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 line west from Cooktown to the Palmer;
    2. the line north from Junction Creek to the Palmer;
    3. the lines from Cardwell via Innisfail (Geraldton) to Cairns along the coast;
    4. the line from Laura (Black Soil) to Cape York and Thursday Island.

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:

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 line west from Cooktown to the Palmer.

This map extends north to Thursday Island.

This map extends south to the Gulf line
and to
the Burketown - Cloncurry - Mackay region.

A major consideration in planning the line from 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 from which this gold was exported and to which the supplies for the goldfields were imported.

Although the suggestions for the Cooktown to Palmer telegraph line were well based on economics related to the gold mining, 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 willful waste of the public revenue.

Yours &c Verbum Sat Sapienti.
Ipswich May 27.

The Queenslander of 19 December 1874 (p. 6) reported:

"Some delay has occurred in arranging for extending the telegraphic wire to the Palmer. The contract for the line from Cooktown has indeed been let and some twenty-five miles of clearing has been already effected. But even when finished, that line does nothing to bring either place into communication with the south.

It was at first intended to extend the wire from Junction Creek to Palmerville, but representations as to the advantages which would follow the running of the wire from Cardwell northerly through the splendid coast country lying between that town and Cooktown were allowed to outweigh the desire to have the work done as speedily as possible. It is now found that the coast route cannot at present be made use of for various reasons, among others the boldness and hostility of the blacks; and tenders for the construction from Junction Creek, as originally intended, will, in all probability, shortly be invited".

Little is known of the construction activity from Cooktown except that it was ultimately supervised by John Richard Bradford - an experienced bushman. According to The Telegraph (5 May 1975 , p. 3) "Mr. Strickland, the energetic constructor of the telegraph line to the Palmer, informed us on Monday last that he had stretched the wire twelve miles from town, the posts being laid to four miles the other side of the Normanby River".

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.

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.

On 5 February 1875, The Telegraph (Brisbane) of 5 February 1875 reported:

"Instructions have been forwarded to the contractor to push on with his contract with all possible speed. Mr. Strickland seems determined to carry out to the utmost of his ability the contract for clearing the line and erecting poles. In addition to the staff he has already had on the work, he has brought up another team of bullocks from Townsville, and we have very little doubt the work will be finished long before the time originally contemplated."

On 18 November 1875, the first telegraphic message was dispatched from Cooktown towards the Palmer Goldfield but it was received at a station 84 miles distant. The Brisbane Courier (23 November 1875, p. 3) reported:

"The telegraph line is stretched as far as this (84 miles from Cooktown). The field operator - Mr. Canty - walks four miles every morning by himself to attach his local instruments to the line communicating with Cooktown, thus showing the blacks are not to be feared by him".

A further insight into the construction is provided by an article in the Dalby Herald and Western Queensland Advertiser of 8 January 1876 (p. 3):

"The Telegraph construction party on the Palmer line have now completed 97 miles of it (Ed: Presumably to Laura/Blacksoil), and there is every prospect of their reaching Maytown before the wet season sets in. The great drawback is the want of men for clearing line, sinking holes, etc. There are very few Europeans who will work for the contractors even at the very high scale of wages allowed; and if an occasional hand turns up, he merely remains long enough to get sufficient to give him a new start on the field. The contractors therefore have been compelled to fall back on Chinese labour. A great many of these are employed, and they work well. The contractors would be glad to employ a much larger number if they could be procured, but the Asiatics, like the Europeans, prefer the chance of the field to the certainly of a good wage."

By April 1876, the line between Maytown and the Palmer still had not been completed. The Postmaster-General therefore established a tri-weekly horse express from the Palmer to the end of the line to facilitate use of the line to Cooktown. As always, communication "was expected shortly".

