Construction of the line from the coast to the Gulf of Carpentaria.

The east-west line across Queensland to the Gulf of Carpentaria was an important line for two main reasons:

  1. politically, the line would be a demonstration of Queensland's commitment to becoming the terminal for the international cable to be laid from Java after being connected from England via Egypt, India and Singapore;
  2. domestically, the line was in keeping with the Queensland Colonial Government's policy of connecting as many remote communities telegraphically as was economically possible.

The most appropriate area on the Gulf was Normanton on the Norman River with the River outflow at Norman Mouth.

The place of departure from the east coast was more contentious. There were three possible locations:

  1. Cardwell: the end of the east coast line and the most recently constructed.
  2. Townsville: slightly to the south of Cardwell and the link planned to Charters Towers and then west and north.
  3. Bowen: further south but becoming more regarded as being a natural location for the main repeater station in this central section of Queensland.

All three had strong arguments in favour of being selected - and also against. See, for example, a very forthright argument against the selection of Cardwell.

Finally, Cardwell was selected and approved so that tender could be called. This development is now summarised below in the following sections:

  1. the arguments surrounding the route to be taken;
  2. maps of the route to be followed;
  3. the initial phases of construction;
  4. the first difficulties;
  5. the final inspection.


Summary of the initial phases.

Cracknell's Report for 1868 (tabled April 1870):

"On the 9th of June last, resolutions passed the Legislative Council, and were confirmed by the Legislative Assembly in the following month, to the effect that a line of telegraph should be constructed from Cardwell to the settlements on the Gulf of Carpentaria with the least possible delay. Tenders were therefore invited for this extension, in two sections, early in the following September, and accepted by the Government in December. Before completing the necessary bonds, however, the contractor for the Normanton section refused to proceed with the work, consequently, fresh tenders were called for and arrangements entered into for carrying out the work, on the 28th of February last.

The contractors for both sections have had considerable experience in building lines in this colony, and I have every reason to believe will complete the work within the specified time - namely, twelve months after the notification of the acceptance of the tenders. The specification for the work provides for the formation of a bridie track six foot in width, within the clearing, throughout the entire section,which will be found very useful by line-repairers and travellers on this route.

Starting from Cardwell, the line will follow a westerly course for thirteen miles through good open forest country, to the foot of the Coast Range, crossing by the newly discovered route at a point less elevated than Seaview Range, thence south of Mount Lang via Cassidy's head station to the Etheridge River, the proposed junction of the two contracts. The line throughout will be carried as direct as the nature of the country will permit, due attention being paid where possible to the requirements of future roads. If found necessary, it is proposed to contruct a branch from the nearest point on the main line to the principal township on the Gilbert gold fields, which will be far preferable and less expensive, than carrying the main line so far south as the present temporary township.

Arrangements have also been entered into for erecting inexpensive wooden station buildings on the Cardwell and Normanton sections. They will be placed in suitable localities, and from 65 to 70 miles apart.

I may observe that the completion of the Gulf extension will not only prove of great utility in placing the present remote settlements at Carpentaria and the Gilbert goldfields, in direct communication with the various centres of business in this and the neighboring colonies, but will be a great step towards placing Australia and New Zealand in telegraphic connection with India and Europe".

Construction of the Gulf line began at the beginning of April 1870. At that time, the 400 mile Cardwell-Normanton line was the only one being constructed in Queensland - reflecting the Government's priority to have it constructed as quickly as possible.


The first difficulties.

The Cracknell Report tabled in May 1871:

"Owing to the death of the contractor for the eastern section of the Gulf extension, and the scarcity of timber suitable for poles between the Gilbert and Norman, the works on this line have not progressed so rapidly as was at first supposed.

As the sureties were unable to carry out the contract, tenders were again invited for the construction of the eastern section, but without success. The Government have therefore been compelled to make arrangements for completing the work, which is now being rapidly proceeded with under the immediate management of Mr. Macmillan of the Roads Department.

The works on the western section have been carried out as for as practicable, until the arrival of iron poles required to complete the line in the locality of the Norman where sound timber cannot be obtained. Those poles will be shortly due, and should nothing occur to delay their arrival, I have even reason to believe that communication will be established with Carpentaria early in August (1871) next. The amount voted for this line will probably be exceeded by the cost of the iron poles necessary for its completion, as they were not provided for owing to sufficient timber having been reported available for construction purposes when the estimate was framed".


