South Australia - Colonial period: 1855 - 1900.
Inter-colonial telegraph lines to Victoria.

The critical barrier for telegraph lines to reach the Victorian border was crossing the Murray River or crosssing the outfall of the Murray at Lake Alexandria. Decisions to be made included:

There were two South Australian lines which linked to Victoria in the 1800s:

  1. the No. 1 line from Adelaide via Goolwa to Mount Gambier (i.e. to the Victorian Western Coast line);
  2. the line via Penola to Casterton;
  3. the line via Narracoorte to Apsley, Casterton and Hamilton (i.e. to the Victorian Cross-Country line);
  4. The No. 2 line via Wellington to Kaniva, Nhill and Horsham (i.e. to the Victorian Horsham line).

Charles Todd was a visionary and held the dream of linking Australia with the world (i.e. with England). His success with the Adelaide to Port line immediately led him to begin the second stage of his vision - to link Adelaide and Melbourne. He therefore called on Sir Richard McDonnell, the Colonial Governor, and informed him that the link to Melbourne was "of prime importance". At that time, the Victorian goldfields were producing significant amounts of ore, the prospectors were increasing in numbers - and many wanted to eat South Australian flour and wheat.

On 4 April 1856, the Colonial Secretary moved an address in the Legislative Council requesting the Governor to communicate with the Government of Victoria as to the establishment of an electric telegraph between Melbourne and Adelaide. This motion was carried. Later that month, the Governments of Victoria and South Australia entered into an agreement to establish an inter-colonial telegraph line.

In July 1856, Todd went to Melbourne and met his counter-part Samuel McGowan. They developed a joint proposal for their respective Governments underlining the need and feasibility of a telegraphic link between the two Colonies. Their proposal was accepted immediately. All parties concerned could see that it was highly desirable for New South Wales also to be included as soon as possible. Hence the concept of a national Australia-wide telecommunications network was born.

Todd then commenced detailed planning the further construction of South Australian lines:

The No. 1 line.

As he returned to Adelaide from his meeting with McGowan, Todd detoured and personally surveyed the 300 mile route the line would follow from Portland near the Victorian border to Adelaide. It had been agreed that there would only be one South Australian station with which the Victorian lines could link - at Mount Gambier - "the intervening country, for 180 miles (in South Australia) being little better than a desert" (see p.12 of the Report). The South Australian Legislature approved Todd's recommendations and voted £20,500 to erect their component of the line. The contract for the erection of the line has been taken by Mr. Thompson, of O'Halloran Hill at £40 per mile for 300 miles.

Tenders were advertised in the Gazette and in newspapers (South Australian and those in other Colonies) on and about 18 February 1857 in the following terms:

"Electric Telegraph. - Tenders are invited and will be received at the Chief Office of the Magnetic Telegraph, Adelaide, South Australia, until Monday, the 9th March next on the part of the Government, for the erection of a line of Electric Telegraph from Adelaide to the South-eastern frontier of the colony, at or near the mouth of the Glenelg. The line will be in the three following divisions:

  1. From Adelaide to Port Elliott and Goolwa (about 65 miles).
  2. From Goolwa to Guichen Bay (about 145 miles).
  3. From Guichen Bay, via Mount Gambier, to the frontier near the mouth of the Glenelg (about 115 miles).

Persons Tendering may Tender for the whole line or separately for each of the foregoing divisions. The Tender should state the sum per mile for which the work will be undertaken".

Details of the construction of the No. 1 line.

The line to the south began at the starting point being at Green's Exchange and ran along King William Street, the Bay and the south and main roads to Noorlunga and then to the south-west to Willunga (39 km south of Adelaide). The prime concern for this path was to cover as much distance as possible in the shortest time to reach the place where the link to Melbourne would be made.

