorers’ Way
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