Queensland - Colonial period: 1861-1900.
Telegraph lines through Cape York.


The construction of the telegraph lines along the Cape can be described in three phases:

  1. the lines from Junction Creek in the south to towns below Palmerville and Cooktown;
  2. the lines via Innisfail (Geraldton) to Cairns along the coast from Cardwell;
  3. the lines from Palmerville and Fairview to Cape York and Thursday Island.

 

Cape York The final push to the north up Cape York could be commenced after the line from Cardwell to Normanton had been completed. Again the Government wished to extend the lines as far as possible rather than serve communities in a smaller region.

The main line covering the 500 miles (750 km) up Cape York was planned in two stages:

  • up to the Palmer and Cooktown;
  • beyond the Palmer.

The most difficult terrain of all facing Queensland's linesmen was that leading up the Cape York Peninsula beyond the level of Cooktown. Consequently the running of a telegraph line to Cape York was amongst the most impressive of achievements.

1. The lines to the Palmer and Cooktown.

A major consideration in planning the line to Cooktown was the significant gold discoveries along the Palmer River. The recorded output of gold from 1873 to 1890 from the Palmer goldfields was over half a million ounces - more than 15,500 kg.

Cooktown was the port through which this gold was exported and the supplies for the goldfields were brought in.

The need to head towards Palmerville, the desire to keep away from the coast because of the conditions and the nature of the terrain dictated that the line would run almost directly north from Junction Creek on the Cardwell-Normaton line. Although these suggestions were commonly raised, not all agreed with them. For example, on 30 May 1874, the Queensland Times published the following letter from a reader:

A Telegraph Line to the Palmer.

Sir: I see in a late issue that the Government have called for tenders for a telegraph line from Cooktown to the Palmer diggings.

Now, Sir, I want to know who will benefit from that line. It is not the miner; and as there are no tradesmen or storekeepers there, I suppose the Government intends sending telegrams to the blackfellows. My own opinion is that to make a telegraph line to the Palmer at the present time is a waste of public money. It will only benefit a few of the hangers-on of the party in power; and I protest against the wilful waste of the public revenue.

Yours &c Verbum Sat Sapienti.
Ipswich May 27.

Little is known of the construction activity. Indeed, in the Legislative Assembly in May 1874, questions could not be answered about the construction of the line from the Endeavour River (i.e. Cooktown) to the Palmer.

The following advertisement appeared in several newspapers:

ELECTRIC TELEGRAPH LINE - JUNCTION CREEK TO PALMER.
Postmaster-General's Office,Brisbane, 17th December, 1874.

TENDERS for the above-mentioned work will be received at the office of the Superintendent of Electric Telegraphs, Brisbane, until noon on Monday, 22nd February next.
For full particulars, see Government Gazette of 19th December.

Preparations were underway and in August 1874, a one acre block was reserved in Cooktown for the construction of a Telegraph office. This block was purchased by the Government for £120 soon after.

The construction of the line from Cooktown to Palmerville was ultimately supervised by John Richard Bradford - an experienced bushman.

On 18 November 1875, the first telegraphic message despatched from Cooktown towards the  Palmer Goldfield was received at a station 85 miles distant.

Finally, on 26 May 1876, the telegraph line to Cooktown from Junction Creek commenced operation - but with a pony express running daily from Walsh River to Maytown - a break of about 30 miles.

There are amazing stories about the operation of the telegraph in this part of Queensland. Naturally the severe tropical weather regularly washed away the lines - and sometimes the telegraph offices. Other stories from around Cooktown include:

There were a number of complaints about the line. For example, within the first two years of operation, the Evening News (Sydney) of 23 March 1878 carried the following: "There is hardly another telegraph line in the Australian colonies that works so unsatisfactorily as the one from Cooktown. The usual thing in that the line is either down or the officials are. From Albany in Western Australia, the mail news is now flashed through with great speed. A message from Cooktown is mostly forty-eight hours in transmission. Judicious arrangements of the press here are rendered ineffective. The Torres Straits mail news is nearly always anticipated; facilities are not offered for its transmission. It is not, therefore, to be wondered at that the commercial communities of Sydney and Melbourne begin to feel but small interest in and attach but little importance to this route".