Todd had determined that the route should go as far south as possible (i.e. to the coast) and then run south-east to Victoria. To achieve this objective, he ran the line from Willunga:

  • to Port Elliot (where a Telegraph Office was opened);
  • along the tramway to Goolwa (where another Telegraph Office was opened). Telegraphic communication between Adelaide and Goolwa was opened on 13 November 1857;
  • across the entrance to Lake Alexandrina to Meningie and McGrath's Flat which was on an easy, well-watered route to Adelaide for men and stock to follow and which had an important staging post..

Crossing the mouth of the lake (the mouth of the Murray River) was a major undertaking and had to overcome a number of technical difficulties. To cross the channels of Lake Alexandrina, a single submarine cable consisting of seven copper wires was used (see NSW Report).

A number of repeater stations were erected along the line but their locations are not recorded. Telegraph offices were opened at Willunga, Port Elliott and Goolwa in 1857 as the line was constructed. A Telegraph Office was opened at Glenelg nearly two years later, at Meningie 14 years later and that at Noarlunga 35 years later!!!

Once at McGrath's Flat the route for the telegraph line was on an easy, well-watered track used by men and stock to travel from the Victorian border to Wellington and Tailem Bend. It was also an important staging post.

From McGrath's Flat, the line was constructed south towards Guichen Bay (Robe) via Kingston and then south-east to Mount Gambier. It followed the coast past Millicent (roughly following the southern side of Reedy Creek);

The line across the border into Victoria was constructed from Mount Gambier and followed the road to the punt near the mouth of the Glenelg River at Nelson and then on to meet the Victorian line at Portland.

The total distance of the line was 325 miles.

In March 1857, E. C. Cracknell, then the Deputy Superintendent of Telegraphs for South Australia, left Adelaide with a complement of men, horses and equipment to help Todd survey and mark out the intended line. A few months later, The Register of 2 June 1857 reported as follows:

The Magnetic Telegraph.
"Mr. Todd has returned from his overland trip, having satisfactorily accomplished the purpose of the journey. He has pegged out the line for the telegraph along the whole of the route to its junction with the Victorian line near the mouth of the Glenelg.

The contractors, it appears, are actively engaged in putting up the posts at the Adelaide end of the line and the distance between this city and the Goolwa will probably be completed and ready for use before the end of the present year, by which time, no doubt, the magnetic instruments will have been received from America.

Parties are employed in different portions of the route in making preparations for setting up the posts but it is feared that, along the swampy parts of the line, nothing can be done until after the winter. Much of the timber, we understand, will be supplied from Tasmania, under a contract entered into by Mr. Hinckley. It will be landed on the coast at spots most convenient for the purposes of Messrs. Thompson, the contractors for erecting the line of telegraph.

The Victorian portion of the line is laid out so as to serve, when necessary, as a road eighty feet in breadth; but on our side of the border, no such contingency has been kept in view. This circumstance will partially account for the greater cost per mile of the Victorian telegraph, in comparison with that of South Australia".

Progress was faster than had been expected. Indeed, at one stage Todd anticipated that communications on the Adelaide-Goolwa could be established by mid-October. By December 1857, the Adelaide-Goolwa line was open. An interesting observation was published on 16 December 1857: "The Electric Telegraph, which is to be put in communication with ours (i.e. Victoria) at the border, is being proceeded with, although in many respects not in a very artistic manner. The line runs from Goolwa - alongside the road to Adelaide but it zig-zags over the hills in a manner so incomprehensible that it would greatly shock the well-ordered faculties of Mr. MacGowan. Perhaps a strong conviction of the increased energy of the electric current, in the form of forked lightning, has led these worthy people into these eccentricities".

The South Australian Register noted on 3 November 1857:

"There had been a deal of heavy clearing between Willunga and Port Elliot, as all who have travelled through that district will readily suppose. The bush posts consist of stringybark and gum saplings. In order, as far as possible, to guard against the effect of a bush fire, Mr. Todd caused the ground to be cleared over a radius of ten feet from each pole; but we fear that this will be quite in effectual; and even to preserve this slight safe guard, it will be necessary to send men every season to renew the clearing. Unless some chemical preparation can be applied to the posts to render them incombustible, we fear that at one point or another bush fires will every summer inevitably destroy our medium of intercolonial communication".