One of the problems delaying construction was clearly the continual interference to the construction teams by the local indigenous population. A typical report was published in The Capricornian of 4 August 1877 (p. 2)

"For the fourth time in six months (says the Cooktown Herald) the  telegraph  wire has been severed near the Blacksoil by those accursed niggers who have appropriated, we suppose, some hundreds of yards of wire for the purpose of making spear heads to slaughter their pale-faced invaders. It is very good no doubt of our paternal-looking Government to facilitate the operations of the subtle inhabitants of the soil, by refusing police protection to the  telegraph  wire in the shape of a patrol, on the excuse of economy and, no doubt they are right, for what care have they how Cooktown suffers so long as she sends her rulers the hard earnings of her people; and so long as we put up with it, we shall continue to be the sufferers. Where is the Progress Committee now? Echo answers Where?"

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:

The discovery of gold and other minerals in the region south of Cooktown encouraged the construction of lines further south on the Cape. The first line diverged from Tate to Thornborough (completed 12 May 1877). That line was extended through to Cairns the following year. A branch line was also constructed from Thornborough further north to Port Douglas. Later that led to a number of smaller or more recently developed communities wishing for telegraphic access: "At present there is no telegraph office on the line opened to Kuranda but, as the wire passes within half a mile of the township, connection will be cheap and easy. This should be accomplished without delay, the necessities of traffic and public convenience demanding it" (Cairns Post 11 July 1891).

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. At about the same time, the 28 mile line from Palmer Road to Fairview was dismantled.

In the Morning Post of 14 December 1898: "On Thursday week last, telephonic communication between Mareeba and Calcifer had been established and, at the intervening stations at the Walsh River and Harry Wades, the telephone will not be available for public use for some weeks pending connection with the Telegraph Office in Mareeba but it is understood that messages may be received at the Chillagoe Coy's office and transmitted on payment of the usual fee charged by the Telegraph Department for the transmission of telegrams".

There were a number of branch lines constructed in the region. For example, in 1899 from Mareeba (inland from Cairns) "to Girofla, a telephone line runs; along it one sends wires at the rate of ten words for a shilling. On to this is tacked another shilling to pay the cost of transmission by telegraph. So that all wires from Calcifer or Munganna (mines at each) cost 2s. for ten words. The convenience is so great that nobody greatly grudges it. The length of the telephone wire from Mareeba to Calcifer is 78 miles and it is then continued 18 miles to Munganna making a total of 96 miles. It is one of the longest telephone lines in Queensland — perhaps in Australia".


2. The lines from Junction Creek to the Palmer.

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 a telegraph line should be constructed almost directly north from Junction Creek on the Cardwell-Normaton line rather than along the coast - at least at this stage.

The following advertisement appeared in several newspapers:

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.

One insight into the construction comes from the Mackay Mercury and the South Kennedy Advertiser of Saturday 30 October 1875 (p. 2):

"Writing from the Lynd River to the Northern Advocate, Mr. Alick Johnstone, contractor for the Junction to the Palmer, states: We have now got fairly into full swing, and have passed successfully into the basalt country; fourteen miles was a caution for hardness and a nasty piece of country to build a line over. The bullock waggon not having arrived until two weeks ago caused the work to progress slowly. There are now 33 miles of line built, and we will have it across the Lynd River next week. I hope we shall, if all goes well, put the Palmer in communication with the South by next February.

There are 37 men at present on the work, and we purpose increasing the staff when the team comes up with more tools. There are no 'niggers' to bother us. The grass is middling, and the water plentiful everywhere. The camp with tents and leaf gunyahs, and such like 'fixens' that the men put together, looks like a 'village'. "


On 25 March 1876, The Queenslander noted in its Current News section (p. 6) that:

"we understand that a police station is to be established immediately about midway between the Junction Creek telegraph station and Palmerville on the telegraph line. The constant annoyance of the blacks, were very numerous and troublesome in that part of the country, renders such an establishment necessary for the protection of the line and those engaged in working it".

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.