Final inspection of the Gulf line.

The Queenslander 7 October 1871:
MR. CRACKNELL, the Superintendent of Telegraphs, returned from his inspection of the line between Cardwell and Normanton on Wednesday. His trip extended over a distance of some 3000 miles and was performed under two months. We understand that he is perfectly satisfied with the construction of the line and anticipates that it will be worked without trouble and cost little for repairs.

Its total length is 393 miles and it is cleared throughout, and wooden poles are erected with the exception of 193 miles from the shores of the Gulf of Carpentaria, where the absence of suitable timber renders iron posts necessary. These are on their way to Normanton and, eight weeks after their arrival, the line will be completed if the weather is favorable - the post-holes being already dug for their reception.

The station buildings at Cashmere, Junction Creek, Etheridge River and Normanton have been finished and are occupied by the officers in charge. The buildings at Gilbert River, Carron Creek and Sandy Point are in progress and will be completed within eight weeks from the present time.

Mr. Cracknell left Brisbane by the Black Swan on August 9 and arrived at Cardwell on the 18th. There was a detention of three days at Wide Bay and the vessel touched at Gladstone, Bowen and Townsville. He started on horseback for Normanton on the afternoon of the 19th, accompanied by Mr. Macmillan, who superintended the construction of the Eastern section, and Mr. Mullen, the line-repairer in charge of the station at the mouth of the Norman River.

The following notes of the stages made we have been allowed to extract from the rough itinerary kept by Mr.Cracknell:

August 19: the party camped at the telegraph tent at the foot of the Range.

August 20: Started from the tent at 10.30 a.m., crossed the Range and arrived at Taylor's Camp west of the scrub, 21 miles from Cardwell, at 5 p.m. and camped.

21st.—Started from camp at 7 a.m., followed the line and arrived at Cashmere at 8 p.m.

22nd.—Started at 10.30, and arrived at the native wells, twenty miles west of Cashmere at 4.30, Mount Lang bearing S.S.W. about fourteen miles. At 10 o'clock at night the blacks set fire to the grass a quarter of a mile to the windward of the camp.

23rd.—Left at 8 a.m., and camped 17 miles east of Junction Creek at 7 p.m. Ascended in the afternoon to the top of Mount Campbell, where an extensive view, magnificent in the extreme, was obtained of the surrounding country. Mounts Emma and Eliza [named by Mr. Macmillan after Mr. Cracknell's daughters] bearing S.E. at a distance of about 10 miles.

24th.—Started at 8 a.m., and arrived at the Telegraph Office, Junction Creek, at 2 p.m., when messages were sent by the wire to Bowen, Brisbane, and Sydney.

25th.—Left Junction Creek at 7.30 a.m., and camped at Eva Creek, 27 miles W., at 6 p.m. A tree was found here marked A†M over 6, cut with a sharp instrument.

26th.—Starting at 7 a.m., crossed Ada Creek at 8.30. At noon passed a tree at the eastern foot of Newcastle Range marked CVIII (the mark apparently about seven years old). Arrived at the main camp 5 miles E. of the Etheridge Office at 5 p.m.

27th.—Arrived at the Etheridge at 11 am. after a two hours journey. Waited for fresh horses and started for Normanton at 4.30 p.m., camping on the line 16 miles west of the Etheridge.

28th.—Left at 7 a.m., and camped on the River Gilbert, 35 miles from the Etheridge, at 4 p.m.

29th.—Left at 7 a.m., and camped on the line 53 miles from the Etheridge at 11.30 a.m. Started from camp again at 7 p.m.

30th.—Camped 84 miles W. of the Etheridge at 3.20 a.m. Started again at 9, and camped 104 miles from the Etheridge at 3 p.m. During the evening the blacks fired the grass about 300 yards to the windward of the camp and destroyed the grass that was depended upon for the horses.

31st.—Started at 5.30 a.m. and camped 76 miles from Normanton at 10.30 a.m. Left again at 5 p.m. and camped 65 miles from Normanton at 10 p.m.

September 1.—Started at 6 p.m. and camped  35 miles (by road) from Normanton at 3.30p.m.

