Western Australia: 1869-1900.
Telegraph lines in the far north.


The far north region of Western Australia is defined here, for purposes of describing line construction, as being the region above Geraldton, around the north coast to Wyndham and all places in the Colony to the east of that line.

There were two main strategies used in the far north:

  1. to construct the line around the coastal area;
  2. to branch lines from the coast to the inland regions to service the growing mining communities - especially those mining gold.

The region is shown in two maps below - the second map encompassing the region now known as the Kimberley. The green lines and names indicate construction work before 1890 while the orange lines and names indicate work constructed after 1890.

The following sections (listed in order of geographical area rather than in chronological order) are described below:

  1. the Murchison line to Cue and Mount Magnet - constructed from 1894;
  2. the west coast line to Roebourne/Cossack;
  3. Port Hedland to the Murchison (Marble Bar/Nullagine);
  4. Broome east to the Kimberley (Halls Creek);
  5. Broome to Ivanhoe and the Ord River.

1. The west coast line Geraldton to Roebuck.

As noted previously, the Northampton to Geraldton line was constructed in the late 1870s to support the lead mining and the shipments.

After the line to Geraldton was completed in 1873 and became operational in June 1874, there was a pause in activity. Sceptics in Geraldton interpreted the delay - and reported in the Fremantle Herald of 21 March 1874 in the following way:

"The second light-house is being rapidly pushed forward by Mr. Trigg and will, when completed, serve as a land mark for a year or two until the lighting apparatus is added so that it may be really serviceable as a light house. The first one stands perched on Flag Staff Hill, looking like a factory chimney shaft. It obscures the light that ought to be a guide to mariners entering the Bay; there is no sign of it being used as a light-house yet-awhile. Indeed most of the works undertaken in Geraldton get to a certain point and then come to a full stop. Instance the solitary telegraph post erected months ago and standing alone in its glory in front of Major Cummerforde's door; and the interminable jetty too, which does make a move ahead and get a few feet seaward about every three months but is just as far from being finished as ever".

 

far north

 

After that, there was a six year pause before construction started to extend a separate line from Geraldton. The line went north to Hamelin Pool where the Flint Cliff Telegraph Office was opened in 1884 (later changing its name to Flagpole Landing).

Later in 1884, the line went north to Carnavon which had only been settled in 1876 as the centre of a major sheep grazing activity.

In 1885, major construction activity took the line through Onslow and Fortescue in the Pilbara to Roebourne and nearby Cossack. This progress was amazing by any standards.

  • Onslow was founded in 1883 as a port for the export of wool from the Pilbara.
  • Roebourne had been established as a Government administrative centre for the region in the late 1860s - although it was destroyed by a cyclone in 1872. It prospered from the discovery of gold at Nullagine to the south-east in 1878.
Far north 2
  • The opening of a Telegraph Office at nearby Cossack - about 10 miles from Roebourne - was motivated by the development of the pearling industry. Cossack was the birthplace of Western Australia’s pearling industry and the home of the colony’s pearling fleet. At the time of the opening of the Telegraph Office, 44 pearling vessels were operating from Cossack. Due to Government intervention to protect the pearling beds, the industry was moved to Broome in 1886.

The line was then constructed to Broome in 1888 - as Port Hedland was only regarded as being an appropriate place for a port in 1891. The line was immediately extended to Derby. A jetty had been constructed at Derby in 1885 to assist in the export of wool from the region and the Halls Creek gold rush began the following year.

As noted elsewhere, the Eastern Telegraph Company considered landing the third cable from Banjoewangi to Australia at Beagle Bay but due to the thickly wooded and overgrown terrain, decided to bring the cable ashore at Roebuck Bay (Broome) to connect to the Western Australian line of telegraph. Construction was by that time sufficiently advanced to ensure that either Roebuck Bay or Derby could be selected. On further inspection, it was found that the sea floor off Derby at the entrance to King Sound was unsuitable for cable laying.

It was reported in the Legislative Assembly on 10 October 1888 that the line enabling communication from Derby to Perth "would shortly be open". The Telegraph Office opened at Derby on 3 April 1889.

The 1890s.