Junction Creek was later referred to as Mount Surprise. The route from Townsville via Mount Surprise to Cairns was one of the most important of all Queensland lines until after World War 2. It was then largely replaced by a route further inland.

A very recent example showing the difficulty of the country and the need for a telegraph line for other than communication purposes was reported in the Townsville Daily Bulletin in September 1950:

"Barry Shepherd, aged nine years, and his 11-year-old sister, Thelma, have to brave crocodiles amongst other difficulties to get to school. The children, who live on Musgrave Station, have to travel nearly 200 miles to the Cooktown State School. The journey of 117 miles on horseback to Laura, and 70 miles by rail motor from there to Cooktown, usually takes four days. The children set out from the station on horses with their packs, school clothes and books and follow the telegraph line to Laura. Their only companion is a small native boy about their own age, who takes the horses back to the station after the children board the rail motor. During the ride the children pitch their tent and make their own meals. They have to cross the crocodile infested Hann, Kennedy and Moorehead Rivers. When Barry reached school last week he said, 'We roll everything up in a canvas pack and tie it high on the saddle, and then the horse swims over and we hang on to its tail. We got a bit of a fright in the Kennedy. When we got to the middle there was a big croc. watching me, and when we got to the other side he was there almost beside me on the bank. I was not too frightened. I had a big stick ready to poke him in the mouth if he opened it".

2: The lines to Cairns.

The discovery of gold and other minerals in the region south of Cooktown was reflected by the construction of lines further to the south on the Cape. The first line diverged from Tate to Thornborough (completed 12 May 1877) and was then constructed through to Cairns the following year. A branch line was also constructed from Thornborough further north to Port Douglas.

In 1880, a second wire was constructed from Junction Creek to Tate. That involved dismantling the line between Junction Creek and Cashmere and stretching it on the new line to Tate. The construction also required the replacement of a large number of poles. That change then allowed both Port Douglas and Thornborough to have direct connection with the northern repeating station at Bowen.

Herberton
Herberton Tin mine mid 1880s.

In 1882, another line from Thornborough but to the south was constructed to Herberton, where there was major tin mining, and then through to Northcote and Watsonville. Later a direct line linked Junction Creek to Herberton.

During the first half of 1885, a line along the coast was constructed directly north from Cardwell. Gold discoveries had been made 35 miles north-west of Geraldton (later Innisfail) and 40 miles east from Herberton at the head of the Russell River and at 26 mile Camp. The line from Cardwell to Geraldton was opened in early April 1885 together with a new P&T building at Geraldton. In the mid-1890s, a line was constructed along the railway line from Cairns south to Aloomba and this was later extended to Geraldton to complete the link and an alternative line to Cairns.

 

3. From the Palmer to Cape York

The country side north of the Palmer to the tip of Cape York was unknown. Hence, before an extension of the telegraph could be planned, an expedition was sent to explore and survey the region. The only real details had come from prospectors because Gold was discovered on the Coen River in 1876. Coen came into being first as a small fort built by gold miners and prospectors in May 1877 but this first gold rush quickly came to an end, and the settlement did not recover until 1883.

John Bradford, responsible for the Cooktown-Palmerville line was, at that time, Inspector of Lines and Mail Route services (1882-1895). He was appointed to be in charge of the party and took six men and 36 horses.

