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Taking it to the edge: Land: Overland Telegraph Line

''…I took that opportunity of sending a message in the name of the Government of this Colony thanking the officers and men of the Construction Party for the praiseworthy efforts and untiring diligence that they have displayed in bringing to a successful conclusion this great work, …''
Telegram from Chief Secretary to Charles Todd quoted in Peter Taylor An end to silence Sydney, Methuen, 1980, page 156

On John McDouall Stuart's return from his successful crossing of the continent, he reported on the ready availability of timber along most of his route: he considered that his route '... could be made nearly a straight line for telegraphic purposes.' It was considered that the landing place for the submarine telegraph cable from Java should be in the place determined as the capital of the Northern Territory.  Finally the South Australian government contracted with the Telegraph Construction and Maintenance Co, to build a land line from Adelaide to Port Darwin by 1 January 1872.  The race against time was on.  Charles Todd, the South Australian Post Master General and Superintendent of Telegraphs had 18 months to complete the line.

While the route of the line would essentially be the one Stuart had explored between 1859 and 1862, further exploration was needed on the central and northern sections of the line.  GG McLachlan, surveyor, was sent out from Port Darwin in July 1870 to survey a route to the Roper River, looking for good gradients, timber supply, water and feed for stock, and avoiding all swampy land or land that would be subject to flooding in the wet.

The ascent from the headwaters of the Mary River was steep and rugged, but the descent was easier.  Their return route from the Roper River was a slightly different one and was only marginally better. McLachlan's report was generally favourable - he had found all that was required in the way of timber and permanent water.  He had also verified the position of two of Stuart's camps.  Stuart's longitude was out by about two miles which accounted for previous difficulties in finding his route.

John Ross

John Ross was the explorer associated with the central construction team and was detailed to examine the southern parts of the Northern Territory and also to link up with William McMinn at the Roper River in March-April 1871.  Ross was to examine the vast area north from Mount Margaret (28º29'S 136º04'E).  Specifically he was to look for supplies of 20 feet tall gum saplings for poles.  His team consisted of William Harvey, Alfred Giles, Thomas Crispe and William Hearne.  Ross and his men went north from the Finke River some distance east of Charlotte Waters.  Some 60 miles into what would later be named the Simpson Desert, he changed directions realising the futility of it.  He went south-west to the Finke River and then north. In this direction he discovered the Todd River, Phillipson and Giles Creeks and the Ferguson Ranges.  He returned to the Peake by way of the Hugh and Finke Rivers.  Ross reported his findings to Charles Todd who then sent him out again to find '... a practicable route…on a general north course between the Strangways and Ferguson Ranges…'  Ross went as far north as Mount Gwynne (21º 37'S 133º 53'E) and then returned via the Reynolds Range and Mount Hay (west of Stuart's route) and then via Brinkley's Bluff to the Hugh River.  It was on this trip that Ross climbed Central Mount Stuart and retrieved Stuart's note that had been placed there on 22 April 1860.  Ross concluded after these two explorations that the best route for the Overland Telegraph Line would be via Alice Creek, Phillipson Creek, Todd River and Giles Creek, and that the westerly route near Brinkley's Bluff was unsuitable, being too steep.

William McMinn

Acting on this information AT Woods, overseer for the central section and William McMinn decided to search for a route themselves, also directing William Mills to examine the land along the Hugh.  McMinn went up the Alice Creek to the Waterhouse Range, finding Orange Creek.  From here McMinn moved to the MacDonnell Range, camping at Temple Bar.  Moving forward on foot because the going was too boggy after rain for his horses he discovered Simpson's Gap.  Meanwhile Mills' party seems to been largely bogged down by heavy rain. 

McMinn's route to the MacDonnell Range was followed, speed being essential.  The route was 30 miles east of Stuart's explorations.  Mills in his later exploration in this area identified plenty of waterholes and springs, including the Alice Spring, named after Charles Todd's wife.

Roper River

Ross was by now rested and ready for his third trip, this time through to the Roper River.  This time however he would be without the surveyor Harvey.  With a way through the MacDonnell Range already found by McMinn and Mills, Ross had to get to the Roper as quickly as possible.  Ross left no written report of this journey.  A map was produced Rough sketch travelled by Mr Ross under the direction of Chas. Todd, PMG and Superintendent Telegraph in December 1871.  Alfred Giles who served with Ross published his diaries in 1926 as Exploring in the 'seventies and the construction of the Overland Telegraph Line. Ross's way north largely followed Stuart's - it was only in the area of the MacDonnell Range where it was much different.  The main exploration for the Overland Telegraph Line was largely complete.  The heavy work of construction still however remained.

The Overland Telegraph Line was finally completed in August 1872.  A pony express had carried the telegraph messages across the gap between the telegraph line coming north from Adelaide, and the line coming south from Darwin.  The wet season in the Northern Territory had imposed greater restraints on construction than anticipated, but the Line had been completed. It would become a line of demarcation in the future exploration of South Australia and the Northern Territory in the years ahead as expeditions were planned to travel either west or east of the Line.

In February 1942 the Line carried south the news of the Japanese air raid on Darwin.  The underwater cable was cut, to prevent its use by the anticipated invasion force.  The Overland Telegraph Line's international link was broken, but the line still connected Adelaide and Darwin. This transcontinental function continued until finally replaced by the microwave links that connected the states in the 1970s.

36 hours without water
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Ascending Mount Sturt
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Christmas for the explorers
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Difficulties laying the line : diary entry
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On Stuart's tracks
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Plan of Overland Telegraph Line
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Roper River shipping: diary entry
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Ross reaches Central Mount Stuart
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Stuart's Central Mt Sturt
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Water at last
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