After the long line to Derby had been completed, construction activity began on branch lines to service especially the newly open mines.

4. Broome east to the Kimberley.

The first lines to be opened were in the top end in the Kimberley goldfields - constructed to Fitzroy Crossing and Halls Creek. The Fitzroy Crossing area had large sheep properties around it but it was about half way between Broome (400 km NW) and Halls Creek (300 km to the east). It is about 2,500 km from Perth. In December 1885, a prospector named Charlie Hall found a nugget weighing almost 1 kg in the place soon to be named after him. That discovery led to an immediate influx of more than 15,000 prospectors searching for their fortunes in the very desolate area.

Communications with Halls Creek were important for both commercial and security reasons. A police station had been established at Fitzroy Crossing and Telegraph Offices were opened at both places in September 1892. The office at Fitzroy Crossing doubled as a Post Office (it cost £599 18s). The Crossing could then serve as a repeater station for messages to Broome. Most of the prospectors could not take the conditions and soon left. Halls Creek then became a trading centre - with a telegraph station, a police station, a government office and a racecourse to service the Aboriginals and miners who stayed on.

In 1894, lines were constructed to service two developing mining areas - one at the top end south of Port Hedland (which itself was just established) at Marble Bar and the other a long way to the south in the Murchison region.

3. Port Hedland to the Murchison.

Gold was found in Marble Bar in 1890 and the town was officially gazetted in 1893. The line from Port Headland to Marble Bar was opened in August 1894. Before it could be completed, however, other discoveries in the region led to further requests for telegraphic facilities.

On 2 August 1890, the Perth Western Mail reported that "Five men - named John Williams, John Doyle, John Pryde, Charles Capner and Nile Bengston - arrived in Roebourne from Shaw Falls, Nullagine, this morning, bringing with them 460 ounces of gold, including two big nuggets, one weighing 333 oz. 8dwts. This massive nugget is very handsome".

On 7 July 1894, the Western Mail reported that "To a deputation interested in the Nor-West goldfields, the Premier, on Wednesday, acceded to their request, by promising that an extension of the telegraph line from Marble Bar to Bamboo Creek, a distance of 35 miles, would be carried out. The Marble Bar telegraph lines will be completed in about a fortnight's time, and the extension will be commenced as soon as possible". The Bamboo Creek Office opened in April 1895.

In April 1895, residents at Marble Bar and Nullagine were "becoming indignant" over the delay on constructing a telegraph line between the two towns. That line had been sanctioned over a year before, whilst the telegraph line from Roebourne to Mallina, which had been promised long afterwards, had already been completed and an extension had been promised promised to Pilbarra (which was completed in October 1896).The extension to Nullagine was seen as greatly hampering progress and several capitalists - willing and anxious to invest - were complaining of "this backwardness". The warden of the Pilbarra field had received information from Sir John Forrest in 1894 that the extension of the line had been approved. The West Australian finally reported that the Nullagine telegraph line should be completed in early March 1897.

Other offices to the south opened in the following years at Talga Talga and Western Shaw. All of these Offices were serving the communities engaged in gold mining.

An alternative Peak Hill - Nullagine line.

There was much discussion about the construction of the duplicate telegraph line from Peak Hill to Nullagine. The main advantage of this line would be to provide an alternative telegraphic route bet wen two important and isolated mining areas. In 1909, the Posmaster-General indicated he wished to strengthen the telegraph line between Perth and Peak Hill and erect a new line from Peak Hill to Nullagine. The matter was to be considered in connection with 1909 estimates. In early 1910, Sir John Forrest announced that provision had been made for the construction of the Peak Hill-Nullagine telegraph line. When it was completed, he noted, the stoppages that periodically occurred in telegraphic communication with the North-West and in the Kimberley would be obviated inasmuch as this telegraph line will run far inland and would not be subject to the cyclones or willy-willies which often did damage on the North-West coast.

In May 1910, it was generally accepted that the second line should follow the stock route wherever practicable even though that was not the most direct route. The extra cost of the line would be more than compensated by the other advantages. For example, if a more direct route were to be followed instead of keeping to the stock route, there would be a stretch of about 90 miles of waterless country between the Gascoyne and Ashburton Rivers and attempting to cross that area would render construction costly and subsequent maintenance more difficult.