The submarine cables for the Goolwa and for Lake Alexandrina arrived in December 1857. The cable was relatively light - weighing only 17 cwt. to the mile. Ten miles of cable were required at £80 per mile.

In Todd's Report for the first half of 1859, he reported that " once or twice (the cable) got injured and it was once carried away by the force of the current. Mr. Todd has therefore resolved to do away this risk and carry the wire across by driving a pile in the centre of the channel and affixing a tall pole thereto.

A second wire, all the way from Adelaide to Mount Gambier is asked for in the report, and has been since acceded to.

The Murray River/Lake Alexandrina at Goolwa.
Postcard image shows the extent of the water
under which the submarine cable was laid.

For the greater part of this distance, this will be merely a duplicate wire on the existing poles, but for seventy miles it will be by a new route, forming a loop line, and avoiding Lake Alexandrina altogether by crossing the Murray at the township of Wellington". On 26 November 1860, the cable under the Goolwa channel was damaged and arrangements had to be made for keeping up the communication from Hindmarsh Island while the cable was examined and repaired. Such interruptions were not uncommon.

As a Telegraph Office was not opened at Wellington until 1865, it is possible that a repeater station was established there.

The line up the Coorong was supplied with posts from Mount Jagged.

The Mount Gambier portion of the line required 50 miles of posts which were ordered from Tasmania. They were landed at Guichen Bay and Lacepede Bay. The line was also constructed from the Victorian border and again progress was rapid despite the need for heavy clearing in that region.

Supplies were difficult to purchase in South Australia and so the following were bought from Myers of Melbourne (total cost £4,500):

More details are given in the 1858 Electric Telegraphs Report to the NSW Legislative Assembly as well as in McGowan's 1856 Report (p.1).

The day on which the feat of the first electric communication between South Australia and Victoria was accomplished was Saturday, May 22nd, 1858 (Todd's Annual Report for the year to 30 June 1858). On that day, 60 messages were sent from Adelaide to Melbourne.

The agreed 1858 rates are shown elsewhere.

In 1862, a telegraph line was constructed over the 20 miles between Mount Gambier and Port Macdonnell at a cost of £1,060 exclusive of buildings.

The Penola-Casterton link.

A second line was constructed through Mount Gambier by extending the line north to Penola where a Telegraph Office was opened in 1860. Tenders had been called in the local newspapers - for example The South Australian Advertiser of 2 November 1859 for the:

"supply of TELEGRAPH POLES for the line of telegraph from Mount Gambier to Penola will be received at this office until noon of November the 9th. Specifications may be seen and all particulars obtained on application at this office, or at the Telegraph Offices at Mount Gambier and Robe Town".

Messages were still sent via Willunga and Guichen Bay. The line extended east to Casterton in Victoria.

In the Mount Gambier Border Watch of 1 July 1865 - the same month in which the Casterton Telegraph Office opened - the following was reported:

"Among other gossip of the day we hear that our Government talk of connecting the telegraph from Penola to Casterton. No doubt it will not take long to have a second overland line between Adelaide and Melbourne which, in stormy weather, will be of great advantage from being exempt from many storms to which the coast line is subject".

The Victorian view was equally positive.

The Estimates allocated £600 for the half year to December 1865 for the "Telegraph from Penola to frontier en route to Casterton to meet extension of inland line from Melbourne". In June 1866, the specifications were finalised for the construction of the Telegraph line.

On 16 November 1867, the Penola-Casterton intercolonial telegraph line was opened.

From Casterton, the line ran through Hamilton and then there were two lines to Melbourne - one line south through Portland and Camperdown and the other east through Streatham and Ballarat.

