Western Australia: 1869-1900.
Telegraph lines in the Pilbara.


 

Construction of the following lines is described below:

  1. the line to Onslow and the Fortescue from the Mid West Region;
  2. the line to Roebourne and Cossack;
  3. the line north to the Kimberley;
  4. the line from Port Hedland to Nullagine.
  5. an alternative line linking Nullagine to Peak Hill (in the Mid West).
Pilbara The Pilbara region of Western Australia is defined here, for purposes of describing line construction, as being the region between Onslow and Port Hedland/Cossack on the coast and eastwards to the Northern Territory border.

1. The line to Onslow (the Ashburton) and the Fortescue.

By August 1884, the construction of the Telegraph line had reached Carnarvon in the Gascoyne. 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.

On 25 April 1885, the Perth Western Australian reported that "(as at 15 April) Mr. Carey has got as far as Mardie (near the Fortescue) with his survey of the telegraph line, so it will not be long before he arrives here (at Roebourne). The working party will be some time before they reach the Ashburton, as water is very scarce at the present scene of operations. It will be a grand thing for us all when the work is completed".

On 30 July 1885, the Commissioner of Railways announced to the House that "that he had just received a telegram, informing him that the telegraph line had been extended to 80 miles beyond the Ashburton and that the contractors confidently expected to reach the Fortescue on the 1st. October and complete the line to Roebourne by the 1st. December next. The announcement was received with loud cheers". (Perth Daily News 30 July 1885).

Communications were rated very highly as reflected through the The Daily Mail of 13 August 1885 which "reminds our readers of the notice posted at the Telegraph Office to the effect that telegrams for Cossack and Roebourne, to be forwarded by horse-express from the Ashburton extension, will be received up till eight o'clock this (Thursday) evening".

Work progressed quickly so that, on 13 August 1885, the Daily News reported "Yesterday the Hon. the Director of Public Works received a telegram from the Roebourne telegraph party, informing him that the line would be completed as far as the  Fortescue River within a fortnight's time".

 

2. The line to Roebourne.

The West Australian Times of 5 August 1879 reported on an investigation into several suggestions about the extension of the telegraph lines. "In pursuance of a resolution passed by the Legislative Council last year, His Excellency the Governor appointed a commission to report on the best route and the probable cost of establishing telegraphic communication with Nicol Bay (a short distance south-west of Roebourne) ... The commission consisted of the Surveyor General, the Director of Public Works and the Superintendent of Telegraphs. In their report, presented to the legislature, last week, the committee estimate that the cost of constructing a line of telegraph to Roebourne (a distance of 700 miles) would not be less than £39,200. The annual cost of station staff, linemen and allowances, the commission estimate at £2,000".

The Perth Inquirer of 23 September 1885 reported that "the telegraph line to Roebourne will be completed within the course of the next fortnight and that between Cossack and Roebourne within the next week".

On 27 October 1885, The West Australian reported on the opening of the Roebourne Telegraph "Office" on 1 October - the day the line reached Roebourne. The report added:

"When the last post was fixed, Mrs. A. McRae was requested to break a bottle of champagne on it, which she did, amidst the cheers of the onlookers. On the 9th there was a dinner, followed by a ball, given to Messrs. Price, Carey and officers, which was a great success. About 13 sat down to table. The speeches were cut short, as the room was required for the ball, at which 35 couples were present, and which passed off well. We missed Mr. Laurence, who was unable, from ill health, to attend.

On the 10th there was a sale of the plant, camels, horses, &c, of the contractors. The camels (26 and a calf) did not obtain a bid. The reserve, I hear, was £2,000. The horses (draft) fetched fair prices. The Murray Squatting Company (Mardie) bought nine mares at an average of £33. The plant realised good prices.

The natives are much amused with the camels, but the horses are terrified and will not come willingly within half a mile of them. I don't know what is to be done with these camels. If there is a gold rush to Kimberley, they will fetch big prices and I fancy they will be left here awaiting events at Kimberley".

The opening of a Telegraph Office on the coast 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.

On 20 January 1894, the Western Mail reported:

The following message had been received by the Inspector of Telegraphs from the station-master at Onslow: As there is no probability of the line east of Fortescue being restored for some time, please notify public that telegrams for Roebourne and northern ports will be in time for despatch by S.S. Albany, if received at Onslow not later than 10 a.m. Thursday, 18th inst."

 

3. The line to the Kimberley

After reaching Roebourne, plans to extend the telegraph line a further 500 miles through the first half of the Kimberly to Derby were immediately implemented. Indeed the line was immediately constructed to Cossack (then known as Tien Tsin Harbour) where a Telegraph Office was opened in November 1885.

The Inquirer of 21 July 1886 noted in the Shipping News: "By the courtesy of Mr. J. Bateman, jr., Secretary of the W. A. Shipping Association, we learn that a telegram was received by him on Sunday from Capt. Marden, the Association's London agent, stating that the barque Electra had been placed on the berth there for Cossack. It is expected that this will be the Association's August vessel, and that, after discharging cargo for Fremantle, the Electra will be despatched to Cossack, for which port she will probably have on board the material required for constructing the Roebourne-Derby telegraph line.

It is certainly a remarkable coincidence that the vessel to convey the material for this new line of telegraph is of the same name as the transport boat employed by Messrs. J. & W. Bateman to convey the material used in the Northhampton-Roebourne line.

As an incident in telegraphic rapidity it may be mentioned that the telegram announcing the berthing of the Electra was despatched from London at 8:15 p.m. on Saturday and was received by Mr. Bateman at 9:15 a.m. on Sunday — the time occupied in its transmission being exactly thirteen hours, without, of course, allowing for difference of time. The time occupied in its transmission was less than six hours".

It had not been until 1895 that a serious attempt was made to establish a township at the site of a much better port that that at Cossack. After a survey, Port Hedland was gazetted as a town site in October 1896. In August 1892, a new Telegraph Office had been opened at Boodarrie to the west of Cossack. On 9 July 1897, the Western Mail reported that "It is proposed, we understand, that the telegraph station at Boodarie shall be removed to Port Hedland. This improvement is expected to result in great convenience, in view of the increasing importance of the latter place and the construction of a jetty at a cost of about £10,000". In November 1897, the first stage of this transfer took place with the Boodarrie Telegraph Office being moved to Causeway Camp on the causeway connecting the island then known as Port Hedland to the mainland. That Telegraph Office was in turn was renamed Port Hedland in November 1898.

 

4. Port Hedland to Nullagine.

The area to the south-east of Port Hedland proved to be rich in many metals and especially gold. Later Iron ore was discovered in very significant quantities.

Gold was found in Marble Bar in 1890 and the town was officially gazetted in 1893. The telegraph line from Port Headland to Marble Bar was opened in August 1894. It is at present unclear if the telegraph line was taken direct from Port Hedland or from Condon. A review of telegraph line construction in 1894 published by the Bunbury Southern Times on 1 December 1894 says the Marble Bar to Condon line was 88 miles long.

Before the line to Marble Bar 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. 8 dwts. 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 Murchison Times noted on 22 August 1894 that the Premier had allocated funds in the Loan Bill Estimates for the telegraph line connecting Bamboo to Marble Bar.

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 Perth Inquirer of 1 January 1897 reported that "the branch line from Marble Bar to Nullagine was almost completed" while 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 - an alternative link between the Mid West and the Pilbara.

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 between two important and isolated mining areas. At that time, Newman had not been established.

To this end, in 1909, the Postmaster-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, the telegraph line had been constructed 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".