Coward Springs Oodnadatta Track South Australia

Coward Springs

EJ Eyre 1860 (SLSA)

Because of its isolation and remoteness from the coastal cities, it did take some time before the Mound Springs of South Australia's inlands deserts were discovered. These springs are an unique feature of inland Australia, providing a permanent source of water for both man and beast. Edward John Eyre was one of the first in the area in 1839. He was followed by B.H. Babbage, Warburton and John McDouall Stuart. It was Benjamin Herschel Babbage who found the first mound spring on 22 October 1858 and named it Emerald Springs.

Coward Springs was discovered a few days later by P.E. Warburton on 28 October and named by him after Corporal Thomas Coward, a member of his exploring expedition. According to G.W. Goyder the Coward Springs yielded more than 22,000 litres of water a day. The value of the Mound Springs was soon realised and several later explorers, among them Ernest Giles, used them as a base for further explorations.

No sooner had news of them reached Adelaide than land hungry pastoralists took up large land holdings around the springs. Among some of these and later pastoralists were Thomas Elder, John Warren, John Baker and Sidney Kidman. One of the first was John Warren who took up Anna Creek Station in 1862. In October 1869 the government offered pastoral lease number 390 of 156 square miles for 21 years, which included Warriner Creek and the Elizabeth, Jersey and Coward Springs.

Coward Springs.

It were not just the pastoralists who realised the value of the springs. Later developments such as the Overland Telegraph Line, and the Transcontinental Railway, as well as miners and drovers all made use of them. The Overland Telegraph which went through the mound spring country benefited greatly from them and a number of repeater stations were built very close to them. The track later known as the Oodnadatta Track became the main overland route for drovers and later the transcontinental railway to Darwin.

Before this became a reality it were the Afghans and their camel teams who did all the transporting, supplying outlaying stations, mines and miners, telegraph stations, railway constructing camps and settlements. Extension of the railway from Marree to Oodnadatta began in August 1884 and resulted in hundreds of unemployed men in Adelaide finding long term jobs. Sometimes unemployed men after having accepted a job on the line in Adelaide, and issued with tickets and starting papers, would sell them to old and often unfit men. During its construction Coward Springs became a large settlement and even after its completion, when the railway workers had moved on further north, Coward Springs remained an important siding for a long time.

Map of Coward Springs Area

When a bore was sunk and completed on 16 July 1886 it had reached a depth of a hundred metres bringing up 4,500,000 litres a day. It was capped in 1889 and became, and once again remained, an important terminus of the Tarcoola stock route. When the construction camp reached Coward Springs in 1886 John Henry Kunoth operated a butcher shop. Although conditions were hard on the gangers, there was no slowing down during the extremely hot summer months. Many were to die along the railway line. John Moore, a labourer aged 36 died at Coward Springs on 6 November 1886 followed by William Mattingly, a labourer of 23, on 13 December 1886.

In 1886 John William Burroughs applied for a licence to build a hotel at Coward Springs but later withdrew his application. In January 1887 it was reported that a ten roomed galvanised iron hotel built by Chambers and Blades was rapidly approaching completion. When it opened it was Magnus Cheyne, who had the Royal Victoria Hotel at Beltana in 1886, who became the publican. Early in 1889 the hotel was offered for sale after his 3 year old son had tried to set fire to it. Luckily the damage was only very small but the sale was unsuccessful. Cheyne was still there in 1906.

From 1907 until September 1908 Minnie Christiana Cheyne was in charge, followed by Arthur Charles Cheyne in 1911. He held it until 1912 when James Cheyne took over until 1916. Between 1917 and 1925 the publican was Stanley J.H. Foulis after which Eugene M. Mallon had it until 1930. Later publicans included Frederick E. Bernhardt, Elizabeth J. Bernhardt, Sidney Church, Camble Clouten and Nancy Sheila Lewitzke in 1953.

During 1887 a hospital, housed in a large tent, was opened at Coward Springs to cater for the numerous sick and injured labourers. In February there were even three cases of typhoid. There were a number of deaths as well during the early months of 1887. John McDermott, a labourer of Port Augusta died on 9 January leaving a wife and child. He had been staying at Jagoe's eating house.

That same day a fatal railway accident occurred when more than a hundred navvies returned from their Christmas break in Adelaide. A little north of Marree 28 year old Patrick Size fell from the train having both his legs almost completely cut off. He died later at the Coward Springs hospital. A few weeks later Edwin Collins aged 52 died on 26 January 1887. He had arrived at Port Adelaide aboard the Astracan with his wife Elizabeth and their six children on 26 July 1876. He had been a cabinet maker and lived in Dover Street Maylands, Adelaide. Thomas James Put, a 37 year old carpenter of Stuart Creek, died on 12 February 1887.

It was not all doom and gloom though. On 15 November the camp had its first race meeting and a little later a post office was opened which served the area until 1892. On 1 February 1888 the railway line between Marree and Coward Springs was opened and a few months later a station master's residence was also completed. A post, telegraph and station master was appointed but on 3 July James Jardine Freer, who held the position, was arrested for embezzlement of an amount of more than one hundred pounds.

When the camp had moved on there remained few residents calling Coward Springs home. However those who did remain were not impressed with the Board of Health. Great indignation was felt about its laxity in allowing dead cattle to remain so close to the township as to engender fever cases. Two cases of typhoid had already occurred. Residents were doing their best to prevent the disease from spreading but all were convinced that the Board was afraid to do anything as the land belonged to a wealthy company.

On 31 December 1889 Eva McKeown was appointed teacher at the Coward Springs school which had 14 students on its roll. However average attendance was only 10. Fees were paid by the parents but the school was closed in March 1890. When the drought of the 1890s took its hold on the country most of the surrounding pastoralists lost large numbers of stock. Even though it had been realised long before that the springs provided water for their stock, they could not make grass or any other fodder grow. By the mid 1890s there was no feed between Coward Springs and William Creek at all.

The little community did suffer from the prolonged drought and the often terrific dust storms and hurricane winds, which sometimes lasted up to 24 hours. They took their toll and the settlement rapidly declined. Long before the last train ran on the old narrow gauge line, its last occupants had left and Coward Springs was left to its own isolation only to be visited by the occasional tourist wondering what all the ruins are about. Unfortunately very few city people know about the mound springs or have ever heard of Coward Springs, its birth, slow decline and uneventful death.

Coward Springs Cemetery

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