The expedition started at Fairview (known as either "The Black Soil" or "The (Fairview) Lagoon") on 18 June 1883. They made Musgrave on 22 June and the Coen goldfields about 8 July. The countryside then deteriorated into what Bradford described as "a wet desert". He wrote that the terrain was undermined by ants and that at one time, his horse sank into the ground "up to its nose". Indeed most of the remaining horses had to be abandoned - only 13 actually completing the trip. The party continued north rejecting a possible site for a telegraph station at Red Island Point. Finally, on 29 August 1883, the party completed the 524 miles to Somerset (on the east side of the tip). Four days later, the party moved on to Thursday Island to identify a location for a Telegraph Station as well as to observe the currents and sea bed to make recommendations about a submarine cable.

On the basis of their findings, tenders for the construction of the line were called and let in 1884:

EXTENSION TO CAPE YORK (Thursday Island):

Tenders are now called for and will be received up to 13th July next (1884) for this line, which has been divided into two sections of 200 miles each, more or less. The iron poles requisite has been ordered by wire from England, and will no doubt arrive here before the acceptance of tenders is decided upon.

The successful tender for the southern section was Messrs Brodziak and Degen. They started at Fairview with a gang of 47 men and completed the 200 miles southern section to Mein (just below the level of where Weipa is now) by October 1886 - ahead of schedule.

An insight into the nature of the construction of this line was the news item in the Queensland Times of 19 January 1886:

"The party who are erecting the first section of the Cape York telegraph-line have returned (to Cooktown) until after the wet season. The line has been cut for a distance of sixty nine miles and erected for twenty eight  miles. There is heavy timber in places, but easy cutting ahead. The blacks did not interfere with the main party, but attacked two men who were packing rations on the Morehead River. One of the men was pulling his horse out of a bog by the tail when a spear passed between the man and the horse's tail. The other man got a rifle and fired and the blacks then cleared. One horse died from eating poison-grass and three bullocks were speared. One died with five spears in it. Only four of the party are remaining behind as camp keepers".

The Contractor for the 192 miles northern section was the English firm Messrs Gordon and Moreton. Work started at the northern end at Paterson and progressed slowly. Work stopped in November 1886 with the advent of the wet season but by that time, the following had been achieved:

There were other continuing difficulties also. For example, in November 1886 "A telegram from Thursday Island, via Cooktown, states that the contractors for the second section of telegraph line have been compelled to knock off work owing to the bullocks and horses dying from poison. Line contractors have gone south to purchase fresh teams".

After the wet season finished, construction resumed and the line taken through Moreton and extended towards Mein - the final join being made somewhere between these two places. Before the final connection was made, a "pony express" operated between across the interval for a short period.

Construction of the line to the Cape was completed on 25 August 1887.

 The contract price was £15,237 11s. The line consisted of one wire mounted on the apex of a steel 'Oppenheimer' pole. The wire was 400 pound to the mile galvanised iron wire.

The Queenslander of 15 January 1887 carried a report dated 10 December (soon after completion) detailing the kinds of construction difficulties encountered in the northern part of the Cape York line:

"Some account of the progress of the second section of the Cape York telegraph line may be of use to you.

The contractors had to suspend operations at the northern end of the line owing to the loss of bullocks and horses from poison, the remainder being worn down to a shadow from scarcity of grass and some times long distances between water. It was an impossibility to get more work out of them. They are now spelling on the newly-discovered river, the Ducie.

The contractors have been very energetic in pushing the work, but they cannot battle against the bad nature of the country towards the latter end of the season. It is only about four or five months after the wet season that any great headway can be made, for as soon as the grass commences to dry up, the blacks set fire to it - I suppose to enable them to travel over the country in a speedy manner.

It is impossible to convey a description of the country for the first eighty miles, as it should be seen and lived in to understand the obstacles to the construction of the line. About ten miles from Paterson, the cable station, you get into a succession of sandy ridges, covered with a low sort of ti-tree and heather, growing to a height of about 12ft. Between these ridges are deep running creeks, with a dismal swamp here and there, which have to be bridged in order to get the teams across. In riding along the line lately I counted twenty-eight of these bridges in less than twenty miles; they are rather of a substantial kind, and should prove of use for the line repairers and labourers engaged on the line.