On 24 June 1876, the Brisbane Courier reported:

"A contract has been let for carrying a weekly mail between Byerstown and Thornborough, the township of the Hodgkinson gold field and Mr Mulligan has been appointed postmaster at Thornborough.  Considerable difficulty was experienced in establishing this mail, as the European tenderers for its conveyance asked exorbitant figures. The contract has therefore been taken by Chinese packers, on reasonable terms, for a, period of eighteen months. There is now regular weekly communication with all the Cooktown gold fields, by direct route from Cooktown to Maytown and Byerstown and branch lines from Byerstown southward to Thornborough, and from Maytown northward to Palmerville.

The postal and telegraphic business of those places is rapidly on the increase At Cooktown the annual value of telegraphic messages is about £2000. At Maytown the work is too much to be got through efficiently by the station master without an assistant, whilst the postal business at that township is so heavy that it is difficult to get a storekeeper to take charge of it. An official postmaster will soon be necessary there. At Byerstown there is also a large amount of business, that township having valuable reefs in its neighborhood, besides being the centre of a large and important mining district. The unfinished portion of the telegraph line between Junction Creek and the Palmer has been reduced from eighty five miles (when the horse express for telegrams was first established) to eleven and it is expected that the line will be finished in the course of next week".

Also in June 1876, telegraph offices were opened at Cooktown, Blacksoil, Fernvale, Glenrock, Palmerville, Maytown, Tate River, and Walsh River.

The (Brisbane) Telegraph of 22 November 1876 (p. 2) reported the following development for a new line in the region:

"Telegraph Extension in the North.

Last night, when Mr. Thorn moved some additional items connected with the northern gold fields, Mr. Murphy drew attention to the desirableness of extending the telegraph line to Thornborough which elicited the pleasing reply from the Premier that the Government were fully alive to the importance of that district and that he would bring the matter of the extension in question before his colleagues without delay with the view of its being carried out. Speaking generally, the electric telegraph has been, without doubt, the means of accomplishing more progress in this colony than any other Government institution. It has brought the centres of population within easy and rapid communication with the most remote parts of the colony, thus enabling the people to transact business with each other, who otherwise would be utterly debarred from doing so. And in this particular instance, a telegraph line to the Hodgkinson, the benefits likely to accrue are even beyond the average. A large number of people in Brisbane are directly interested in the reefs and crushing machines at this goldfield, and one of the greatest obstacles to more enterprise taking this direction lies in the fact that it is impossible to calculate with any degree of certainty when a communication to or from that place will reach its destination. Only the other day, we were informed of the case of an agent employed by some Brisbane capitalists to manage their interests at Thornborough, having to travel all the way to Townsville, via Cairns, in order to command the use of a telegraph line, it being necessary that he should obtain instructions from his principals as to some business matters".

Action was taken after this meeting!! The Maryborough Chronicle of 24 November 1877 (p. 2) reported that "A notice posted outside the telegraph office, announces that on the 20th instant a telegraph station was established at Thornborough. This places the "Hodgkinson reefing district" in direct telegraphic communication with the remainder of the colony, and all other parts of Australia to which the lines extend".

In this northern region of Queensland, communication was a major problem - especially during the rainy season. Mail and newspapers for Normanton and the general Mitchell River area from Cooktown or Cairns could be delayed for 2 months. Suggestions were made in 1877 that a wire could be run from the Tate Telegraph Station which was only about 50 miles from Thornborough.

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.

As noted above, there was another major consideration emerging in this general area caused by numerous gold finds and the development of mining. One of the main areas was around Chillagoe-Mareeba to the west of Cairns. That area had been the centre of many discussions and proposals for a railway line as well as a telegraph line to be constructed. Finally a railway line was agreed but a telegraph decision was still to be made. The Morning Post of 11 August 1898 described the resolution:

"Failing the Government to connect Chillagoe with Mareeba by telegraph, the syndicate commenced the erection of a line some three weeks ago and this, it is expected, will be completed in about two months time. Under the Act, the syndicate have the right to construct telegraph lines over the route, still their prompt action in the matter is some guarantee of the energy and enterprise likely to be shown in the construction of the railway and developments generally. The terminus for the telegraph line will be at Mungana, a new township, situated about fifteen miles from Calcifer and, when completed, the line will be available for the public - provision to that effect being contained in the Act".

