Australia - South Australia/Northern Territory.
The Overland Telegraph Line - closing the last gap.

Details of the last stages in completing the line are provided below with emphasis on:

  1. closing of the gap between Daly Waters and Tennant Creek;
  2. the last join and the reaction;
  3. the message from Todd.

1. Closing the gap.

By June 1872, Patterson's men had completed poling and line to Daly Waters - a distance on 370 miles from Palmerston. The end of the wire from Adelaide was at Tennant Creek - a distance of 1,354 miles. Telegraphic communication was frequent on both lines.

The gap was therefore 262 miles. That gap was partly poled, it was the dry season and lots of men were working hard.

The pony express suggestion.

Arrangements were then made for a pony express (or estafette) to bridge the gap and carry messages between the ends of the two lines. Although the gap would impose a delay of about a week, messages could then be sent from Adelaide to England. Revenue from these messages could be offest against the penalty for non-completion.

In May, Todd (at Port Darwin) telegraphed Knuckey (on the Elsey) who then asked a rider Ray Parkin Boucout - to take the message to Tennant Creek for transmission to Adelaide. Hence the first Australian transcontinental message was created. It arrived in Adelaide on 20 June 1972 - about one month after Todd had sent it.

The idea of a rider crossing the gap had been discussed for some time. At about the same time, the Argus of 21 May 1872 noted "There is still no immediate prospect of the opening of telegraphic communication with Europe. The establishment of a horse express between Port Darwin and the present terminus of the land line at Tennants Creek has been deferred on the ground that to undertake the service would interfere with the general progress of the work. No effort will now be made to establish the express until August, when it is expected that the distance to be covered will have been reduced to 150 miles. Under these circumstances, the proposal to establish communication between Adelaide and Port Darwin by sea has been revived, and the South Australian Government is being urged to take steps in the matter".

The South Australian Register of 24 May 1872 reported: "The Overland Telegraph. We learn that the Hon. Thos. Elder has decided upon establishing, entirely at his own expense, a camel express service for the carriage of telegrams over the gap now existing in the Overland Telegraph line. He has engaged Mr. A. G. Burt to take charge, and tha gentleman leaves this morning for Beltana, where the camels are stationed. Twenty of those animals, in charge of four Arabs, will be used. Mr. Burt is in every way fitted for the work and, having been the first to come from the northern end of the telegraph with despatches, it is appropriate that he should be chosen to carry out such an important undertaking as that upon which he is about to enter. He expects to reach Beltana by the middle of next week and Tennant's Creek, the point where his operations will begin, in two months. Whether he will be in time to anticipate the establishment of the Government estafette, which Mr. Lewis is charged to aid in organizing, is doubtful; but that the camels will be of great service in the North does not admit of question. Great credit is due to Mr. Elder for his enterprise in this matter".

At this time, John Lewis, his brother and four stockmen - with 40 horses and a buggy - were en route to Port Darwin to take up land. When they reached Barrow Creek, they received a telegram from the Government offering the estafette contract. They accepted and pushed on to Tennant Creek where they met up with Ray Boucot and other men with horses. They then set out for Daly Waters which they reached on 15 June. During this ride, they had agreed upon a series of camps across the gap.

The Hobart Mercury then raised the following question in its issue of 24 June 1872: "In connection with this matter (of the pony express), there is one subject unexplained. We learn by telegram some days ago that the camels that the Hon. Mr. Elder had placed at the service of South Australia for conveying messages across gaps in the line, had reached Strangway Spring's. Yet we hear not a word of the camels but are told that the gaps are to be bridged over by horse expresses. Is this a mistake or what has become of the ships of the desert"?


Ad telegs
Copied from the South Australian Register
of 24 June 1872, p.2.
Neverthess, the line need to be used by a variety of people. Consequently advertisements were inserted in the press like that to the right.

Another advertisement was run in the following week with the first paragraph amended to read: Messages will be received at any South Australian Telegraph Office for Transmission ... during the ordinary office hours on Monday next, the 8th instant.

On 10 July, the South Australian Register reported as follows:

On Monday, July 9, as many as 38 messages were received at the Telegraph Office for transmission to England per horse express from Tennant's Creek, thence to Port Darwin.

The particulars are as follows: Adelaide, 6;
New South Wales, 5; Queensland, 2; Victoria, 24; Tasmania. 1;
total, 38.
The value of the messages amounts to £423 11s. 9d. distributed as follows:
Due to South Australia, £45; to British-Australian Company, £372 7s.; and to other colonies, £6 4s. 9d.


Further information about the telegrams sent over th gap as well as detailed comments on many other aspects can be obtained in The Sydney Mail of 29 June 1872.

The British ultimatum is triumphed.

On 13 June, Todd left the Elsey and arrived at Daly Waters on 22 June where he received the news of Lord Monck's communication noted above through the pony express service. He immediately sent messages back to London and learnt of the anger felt by the company. Other messages came through on 23 June.

Then, on 24 June 1872, the amazing news reached Port Darwin that the submarine cable to Banjoewangi had broken.

Messages continued to be sent over the following week including news that the cable was still inoperative. The riders worked hard - on 1 July Boucout rode 262 miles in 131 hours of which 101 were spent in the saddle and 30 hours for rest.

The join is nigh.

By 9 July, the line reached 30 miles south of Daly Waters. On 29 July, Todd and Patterson rode south from Daly Waters and arrived at Attack Creek on 18 July. The wire had been brought to this point from Tennant Creek. Todd was therefore able to communicate with Adelaide. Todd then went south to inspect work in the Central sections while Patterson returned north to supervise the final stages.

