The Overland Telegraph Line

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A brief history of the OTL

The Overland Telegraph Line (OTL) is ‘the greatest engineering feat carried out in nineteenth century Australia’.

Development of electric telegraph technology started in both Britain and the United States and the first patents were registered in 1837.

Needless to say, the concept of talking with someone thousands of kilometres away caught on quickly. In 1850 a successful cable covered in a kind of latex was laid across the English Channel to France. By 1851 there were more than 50 companies operating telegraph lines across the USA.

Australia’s first telegraph line began operation in 1854. And according to the National Museum of Australia - within four years, Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide were connected. At that time the idea of connecting Australia to Britain would have been pure fantasy. No-one had traversed the continent.

In 1859 the South Australian government had offered a reward of £2000 to the first person to cross the continent and reach the north or north-western coast.

In 1860, the Victorian government organised an expedition led by Burke and Wills attempting to cross the centre of the continent from Menindee in the south to the Gulf of Carpentaria in the north. We all know how that ended. Traversing the interior safely seemed impossible.

John McDouall Stuart took up the South Australian challenge. He was a well-established explorer, having previously accompanied Charles Sturt on his expedition to central Australia and had conducted numerous expeditions of his own throughout South Australia. Stuart’s first two attempts failed to find a north-south route. Dwindling resources, failing health, dense bushland and confrontations with Indigenous peoples forced him reluctantly to turn back both times.

Stuart’s third and final expedition proved successful. By following a traditional route linking waterholes, created and travelled by Aboriginal people for millennia, Stuart reached the Indian Ocean at Chambers Bay on the North coast (near present-day Darwin) on 24 July 1862. This reinvigorated the idea of a trans-continental telegraph line.

Then, in 1863 the British government decided to hand over responsibility for the Northern Territory to the South Australian Government, giving it jurisdiction over land that spanned the continent from North to South.

In 1870, the South Australian government secured a contract with the British-Australian Telegraph Company, 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. A submarine cable from England already reached as far as Java. The project was given to the South Australian Superintendent of Telegraphs, Charles Todd.

With only 18 months and a budget of £128,000 ($2,900,000 in 2010 terms) to complete the line, the only way Todd could envisage the project being completed was by dividing it into three 1000 km sections – southern, central, and northern – to be worked on simultaneously. Port Augusta to the Finke, Finke to Attack Creek, and from Attack Creek to Port Darwin.

The South Australian Government was to be responsible for the remote 1000-kilometre central section, while the southern and northern sections were to be handled by private contractors.

The task of constructing the line proved immense, involving the penetration into mercilessly cruel country of which little or nothing was known. The telegraph line was made from 36,000 posts, pins and insulators; many tons of galvanised telegraph wire; and numerous batteries. The materials were transported to the workers by bullocks and horse drawn wagons. As there was no refrigeration, fresh meat had to be transported alive, slaughtered and eaten when required.

Before the line could be laid, the trail it was to follow had to be marked out. There had to be enough water and timber and no mountains. This task was given to John Ross, a Scottish born bushman in his fifties. Ross followed John McDouall Stuart's tracks as closely as possible. He deviated in the MacDonnell Ranges as Stuart had crossed the ranges at Brinkley’s Bluff which was much too steep for the Telegraph Line. During March 1871 the site that was to become the Alice Springs Telegraph Station was discovered. What we now know is just a waterhole in the river Todd was named in honour of the wife of Superintendent of Telegraphs, Charles Todd.

Whilst the arid, empty central section of the project had its challenges, it was the Northern section that almost caused the whole project to fail.

Author GLENVILLE PIKE writes that when Darwent and Dalwood, contractors for the northern section, arrived in Port Darwin in September 1870, with their workmen, horses, bullocks, drays, and materials in the little steamer "Omeo", the dry season was already nearly over. They had no inkling of the terrible hardships "the wet" would bring. By June of 1871, the line from Darwin only extended 120 kilometres. Darwent and Dalwood and their team had long since abandoned the project. The South Australian Government were forced to step in and complete the Northern section.

There were only five months left in which to meet the requirements of the contract and link with the undersea cable from Indonesia to Port Darwin. An impossible task Fortunately, there were delays with the line between Java and Darwin and the deadline was extended.

The line from the North and the line up from the south were ultimately connected on 22 August 1872 at Frew Ponds, near Dunmarra, 640 kilometres south of Darwin. The first telegraph messages from overseas were received in Morse code on 22 October 1872.

The 3178-kilometre line was built in less than two years The monetary cost was three times the original estimate, or £338,000 ($676,000). In the first week 152 cables were sent and 148 received, the charge then being $18.75 for twenty words. reports that – 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.


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