In 1870 South Australian Superintendent of Telegraphs Charles Todd, organised three teams to lay the overland telegraph wire. He appointed John Ross to lead the exploration party.
Using explorer John McDouall Stuart’s maps, Ross generally followed Stuart’s trail, which was itself a traditional trade route created and travelled by Aboriginal people for millennia.
The project required the placing of about 36,000 timber and metal poles and the building of 11 repeater stations along the route. The men worked by hand in temperatures that often exceeded 35 degrees Celsius in the shade, across diverse terrains including mountains, flood plains and desert.
Holes were dug for the timber poles, cut from nearby durable trees, or hauled in overland by bullock teams, strung through by the slender thread of wire. Cypress pine proved to be termite resistant, but the poles cut from eucalypts had to be replaced after just one year mostly with metal poles.
A DEFINING MOMENT
On 22 August 1872, the southern and northern lines were connected at Frews Ponds, 640km south of Darwin, only seven months behind schedule. Upon completion Charles Todd was given the honour of sending the first telegraph message along the line:
“We have this day, within two years, completed a line of communications two thousand miles long through the very centre of Australia, until a few years ago a terra incognita believed to be a desert.”
It took seven hours to receive as the message had to pass through 36 repeater stations on three continents along the way. Still, this was revolutionary and nothing short of miraculous. Before the telegraph line it could take up to three months to communicate with Britain by ship which back then was the only means available.
Within months, the line joined a submarine cable from Port Darwin to Java to complete the link between Australia and Britain.
BRAVE NEW WORLD
The Overland Telegraph line also opened-up the centre of the continent. The telegraph repeater stations, which were necessary to boost the strength of the signal, not only ensured the operation of the line but also acted as important points for water and supplies to the early explorers, pastoralists, and travellers.
Within a year of its construction gold was being mined around Pine Creek (near Katherine) and within 10 years the cattle industry had been established in the Northern Territory. For Darwin, the telegraph line assured its permanency and importance.
Prospectors and graziers used the repeater stations as centres from which to explore and stake claims on the land. Alice Springs, which was established as a repeater station, became the administrative hub for Central Australia. Not only was Australia’s extreme isolation from the rest of the world lessening, but the way had been forged for the Northern Territory to develop and grow.