At that time there were 300 men engaged on constructing the railway line from Mareeba to Chillagoe and 19 mies had been cleared. It was also expected that the telegraph line from Mareeba to Calcifer would be completed by the end of October 1898.

On 6 July 1899, the Northern Miner informed readers that (as of 13 June) "The telegraph line to Mungana has been cleared and posted and will be completed shortly after the arrival of the wire now en route".


In March 1898, the Department was also considering an application from residents for a telephone line from Mareeba to Atherton - a distance of about 23 miles. In its reply, the Department insisted on a guarantee of £100 being deposited for each of the next three years if a line was to be constructed. "The proposed line will be regarded strictly as a telegraph line, and all messages passing over it will be charged accordingly. The office will be in charge of an unofficial operator who will be paid the usual rates by this Department of two pence for every paid message forwarded and delivered with a minimum allowance of £5 per annum. An office also will have to be provided and some one nominated to perform the duties".

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".

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 (via Charters Towers) with the northern repeating station at Bowen (see also the Lines in the Central Section).


The Queenslander of 7 December 1907 reported an excellent description of the interaction of the lines on the Cape:

"Junction Creek is situated some 80 or 90 miles southwest of Herberton, between Cardwell and Croydon, at the base of York Peninsula. Since its establishment in 1872 (in charge of the late Stephen O'Brien whose death in Maryborough took place only a few weeks ago), when it boomed as the most northern central telegraph office, it has gradually developed into what might be termed "the tuning centre" for all the important northern and Gulf lines — namely Thursday Island, Cooktown. Chillagoe, Port Douglas, Mareeba, Palmerville, Georgetown, Croydon, Normanton, Burketown, Cairns, Herberton and Irvinebank.

For all these places, Junction Creek is called upon to act as a connecting link for the working between them and Bowen. Only three main lines run between Junction Creek and Bowen and all the above mentioned stations' business has to pass south over these three circuits and it goes without saying that this is a very heavy duty to perform - especially since the boom in the Chillagoe district.

Three repeating instruments are installed — two of what is known as the Milliken Yankee repeating set and one quadruplex repeater. The former is used for the Morse stations and devices are at hand for the switching of the lines from Bowen on to any of the places named. The "Millikens" have been in use for some considerable time and do splendid work. Over 1000 messages a day pass over them and they are still in their prime. The quadruplex repeaters, however, are only of recent installation, placed there with at view to relieving the congestion of business at Cairns by allowing that station a clear duplex line to itself. The second side of the set is to be used between Bowen and Herberton and Irvinebank (which Herberton can "switch on"). The Department is hardly ready yet to utilise the set to its full advantage but, when the necessary men are available, no doubt there will be fewer complaints of delays from Cairns when every line is free from interruption". (see elsewhere also).

3: The lines from Cardwell to Cairns.

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 (Innisfail) was opened in early April 1885 together with a new P&T building at Geraldton.

Herberton Tin mine mid 1880s.

The Cairns-Geraldton line.

On 2 March 1895, The Queenslander noted "An agitation is on foot to ask the Government to construct a telegraph line from Cairns to Geraldton - thus giving a third line to the North and obviating the isolation of the North during flood times as experienced during the past eight days. The proposed line would pass through forest and scrub country, and would have no big rivers to cross".

The Morning Post of 18 November 1897 reported on the discussion in the House:

"Mr W. H. Browne, Member for Croydon, is doing his best to urge the Government into a trot over the Cairns Geraldton telegraph line and thus writes to the Chamber of Commerce under date October 8th:
"I have again started the agitation for the line, but it seems that the Government or the Department must, like Mark Twain, have an enormous mind - it takes such a long time to make it up on the matter. It is under consideration, etc, etc."

This is about all the satisfaction I can get. From all I can gather, the difficulty is over the route. I have seen Messrs Newell, Sim, and others on the matter and certainly do not intend to let it drop. On the 6th October, Mr Browne asked in the House: "Is it the intention of the Government to proceed with the erection of the telegraph line from Cairns to Geraldton?" "Is this work provided for on the estimates?"
The answers were: (1.) "This matter is receiving the consideration of the Government."
(2.) " If approved, funds will be provided."