2nd.—Left at 2.30 a.m. and reached Normanton at 6.30 p.m.

3rd.—At Normanton.

4th.—Went in Mr. Bailey's four-oared gig to inspect the site chosen by Mr. Creen for an office at the Norman River Heads. Proceeded 30 miles down the river and camped on the north bank at 11 p.m.

5th.—Started from camp at 6 a.m., and proceeded down the river. At 8 a.m., two blacks carrying pieces of wood came out of the mangroves close to the boat and the unexpected sight made them decamp in great fright. Half-an-hour afterwards, a blackfellow hailed the boat at the same time throwing up his arms above his head and doing all in his power to induce the party to land. He declined an invitation to come on board and, after the boat proceeded, was joined by several other blacks, who seemed to be much disappointed at the request of the first one not having been complied with. Arrived at Sandy Point, 53 miles from Normanton by water, at 2 p.m. Mr.Cracknell inspected portions of the line and approved of the site selected for the Telegraph Station. Being situated on the highest land in the locality, it commands an extensive view of the offing and of the entrance to the Norman River. At 4 p.m. started on return to Normanton and, after camping for a couple of hours for tea, the passage up river was resumed. A large alligator, from 22 to 25 feet in length, was seen on a mud bank in the afternoon, apparently catching flies. On seeing the boat, when about 60 yards off, it leisurely made for the water, quietly sinking below the surface without leaving a ripple.

6th.—Saw another alligator, about 18 feet in length, 70 yards from the boat. After rowing all night, arrived at Normanton at 9.30 a.m.

7th.—Started from Normanton, on the return journey, at 4 p.m., and camped on the line ten miles out.

8th.—Left at 8 a.m., and camped at Rocky Creek, 12 miles east of Carron Creek Road crossing at 8.30 p.m.

9th.—Left at 8.30 a.m., and camped at Francis Lagoon at 5 p.m.

10th.—Started at 7 a.m. Passed the site for the Carron Creek station at 11 a.m., and camped at 5.30 p.m. on Carron Creek, 86 miles by the line from Normanton. 11th.—Started at 7.30 a.m., and camped at Woolley's Lagoon, 118 miles by line from Normanton at 5 p.m.

12th.—Left at 7.30 a.m. and camped on the  Gilbert River, 143 miles from Normanton, at 5 p.m.

13th.—Started at 7 a.m., followed the line and arrived at the Telegraph Office at George Town (Etheridge), at 5.30 p.m.

14th.—Left at 10.30 a.m., and camped 26 miles east of George Town at 8 p.m.

15th.—Started at 5.30, and arrived at the office at Junction Creek (Rosella Plains) at 6.15p.m.

16th.—At Junction Creek.17th.—Started at 1 p.m., and camped 100  miles west of Cardwell at 6 p.m.

18th.—Started at 8 a.m., and camped at Mineral Springs, 23 miles west of Cashmere, at 5.30 p.m.

19th.—Started at 8 a.m., and arrived at Cashmere at 4.30 p.m.

20th.—Started from Cashmere at 8.30 and  camped 23 miles west of Cardwell at 5.30 p.m. Numerous fresh tracks of blacks and lately broken pandanus were seen at the crossing of Blencoe Creek.

21st.—Started at 8 a.m., crossed the Range and arrived at Cardwell at 8.30 p.m.

On the 22nd and 23rd, Mr. Cracknell remained at Cardwell and, finding that the steamer, then at Cleveland Bay, would proceed no farther north, at 9 o'clock on the evening of the 23rd he left by the pilot boat, passed through Rockingham Channel at 9 a.m.; passed Great Palm Island at 3 p.m.; Rattlesnake Island at 6.30 p.m., and anchored under Magnetic Island at 11 p.m. - an hour after the steamer had left for Brisbane. His arrival was expected and the lights of the steamer and two rockets thrown up from her were seen from the boats and five or six carbine shots were fired in reply; but the latter appear to have been taken for blacks fires on one of the islands. Mr. Cracknell landed at Townsville on the morning of the 25th, and sailed for Brisbane the same afternoon in the schooner Princess Alexandra, which made a fine run, anchoring off the Yellow Patch at 8 p.m. on the 2nd instant.