The SA Advertiser for 15 February 1869 published a letter from a reader:

"Penola: observations by a Resident:

A new line of telegraph has been made into Victoria via Casterton but it is seldom used — why it is impossible to tell. A telegram to Casterton is now sent via Mount Gambier, Portland, Hamilton and Coleraine — about 200 miles instead of direct 40 miles. I hope next year to include amongst our improvements a new Penola Telegraph and Post Office. The situation of the present one is excellent, but a stranger can scarcely believe that the low antiquated structure in the midst of handsome two-storeyed buildings represents the most important Government office in the township".

This second connection through Mount Gambier did not reduce the burden on that office. Hence, in October 1873, it was announced that "Mr Todd intends erecting the new telegraph line via Swanport, thence inland to Kincraig and Penola, connecting with the Victorian lines over the border at Casterton - thus avoiding the great disadvantage of the coast line and enabling this colony to telegraph direct with Victoria instead of via Mount Gambier" (Launceston Examiner 11 October 1873).

The Narracoorte to Apsley link.

By September 1861, residents began to become vocal about a line to the north connecting Mount Gambier to Narracoorte. On 12 August 1862, the House of Assembly agreed on an address "praying His Excellency (the Governor) to cause the sum of £1,500 to be placed on the Estimates for the purpose of extending the telegraph line from Penola to Kincraig, Mosquito Plains".

The Mount Gambier Border Watch for 11 June 1863 noted: "The Penola correspondent reports that the posts of the telegraph line to Kincraig (Narracoorte) have all been erected, and the wires have been stretched for some miles from Penola". A month later "the poles were on the ground to within about five miles of the township (Narracoorte), and the poles erected as far as Robertson's home station. Mr. Towler (contractor) expects to have the line open to the public by the middle of July".

The telegraph line from Mount Gambier via Penola to Kincraig-Narracoorte was opened on 17 July 1863 "placing our Mosquito Plains friends within speaking distance of Mount Gambier". The charges were the same as from Gambier to Guichen Bay - 2s. for ten words and 6d for every additional five words.

A line along the coast enabled telegraph connection at Lacepede Bay on 27 September 1867.

The line to Narracoorte then opened up another possibility for an inter-colonial telegraphic link to Victoria. At that time, the only consideration could be again to Casterton (see 1864 lines of Victorian Telegraphs) but it was not economically justifiable to have a second line to Casterton. Hence the additional line to Victoria had to wait until further line extensions were constructed in Victoria - in particular to Harrow and then Apsley in 1882. In December 1881, The Victorian Postmaster-General let the tender for the Harrow-Apsley-Edenhope line.

At the end of August 1882, construction of the telegraph line between Narracoorte and Apsley was nearing completion. In addition, the Telegraph Offices at Apsley and Edenhope were opened in that month. The date on which the line was officially opened is unclear but it would have been in August or September 1882.

The omni-present issue, in places like Narracoorte and Apsley, was always the rates charged for telegrams.

The Wellington - Border Town - Kaniva link.

The first task was to get a line of telegraph to Border Town. It might be expected that this line would come from Narracoorte which was only 50 miles to the south. Indeed, the question of a telegraph line from Narracoorte to Border Town had long been discussed. In June 1875, a deputation had met with the Government to discuss telegraphic communication between Border Town and the rest of the Colony. In July 1878, another deputation met with the Minister of Education and Agriculture and with Mr Todd. That deputation was informed that the cost of a line joining Narracoorte to Border Town had been placed on the sub-estimates and it would form part of a line from Adelaide to Melbourne. Despite further communications and promises, the cost did not get placed on the estimates. It was pointed out to the Government that the distance between Narracoorte and Border Town was about 50 miles, that there was plenty of suitable timber on the line, and that the traffic to be expected on it would pay working expenses.

The matter then became part of the discussions about the construction of the railway line between the two towns. Hence when a railway line was constructed, a telegraph line would also be constructed.

