A Town Like Alice

After three weeks in Queensland, I headed for Alice Springs, a town in the middle of Australia’s Red Centre.

We drove out to the old Telegraph Station, which is where Alice Springs began. Charles Heavitree Todd (for whom the Todd River and Heavitree Gap were named), Superintendent of Telegraphs and Postmaster General of South Australia, sent telegraph surveyor William Whitfield Mills into the Northern Territory to survey a route for a telegraph line that would link Adelaide with Darwin, and Australia with the world. Mills was also instructed to find suitable sites for telegraph repeater stations.

Following the route of explorer John McDouall Stuart, Mills came, in March 1871, to a permanent waterhole, which he named for Todd’s wife, Alice. The central telegraph station was built adjacent to “Alice Springs.” This would be the midway point of the 2,230-mile Overland Telegraph Line, which was built in record time and opened in 1872.

By 1900, the isolated telegraph station was home to a cook, a blacksmith-stockman, a governess, four linesmen-telegraph operators, and the Station Master and his family. The town that grew up nearby was originally named Stuart, after the intrepid Scotsman who, in 1862, made the first successful south to north crossing of the continent. But because the area was so widely known for the waterhole and its attendant telegraph, the town was renamed.

The handsome buildings of the telegraph station, all solidly constructed of locally-quarried stone, with white roofs and broad verandas, are still standing. The Station Master, head of the largest station on the telegraph line and the only magistrate in Central Australia, was an important man, and his residence, though modest in size, occupies a suitably preeminent spot in the station compound. Behind it is the kitchen, separated from the main house, as dictated by the heat. Nearby is the Post and Telegraph Office, the heart of the station, with wires radiating out toward Adelaide and Darwin, as well as to the power house. Messages telegraphed along the line had to be electrically boosted, the power being supplied by huge wet-cell batteries stored in this building. Rounding out the compound are a buggy shed, forge, storage area, and large barracks, which combined sleeping quarters, schoolroom, and dining facilities.

Massive, old gum trees shade the wide, dusty, red yards, where ancient, wooden wagons stand in brittle retirement. The spring called Alice is nearby, at the base of a rugged, boulder-strewn hummock, encompassed with grass and trees and full, at least when we were there, of delighted children, both Aborigine and white, playing and splashing in the water.

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Filed under Australia, Book, History, Travel

One response to “A Town Like Alice

  1. Pingback: Alice’s Telegraph « Waltzing Australia

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