First overland telegraph [chapter 53 of “The story of Australia” by Martin Hambleton]

[Editor: This is chapter 53 of “The story of Australia” by Martin Hambleton. Published in The Sunday Mail, 30 June 1935.]

The story of Australia — LIII

First overland telegraph

Prior to the year 1872 our only communication with Europe was by means of the Peninsular and Oriental Line, which ran a monthly service of steamers to this country. This was totally inadequate to the commercial needs of the several States, and it was felt that some quicker means should be established without delay.

Negotiations were opened by Queensland and South Australia (which then controlled the Northern Territory) with the British Australian Telegraph Company.

After consideration the proposals of South Australia were accepted, and in June, 1870, the company agreed to lay a cable from Java, which had been connected with Europe for some time, on condition that South Australia erected a telegraph line from Port Augusta to Port Darwin. It also stipulated that the work on land and sea should be completed for service on January 1, 1872.

Over 1500 miles

South Australia at once accepted the terms of the agreement, and immediately planned to construct a telegraph line over 1500 miles of country, which, till then, had only been crossed by John McDouall Stuart.

The contract for the construction was let in three divisions. From Port Augusta in lat. 31½ degrees S. to lat. 27 degrees the line is 512 miles in length, and Mr. E. M. Bagot was the contractor for this portion of the work, and he erected the first pole on October 1, 1870. The next portion, through the ranges, 612 miles in length, was undertaken by the Government; and the third portion, 629 miles in length, was entrusted to Messrs. Derwent and Dalwood, who planted the first pole on September 15, 1870.

The first section was completed in 15 months; the second in slightly over the estimated time; but the northern section proved a formidable undertaking on account of the weather conditions.

The total length of the wire from Port Darwin to Adelaide is 1976 miles. After encountering extraordinary difficulties, the work was completed through the energy and ability of Mr. Charles Todd, superintendent of telegraphs, South Australia. The cable from Java was not laid so quickly as expected, and it was not until October, 1872, that it was fixed at Port Darwin.

The first message

The first message through from England reached Adelaide on October 22, 1872.

The telegraph line took 23 months to construct; 36,000 telegraph poles, weighing 5000 tons, were used, and many of these had to be carted 350 miles. Iron poles were carried from 400 to 500 miles, and large quantities of material were hauled into the interior. Thousands of sheep and cattle were driven hundreds of miles to supply the men with food, and for 500 miles the scrub had to be cut and cleared for an average width of 50 feet. Building stone and sand for building the permanent stations had to be carted inland; and a receiving station of 22 rooms for the cable and land line was erected at Port Darwin.

Cost £370,000

The natives gave little trouble, and not a single white man was killed during the construction. The overland telegraph was built at a cost of £370,000.

Iron poles have now been substituted for the wood, as it was found that white ants and bush fires were liable to destroy the timbers.

The line, which connected the Australian colonies with the rest of the world, was opened with great rejoicings. Mr. Todd connected the wires in the centre of the continent at Mount Stuart, and received a great number of congratulatory messages. For this important national work he received from Queen Victoria the honour of the Companion of the Order of Saint Michael and St. George.

The Sunday Mail (Brisbane, Qld.), 30 June 1935, p. 31

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