The Minister "admitted that Border Town was in an isolated position, and that it was now limited to mail communication three times per week. It was not because the present Government wished to ignore the wants of the Tatiara District that the Cockatoo Lake branch of railway did not appear among their Bills. The fact was that a survey had been taken and was now, he supposed, completed, for a railway from Border Town via Binnum to Narracoorte and they would agree with him that it was only reasonable that the Government should await information as to which was the best line of railway before determining the route for the telegraph. So soon as they had information on this point, they would be prepared to include in their policy a scheme of telegraphic communication ... He admitted the need of doing something for Border Town and he would ask Mr. Todd to supply an exact estimate of the cost of constructing the telegraph branch either for Baker's Range via Cockatoo Lake to Border Town or for Narracoorte via Binnum to Border Town. When he had the information from Mr. Todd in conjunction with the railway extension, which the Government would propose as soon as they got the necessary information, he would recommend to the favourable consideration of his colleagues the construction of one or other of the lines".
SA Register 29 July 1876.

The SA Register of 2 July 1877 reported that:

"It is proposed to run a telegraph line direct from Adelaide to Melbourne, by which messages will be sent straight through from one city to the other without the necessity of repeating, as is now done at Gambiertown. The line will cross the Murray at Wellington or Swanport and from thence will run almost straight through the Ninety-Mile Desert to Bordertown, then south to Narracoorte and across the border and by way of Casterton to Melbourne. The want of such a line has been felt for some time past and, in view of the increase of business which must result from the opening of telegraphic communication with Western Australia, is urgently required".

That route was mainly guided across the Ninety-Mile Desert by a short cut which had been established for the gold escort and for travellers to and from the Victorian diggings. It entered the desert on the Tatiara - side near Brimbago and wended out to the Monster (a guiding landmark from either direction) thence on to Jim Crow's Flat (also known in the 1870s as Tintinara) and on to Binney's lookout, the lushest point in the granite-capped MacDonnell Range. From there the track forked, one track going via Cooke's Plains towards the Wellington punt.

On 29 September 1877, the Weekly Mail reported "Great hopes were entertained a short time since of seeing the telegraph line to Narracoorte erected (from Border Town). Tenders were called and sent in and an officer was waiting on the route to supervise the erection of the work but for reasons not made public, no tender was accepted and the officer has been recalled to town".

On 21 January 1879, the Minister of Education announced in Narracoorte that the telegraph line from Narracoorte to Border Town "should be made at once" and that the Tatiara Railway Bill would be one of the earliest measures of the Government's next session.

The tender to build the telegraph line was signed on 16 May 1879 with Messrs. C. & E. Miller. The Telegraph Office opened in Border Town on 18 November 1879. One of the congratulatory messages noted "that after so many difficulties as to route and other matters the boon is an accomplished fact".

Construction of the line south-east to Border Town had also commenced. By October 1879, the contractors whose responsibility was to construct the telegraph line between Callington and Border Town were proceeding quickly and by the end of November, all the poles between the Bridge and Tailem Bend were up and the line was hung to eight miles past the Bridge. At Tailem Bend,the telegraph line left the Wellington track and took the main road to Cooke's Plain.


"The erection of the direct telegraph line to Melbourne via Callington, the Murray Bridge and Border Town is progressing satisfactorily, having been completed to a distance of eight miles on the other side of the Bridge. The line, so far as this colony is concerned, will be without a single intermediate station, and it is hoped that the Victorian line will be erected in the same manner and similarly free from local business, which on the present line very much delays the transmission of through messages from Adelaide to Melbourne, now very numerous indeed. The direct coast, will also give a much better circuit".

By early January 1881, the telegraph line to Border Town was within 12 miles of the Victorian border and the tenders for the erection of the last section had been called. It was anticipated that the work would be finished by the end of February. At that time, the Victorian line only extended to Horsham which left about 70 miles to complete to reach the border. Intercolonial messages sent to Border Town on the Wellington line were transmitted via Mount Gambier to Melbourne. The Victorian line from Horsham to the South Australian border was eagerly awaited for then messages would not have to approach the coast where the atmospheric disturbances were so much more frequent and severe.

The construction of the telegraph line from Border Town to Lockhart - right on the SA-Victorian border en route to Kaniva - was commenced at the end of April 1881.