Mr J. Hamilton had a different experience with this question and received the following reply from the Under-Secretary P. and T, Department "Re proposed duplication of the Northern Telegraph system, by connecting Geraldton with Cairns, I have the honor to inform you that Mr. Lissner was informed, in answer to a similar inquiry on 23rd August last, that there were no funds at present available."

In January 1898, a suggestion was made in the House that the best route for the Cairns-Geraldton telegraph line would be via Mulgrave, Aloomba and Russell.

In April 1898, discussions were held in Cairns with Mr. R. S. Armitt (Northern Inspector of Telegraphs) about telephonic and telegraphic requirements in the district. A telephone line linking Nelson and Aloomba to Cairns was deemed urgent. Four telephone lines were agreed - one along the tramway line connecting the Nelson and Cairns stations with all the small stations along the line; another from Aloomba through Nelson to the Cairns exchange; a third from the Nelson Post Office to the Cairns exchange; the fourth connecting Hambledon with the town. If that agreement was implemented " the Aloomba-Cairns line would form the first link in the Cairns-Geraldton telegraph line, the proposed route of which Mr. Armitt has yet to inspect. The Nelson-Cairns telephone line would be worked upon a similar plan to that of a telegraph office. The post-master or mistress in charge would have to take an oath as to secrecy concerning all communications. Messages would be written out on the ordinary forms and charged for at an established rate. These messages would then be transmitted through the exchange to their destination and a copy of the message would be sent to the exchange by first train so that any error which might be made in transmission, could be quickly rectified" (Morning Post 21 April 1898).

On 17 February 1900, the Morning Post cited a letter from the Post and Telegraph Department that "tenders for the Cairns-Geraldton telegraph line would not be called until the route of the Cairns tramway extension was fixed when it was expected that tenders would be called". A month later, the same Department wrote to the Cairns Chamber of Commerce stating that "it would cost £8100 to construct a telegraph line between Cairns and Geraldton and that this sum is considered too big for the benefits which would be conferred".

In June 1900, a deputation met with the Premier to put their case forward (again):

"Mr M. Walsh, on behalf of the Chamber of Commerce, introduced the subject of the extension of the telegraph line to Geraldton via Aloomba and Harvey's Creek. He said that the extension had been promised in 1893 and the townspeople had been agitating on the subject for the past 14 years. The line would give a duplicate wire between Brisbane and the North which was badly needed. The extension would give direct communication with Bowen without passing through Junction Creek. (Mr Walsh here went into the history of the agitation up to the present time).

In spite of promises, the Under Secretary of Telegraphs had written to the Chamber in March last stating that the matter could not be entertained. The work was not a local question but a national one. On one occasion during the wet season, 2,000 telegrams had left Cairns by steamer (Mr Philp here expressed incredulity). He could assure the Premier that the figures were right - they had been obtained from the Telegraph Master. The extension he asked for would obviate all this. The line had already been surveyed, and the telephone posts already erected as far as Aloomba.

The Under Secretary considered the cost would be £8,000, but in reality it would not be anything like that amount. The Mayor said that after the promise made by the late Hon. T. J. Byrnes, they had considered the matter a certainty, yet Mr Drake had taken upon himself, though only a new-chum Postmaster General, to wipe out what his predecessors had done. The matter was a serious one for the whole colony - especially that part of it north of Geraldton.

Mr J. J. O'Leary, Superintendent of the Cairns-Mulgrave Tramway, said that the line had been already laid a distance of 17½ miles and the Board was paying rent for the poles and had agreed to keep the track cleared. The distance from Harvey's Creek to Geraldton was only 28 miles and the swamps and scrubs could be largely avoided. There would be no clearing required between Aloomba and Harvey's Creek as the Board would do that and the cost of that section would only be about £28 a mile.