The second house from the northern end, McDonnell Station by name, is situated on the Schardon River, some sixty odd miles from the cable station, and the same wretched country as previously described extends about eighteen miles further. The country commences to improve from there, and in about ninety to 100 miles the heads of the main branches of the Ducie are crossed. Some twenty miles further the Batavia is reached. Between the two rivers there is a stretch of very bad country. The total distance cleared is 120 miles. The Ducie River empties into the gulf in the same bay as the Batavia, and was reported a few years ago to end in a swamp at its mouth. There is five fathoms of water at the entrance of the river, and a fair sized steamer could, go some fifty miles up. It is tidal for about fifteen miles further. The Batavia is also navigable for about twenty-five miles, but only makes about eight miles of easting in that distance. The banks are fringed with mangrove swamps, the home of the alligator, by which the place is infested. I am informed that the supposed sugar lands on the Batavia are a myth.

Most of the men have been paid off and have come South for a holiday, most of them with big cheques. One of the partners of the firm came down about a fortnight ago in order to get more teams, but I believe there is a difficulty in getting the cattle up by steamer to the Northern end as I am told they would be unfit for work for some time after landing owing to the rough usage on board, as they will not eat when on the water. Since starting to write, a boat has come in from the Stewart River. The contractors are now there with thirty men and three bullock-teams; they will start to finish the clearing from the Cooktown end and, if the season is favourable, they should not be long in finishing the remaining distance, which I believe is not more than fifty miles; but they are going right into the wet season, which may delay them considerably. They intend, I believe, to send more teams and fresh bullocks overland".

"All the stations above Fairview were built like forts to protect staff and equipment from the "wild blacks''. The buildings were constructed of heavy gauge galvanised iron and, on two diagonally opposite corners, a protruding gun port was built. Each port gave a clear view along two sides of the building as well as forward viewing. All windows were fitted with steel shutters which could be bolted from the inside. Some water tanks were built inside the building so Musgrave
The Musgrave Telegraph Station.
that no-one had to venture outside for water nor could the blacks spear the tanks or poison the water. The buildings were built on special stumps and under the building was protected by iron also. There was a set of stairs going down from inside the house as well as an external set. The building comprised a number of rooms surrounding a closed in verandah area with open verandah at the front. They were officially described as eight roomed". http://penniemanderson.tripod.com/capeyorktelegraphline/id8.html

On 17 December 1889, a line along the railway line from Palmer (Road) to Laura was completed. It had two wires and iron poles and branched to connect to the main line. About the same time, the 28 mile line from Palmer Road to Fairview was dismantled.

In October 1893, there was a major break in the cable to Thursday Island. Mr. Smith, Government electrician, left Brisbane on his mission and it was supposed that the interruption between the island and the mainland was due to a break in the cable and that the work of repairing that break could be accomplished with comparative ease. It was found, however, that there were numerous "faults" in the cable and at some parts of the line, great difficulty was experienced in lifting the cable on account of it being laid among coral beds. As no cable ship was available, the Kurrara, one of the Moxon and Co. line of steamers, had to be chartered. To repair the faults in the cable, portions of an old cable had to be raised and utilised.

Malcolm Rea of Laura led a group on horseback to retrace the original route in June 1973.

Summary

Each line ran between two nominated places - often two adjacent lines running for miles before diverging to their respective destinations.

A summary of the lines constructed in Cape York before Federation together with their line numbers is presented in the following table.

Line # From To Note
2 Bowen Cooktown via Townsville, Charters Towers and Junction Creek.
7 Townsville Geraldton (Innisfail)  
10 Junction Creek Port Douglas via Tate, Thornborough and Biboohra.
11 Limestone Thursday Island via Maytown and Palmerville.
15 Cooktown Point Archer  
20 Cairns Railway Mareeba  
21 Cooktown Laura Along the railway.
22 Herberton Montalbion  
23 Thursday Island Goode Island