The estimated length of the duplicate line via the stock route was 325 miles. Although some parts could be crossed more directly to reduce this distance, the electrical engineer noted that the main difficulty was that very little information was available concerning that particular portion of the country decidedly of the opinion that the extra cost of the line would be more than compensated for by the certainty of water supply en route and the probability of stations being established in its vicinity".

On 15 September 1910, the Perth Daily News reported the announcement by the Postmaster-General that "work on the erection of a telegraph line from Peak Hill to Nullagine would be begun when the survey had been completed and all necessary material was available. With the exception of iron poles, all the material had been obtained. The negotiations with the State Government had been completed and they had been asked to proceed with the survey." The survey for the Peak Hill to Nullagine telegraph line finally commenced on 28 November. By 27 February 1911, it had been completed to 290 miles and it was expected to be completed in early March. In November 1912, various papers announced that "The telegraph line between Nullagine and Peak Hill has been completed. It will be open for business when the proper instruments are installed at Nullagine and Peak Hill".

In June 1913, it was announced that "an extensive copper outcrop had been located just west of the 109 mile peg on the Peak Hill to Nullagine telegraph line. The outcrop was traced on the surface for 38 chains".

In October 1919, the Minister for Mines announced that a "hill of copper" had been discovered near the 198 mile post along the Peak Hill - Nullagine telegraph line.

The line operated effectively for many years - mainly due to the two line repairers who lived in a residence built between Peak Hill and Nullagine - well over 100 miles from the nearest town. Their situation was described thus "The only communication the two bachelor officials have with the outside world is by phone and wireless, whilst travellers help to vary the monotony. In this connection though, nearly all the pleasure belongs to the linesmen and very little to the visitors".

After the significant efforts made to establish the telegraph lines, a hurricane hit the area on 26 February 1926. "The hurricane, which visited Marble Bar and Nullagine, did considerable damage to the former township - and the telegraph line between the two towns was greatly damaged for its whole length. Condon cannot get into communication with Marble Bar, Broome and other stations to the north. During the storm, three telegraph horses were turned out for safety but they were blown into the sea and drowned. Sheep stations in the Marble Bar district are reported to have suffered severe losses".

1. The Murchison line (Mount Magnet-Cue-Peak Hill).

Mount Magnet was also the place for a gold rush in the 1890s. The discovery first occurred in July 1891 - the biggest nugget ever found in the region weighed 100 oz. Gold in nearby areas was also discovered in 1892 by Tom Cue and his colleagues and they registered their claim at Nannine soon after. In 1893, the township was proclaimed and named after Tom.

Telegraph line construction began in late 1894 starting from Geraldton towards Cue after tenders had been calledin August 1893 for the construction of the Telegraph Line from Geraldton to Murchison. An intermediate office was opened, as the line extended, at Mullewa (October 1894) before the line reached Cue in November 1894 - a very quick construction effort. Offices were also opened at Nannine to the north and Day Dawn to the west in the same month.

Subsequent developments opened new offices along the line at Yalgoo (April 1895), Mount Magnet (March 1896) and Lake Austin (October 1896). In the next couple of years, three other offices in the region were also opened with Gullewa opening near Geraldton in September 1897. Willuna, in the east of the region, opened in 1898 while Meekatharra did not open its telegraph office until February 1907.

There were always problems associated with the telegraph lines which are probably unique to Australia. Cyclones, bush fires, floods, etc were always prevalent. Cutting down of wires by aboriginals and others was a relatively frequent occurrence. Damage by animals was often reported. A typical example in 1828 was reported by the Barrier Miner on 22 May:

DAMAGE TO TELEGRAPH LINES CAUSED IN WEST AUSTRALIA.

"Telegraph lines near Marble Bar and Roebourne were recently broken by cockatoos, thousands of birds perching on the wires. Repairers sent out saw huge flocks settle on the poles and wires, many birds gripping the wire in their beaks and spinning themselves round in play. The result was that the copper wire was deeply dented and ready to break by the combined weight of the next flight of cockatoos which alighted".