The Premier said there must have been some mistake as, from what he had heard, the line could not possibly cost £8,000. The Divisional Board had constructed practically half the line and he would try and persuade Mr Drake to build the other half".

to complete the link and an alternative line to Cairns.

In November 1902, the Cairns Chamber of Commerce received a letter from Mr. J. Lyons M. L. A. noting he had received information from the Deputy Postmaster General that work on the construction of a telegraph line between Mareeba and Atherton would commence shortly.

As might be expected, around this time, so soon after Federation and before full arrangements had been formulated, there was confusion about the telegraph lines. That confusion affected the area in Queensland being described here. The Morning Post of 25 August 1903 described the situation with respect to the lines as follows:

"regarding the vexed question of telegraphic communication between Cairns and Atherton: Mr Dunbar's statement was virtually to the effect that no State Department could interfere with Federal services although the Department might recognise the urgency of the need of a service which it could supply. The matter at present stands as follows: There is public telegraphic communication between Cairns and Mareeba and Cairns and Herberton but Atherton, which lies between Mareeba and Herberton, is telegraphically isolated so far as the public is concerned. There is a telegraph line from Mareeba to Atherton and a fully-equipped telegraph office at the latter place but, except on railway business, no one can use it and a curious hitch has taken place which is apparently the result of a quantity of red tape and a disinclination to bother too much about the requirements of the far North.

When the State telegraphic services were transferred to the Commonwealth, among the lines handed over were all those which were used or partially used for the public service. For example: the cost of nearly all the lines constructed along the routes of railways was debited, partly to the Railway Department and partly to the Telegraph Department and the cost of equipment and staff was shared by them. When the service was transferred to the Commonwealth, these lines were taken over by the latter and the work went on as before.

In the case of the Atherton-Mareeba line, however, matters were somewhat different. This line was erected by the Railway Department after the transfer of the telegraphic service and as the Post and Telegraph Act prevents any of the States performing services vested in the Commonwealth Government, no public messages can be sent and the line can be used only by the Railway Department on its own business. There have been promises by the Federal Government that arrangements would be made with the Railway Department by which the line would come into use for the public, but so far there has been no move in this direction and the public of the district has suffered and is suffering accordingly.

The other day, a certain firm in Cairns tried to send a message of a very urgent nature to Atherton. The wire was forwarded to an agent in Mareeba with instructions to see the station master there and endeavour to have it repeated on to Atherton. The station master refused on the grounds that the line was not open for public business and he stated that, without authority, he could not think of transmitting any message not directly connected with the railway. The message had therefore to be forwarded to Herberton where a mounted messenger had to deliver it in Atherton 11 miles away.

As Mr. Dunbar says, there is absolutely nothing to prevent an arrangement being made by the Telegraph Department with the Railway Department to open the line to public business. But until such a step is taken, we shall have to put up with the present unsatisfactory and anomalous position. The Railway Department is willing to hand the line over to the Commonwealth on the same terms as the other railway lines and it appears as if all that was plainly and unconditionally behind him and the Chamber of Commerce is the proper body to take the matter up and see it to its conclusion".


4. From Laura (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 initial surveying expedition and took six men and 36 horses. He took two years to complete the task. The main part of his Report can be found elsewhere on this site.

The Bradford expedition started at "The Black Soil" or Laura (see below) on 18 June 1883. The members 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.

The names and locations of places in the area is very confusing when reading the original reports of developments. An account provided to the Toowoomba Chronicle and published on 25 February 1888 (p. 5) by a gentleman who had recently been engaged in the construction of the telegraph line over the Cape York Peninsular is now included in part to help clarify the names and the locations as places were moved:

"Leaving Cooktown we proceeded by rail to Sandown, the present terminus of the Maytown railway, and distant from Cooktown about 50 miles. This railway is constructed on the cheap principle of all the Northern railways and, so far, does not run through any country of importance - either mining, agricultural or pastoral - although about the 40 mile peg they have found coal and a company formed in Cooktown is now sinking a shaft in order to supply the wants of that important coast town.