Poling finished on 9 August. Wiring was finished by 13 August except for 13 miles between Fergusson Creek and Lawson Creek.

2. Making the last join - and the reaction.

Patterson cut the wire at Frew's Ponds - to foreshadow where the final join would be made. He was joined by Andrew Howley the field telegraphist who had contact with all parties along both sides of the line. On 22 August, Howley informed Patterson that the lines would be complete about noon. Patterson rode out to the end point which was only 3 miles away. With Howley's confirmation and with a small official party of overseers and men, the line was completed except for a few feet. Patterson telegraphed Adelaide informing the Governor of his decision to make the join at 3 pm.

Patterson made the final join about 3 pm on 22 August 1872 - on his second attempt. Apparently his first attempt resulted in an electric shock :). He then used his handerchief to sieze the wire and complete the circuit.

Soon after, the Government in Adelaide received a message direct from Port Darwin intimating that the last length of wire had been stretched and that uninterrupted communication across the Continent had been established.

The message was instantaneous in its transmission and it also announced that the cable still remained silent.

Todd was at Central Mount Stuart about 400 miles south of Frew's Ponds when the join was made.

Immediately on receipt of the news, the red ensign was hoisted on the Victoria Tower in Adelaide, the Town Hall bells were rung, the Press flagstaffs were decked with bunting and the Consular flags were hoisted.

The Public Offices were also ordered to be closed and the clerks were granted a holiday for the afternoon.


3. Charles Todd's messages.

From the Hon. the Chief Secretary to Mr. C. Todd.

"We opened the line at 3 p.m. this day as it was completed, and the public, from my previous notifications, fully expected it today. I took that opportunity of sending a message in the name of the Government of this country, thanking the officers and men of the construction party for the praise worthy efforts and untiring diligence they have displayed in bringing to a successful conclusion this great work under your able superintendence. Accept my congratulations that your troubles are now over. Anything you wish to say respecting the construction and opening of the line I will take care to get published in to-morrow's papers".

From Charles Todd to the Chief Secretary - Central Mount Stuart, August 22, 11.40 p.m. (Thursday night).

"Many thanks for your kind congratulations on the completion of the Adelaide and Port Darwin Telegraph, which, as an important link in the electrical chain of communication connecting the Australian Colonies with the mother-country and the whole of the civilized and commercial world, will, I trust, rebound to the credit of South Australia, and amply repay her for the great outlay she has incurred in its construction by advancing her material interests and prosperity.

Notwithstanding the delays and mishaps which have occurred on the northern portion of the work, we have this day, or within two years from the date it was commenced, completed a line of 2,000 miles long through the very centre of Australia - a few years ago a terra incognita, and supposed to be a desert, and I have the satisfaction of seeing the successful completion of a scheme I officially advocated 14 years ago".

Todd received and sent a very large number of messages that night and the next day. Some can be found in various publications and newspapers.

The Adelaide Observer of 24 August 1872 commented on the working of the line after the gap had been closed as follows:

The Working of the Port Darwin Telegraph.

"Through the courtesy of Mr. Cunningham, the Acting Superintendent o£ Telegraphs, we had on Friday, August 23, an opportunity of observing the wonderful steadiness and precision with which the Adelaide and Port Darwin telegraph line works.

Shortly after 3 o'clock we repaired, by Mr. Cunningham's invitation, to the operating-room where one of Morse's self-registering instruments was placed in direct communication with Port Darwin. The length of the wire is computed at nearly 2,200 miles so that, to complete the circuit of the magnetic current, a distance of some thing like 4,400 miles—more than half the diameter of the globe—had to be traversed. Nevertheless the batteries worked as freely, as powerfully and as instantaneously as if they were simply telegraphing to Port Adelaide.

For upwards of half an hour, a lively conversation was maintained with the Port Darwin operator and with most of the leading men of that sparsely inhabited community who, to the number of nearly half a dozen, speedily flocked to the scene of action.

The state of the weather was of course the first topic of discussion, but the conversation speedily diverged into such friendly chit-chat as might pass between two persons meeting in the street. We need scarcely add that it was "not intended for publication".

In every instance, either of sending or receiving a message, we were gratified to observe that the instrument worked perfectly. From the close of a question from Adelaide to the first preliminary signal of the reply from Port Darwin, the interval was scarcely appreciable. The reader who has seen one of the  instruments at work will best appreciate this when we say that the travelling paper slip which receives the impression both of the question and reply showed a blank space, often considerably less than an inch in length, between the last sign of the question and the first indication of the answer. Among other questions, the Port Darwin operator was asked what o'clock it was, and whether he received the time signal dispatched daily at 1 o'clock from the Adelaide Office to all the South Australian Stations. He replied that the signal duly reached him and that the then time was twenty-one minutes past 3. The transmission of the whole of this question and answer occupied from first to last exactly twelve seconds.

Subsequently Mr. Cunningham spoke to other stations, including Alice Springs, the Peake and Beltana, when the various styles of manipulation by the different operators were distinctly perceptible even to our untrained ears. A skilled operator can, in this way, recognise the person who is working the instrument even at a distance of 2,000 miles as easily as he would identify a familiar handwriting.

In conclusion, we would remind our readers that the experience we have thus recorded was not at an exceptional time carefully picked out when the line was in unusually good order. It was within twenty-six hours of the first completion of the connection and we imagine there is no reason to suppose that the line will be found as a rule to work less freely in the future. So satisfactory a result must be eminently gratifying to Mr. Todd as it is equally creditable to the care and skill of those who have so successfully carried out this great work under his instructions".