The extraordinary difficulty of the hardships in the desert was highlighted by a deputation seeking to clear a way for a road AFTER the telegraph line had been constructed. The SA Weekly Chronicle of 6 August 1881 reported the meeting as follows:


A deputation from the South-East, attended by Mr. Henning, M.P., Mr. Hardy, M.P., the Hon. J. Rankine,M.L.C.,and Mr. West-Erskine- waited upon the Commissioner of Crown Lands on Monday morning, August 1. Mr. Henning explained that the object of their visit was to get a road cleared from Wellington to Border Town through the desert.

Various speakers gave their experiences of the present track, which was very difficult to travel over in consequence of the numerous stumps and rocks and was so circuitous that more than a day was lost in the distance that might be saved by a direct road. There was one stretch of twenty four miles without water where a well or two would be required. The whole work might be done at an outlay of from £300 to £500.

The direct road would also be a great advantage to farmers north of Tatiara, who would be able to send their sheep down, whereas now there was a delay of fully a week in getting sheep across those ninety miles of desert. A travelling reserve was greatly required in this part of the country. Mr. West-Erskine pointed out that the original tracks through the desert were made by bullock drays, followed by other bullock drays, until at last all the traffic had to go many miles out of the proper course, and thus a deal of time was wasted. The telegraph line was a great guide as to the direct course, but could not always be followed by the traffic. No special grant would be required for this road because there was a sum on the estimates for clearing roads outside the limits of district councils and corporations and if the Government took in hand the matter of the piece of land which forms the disputed boundary of the two colonies, they would realise more than sufficient to provide improvements in this district for some time to come. Mr. Hardy said the work would commend itself to the judgment of the Commissioner, who would not need to ask that a vote be placed on the Estimates for it. Tenders could be called, and if the lowest were twice the amount named it would be worth carrying out. The Commissioner, in reply, said he had no practical knowledge of the road through the desert. He had been through the lower desert, by the Coorong and if the road through the upper desert was much worse than that it must be very bad indeed. (A voice: That road's not one-fiftieth part as bad as the desert road"). Then the desert road must be a very bad case, and their request should have his immediate attention. If the work could be done for £300, or even £500, he had no doubt it would be money well spent. Providing water over the 24 miles stretch could not be lost sight of and he would make enquiries about affording travelling stock reserves in the South-East.

Mr. Moody pointed out that the direct line to Border Town was from the Murray Bridge and, as there was a probability some day of the intercolonial railway taking that route, he thought it would be advisable to survey along that line, clear a road, and sink wells, and then whenever the railway was made, these wells would be useful to the Government. Mr. West-Erskine advocated boring for water in preference to sinking. The deputation then withdrew".

Sometimes it is difficult to retrieve information about when developments occurred. Insight into the replacement of the first telegraph line across the desert by moving it to the railway line came as follows from The Advertiser of 1 December 1886: "An extraordinary fatal accident, which occurred on the Borderline last week, is thus reported by our Bordertown correspondent:

"I regret to chronicle the accidental death of Mr. J. A. Mansfield of this town, who was the largest contractor in this part for all kinds of work connected with sawmills, farming, road, buildings, &c. He was carrying out a contract for removing the old Bordertown and Murray Bridge telegraph line to the railway line, and on Thursday last was riding in one of a number of trucks forming a train which was travelling at the rate of about eight or ten miles an hour, when one of the telegraph-poles on the side of the line rebounded towards the train and struck the deceased with such force as to throw him 16 feet in the air. He fell again into another truck, and was taken to his residence at Bordertown where it was found that both his legs were broken. He was also internally injured. He succumbed about midday on Saturday after suffering much pain. Mr. Mansfield was unmarried and about 30 years of age. Deceased was buried on Sunday,and had the largest funeral ever seen in Border Town.

The first sod of the Mount Gambier to Narracoorte Railway was turned on 19 November 1885 and, when that link was complete, the railway was extended to Border Town.

By the 1930s, the telegraph line between Murray Bridge and Bordertown had long since been demolished and forgotten.