Sandown is like most other termini of railways under construction, only built for the present — two public houses, two stores, Cobb and Co.'s stables, the contractors' yards and offices and the inevitable canvas town. We thought it was wrongly named - or rather not spelled correctly. It should be Sandtown as one sinks in the loose sand fully six inches when walking about.

The water supply is from two wells, so not being sure of getting enough for our horses we decided to make a start the same afternoon. Following the clearing of the railway line, now under construction by Messrs. A. Overend & Co., as far as the Deighton River, we struck over for the Laura Telegraph Station situated on one of the Billabongs of the Laura River. Here we camped for the night, grass and water being abundant. Next day we followed the Palmerville telegraph line, passing on our way the Native Police barracks on the right bank of the Laura and a hotel kept by Mr. H. Jones on the bank. Here we crossed the coach road to Maytown. A few miles further on we came to a deserted village, being one of the relics of the early Palmer days, twelve or thirteen years ago.

We reached the lagoon known as the "Black Soil" early in the afternoon, being eighteen miles from the Laura. This is the first appearance we have seen of any good country since leaving Cooktown. Here is the starting point of the Cape York line. It is proposed to shift the present Laura Telegraph Station to this place, it being more convenient for the line repairer, that officer having to go halfway between here and Palmerville and half way to the next station on the Cape York line. Leaving the Black Soil some very good country was passed over in the next eight miles, open plains and lightly timbered ridges, reminding one of the Downs country, till you come to the south branch of the Kennedy River, a very wide and deep sandy stream. It does not run all the year round but water can be found at almost any place by scratching the sane away for a few inches. The stock running in the neighbourhood often do their own digging for water".


A summary of the construction from Laura to the Cape.

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


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 Laura (Fairview of Black Soil) with a gang of 47 men and completed the 200 miles 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:

After the wet season finished, construction resumed. The Week of 9 July 1887 printed a memo received by the Electric Telegraph Department from McDonnell (Cape York extension) stating:

"that (the McDonnell) station was connected with Patterson, the northern station, at 4 p.m. on the 23rd June. Teams were then starting for the next station (Moreton) with material, and it was expected that Moreton and Patterson would be connected in three weeks time. There will then only be the gap between Mein and Moreton - some 70 miles - and, when this line is stretched, Brisbane and Thursday Island will be connected by wire".

The final join was made somewhere between Mein and Moreton. Before the final connection was actually made, a "pony express" operated across the 60 mile interval between those two places 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 a single 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.

The Musgrave Telegraph Station.

Some water tanks were built inside the building so 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

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.

The Cape York line was viewed by the Queensland Government as being an essential component of communication with British-annexed New Guinea and the Torres Straits from 1885. It was also considered important for the overall defence of Queensland in the late 19th century.

The Cape York line was also a critical part of Australia's defences during World War 2. Up to the 1940's little had been done to upgrade the communications equipment. Suddenly, a massive investment in the Cape Overland Telegraph Line resulted in the installation of much more sophisticated equipment from Mount Surprise to Cape York.

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


After the wires had been erected, communication between any two nominated places had to be networked. Often two adjacent wires ran for miles before diverging to their respective destinations to form the actual transmission lines. Preferably more than two wires would serve a single place so that messages could still be transmitted even in the event of an interruption to one line.

A summary of the lines which served the Cape York region before Federation - divided into Southern District and Northern District regions which they may have crossed - together with their line numbers, is presented in the following table.

Line # From To Note
N2 Bowen Cooktown via Townsville, Charters Towers and Junction Creek.
N7 Townsville Geraldton (Innisfail)  
N10 Junction Creek Port Douglas via Tate, Thornborough and Biboohra.
N11 Limestone Thursday Island via Maytown and Palmerville.
N15 Cooktown Point Archer  
N20 Cairns Railway Mareeba  
N21 Cooktown Laura Along the railway.
N22 Herberton Montalbion  
N23 Thursday Island Goode Island  

Legend: S = Southern district lines; N = Northern District lines.

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