A probable adaption of the Aboriginal word Utnadata, meaning blossom of the mulga.
It is located in an area traditionally occupied by the Arabana people.

The first European to travel through the Oodnadatta area was John McDouall Stuart in 1859. It was because of his successful crossing of the continent that the Overland Telegraph later followed his tracks. When completed it was John Forest who after his successful expedition from Geraldton in Western Australia camped at Angle Pole waterhole on 28 September 1874. After the completion of the Overland Telegraph, the South Australian Government started with the building of the Transcontinental railway line. With better knowledge of the interior, enterprising pastoralists were quick to take up large holdings. By the early 1880s Tarlton, McConville, Wills, Bagot, Rischbieth, Goodchild and Mills had all taken up land around what later became known as Oodnadatta.

By the end of 1889 Parliament wanted to stop the building of the railway line which had only been a form of relief work for the unemployed during the 1880s. Now there was plenty of work and farmers needed men to bring in the harvest. Worse still was the fact that the railway north of Marree was running at a loss. After much deliberation it was decided to stop the line at Angle Pole. Oodnadatta became the northern railhead until the Commonwealth extended the line to Alice Springs in 1929.

In January 1890 the line was opened as far as Warrina, Oodnadatta was surveyed and proclaimed on 30 October and on 7 January 1891 the line was opened from Warrina to Oodnadatta. The town had a population of 162 living in 51 dwellings. Among these early settlers there was enough interest to get a race meeting organised to coincide with the arrival of Governor Lord Kintore who was on a Central Australian tour. He later became Patron of the Transcontinental Railway Jockey Club.

Map of Oodnadatta

Although the town had a police station, of sorts, in 1891 there was no cell apart from a tent and unruly prisoners had to be watched day and night. Even so Mounted Constable Stewart was doing a splendid job. He was even game enough to arrest a number of navvies, bring them in and had them prosecuted by Magistrate W.J. Baggaley, JP.

The town soon took shape and acquired most of the services which could be expected in an outback town. A post office was opened in 1891, the Anglican Sunday School started in 1892, as was a school with Hans Eller as its first teacher. John West Manfield, who had a store at Farina and Marree opened one in Oodnadatta and L. Underdown started to butcher on sections 11 and 12.

In 1893 post master Andrew Hewish became the Officiating Registrar under the Marriage Act and Mounted Constable Albert Edward Williams was appointed assistant bailiff of the Local Court at Marree. About 50 Afghans were working some 400 camels to provide the town and surrounding stations with supplies and Henry Lane and Diana Underdown were both granted a slaughtering licence.

Butchering seemed to be a lucrative business in those days. In 1894 and 1895 Diana Underdown operated on sections 11 and 12 while both Henry Lane and Alfred Edwin Winter operated a butcher business in Oodnadatta and William Creek. In 1896 both Sarah Anne Lennon and Lycurgus Underdown joined the fraternity. A year later it were William Henry Williams and C. John Lennon. During these years Manfield kept his store and Theodor Heilbrown ran the Transcontinental Hotel.

However not everyone was impressed with the progress made at Oodnadatta and its facilities. The Critic newspaper wrote on 9 October 1897 that ‘Very few South Australian people know that in their own country there is a watering place which, as far as the curative properties of the springs go, is equal to any of the much vaunted German resorts. Of course Oodnadatta is just about the last spot that any sane person would choose for a holiday resort under present circumstances, but surely it would pay the Government to make the place attractive. Almost any kind of trees, including the stately palm and other tropical forest species, could be grown in a garden around the bore’.

Around the turn of the century Governor and Lady Tennyson visited Oodnadatta after having stopped at Farina on 25 August 1899. There had been several changes since the visit of the previous Governor. Post Master Andrew Hewish had died on 12 June 1898 aged only 44. Population had decreased to around a hundred and the Afghan cameleers found it much harder to find work. As a result Mrs A. Bagot, camel merchant, was not very busy.

Even so local business was still in very good shape. Thomas Edward Neaylon was the publican of the Transcontinental Hotel in 1898 and 1899. In 1902 Frank Jones managed Fogarty’s store, John B. Ferguson had the Transcontinental Hotel and John West Manfield still ran his store. A year later Thomas Fogarty was storekeeping and L.A. Wells was leading a Government expedition leaving Oodnadatta in April to discover gold or other minerals…None were found. E.J. Winter was appointed Station and Post Master, William Regan had opened a greengrocer’s shop and Charles Fleming a blacksmith shop.

The hotel changed hands several times. Ferguson still had it in 1904, Joseph Harding had it in 1905 and Frederick Christlib Staer in 1906. He stayed until 1911. After transferring the hotel, Harding now concentrated on his butcher business, which he had run in conjunction with the hotel. Ferguson however had plans drawn up and submitted for another hotel, which he liked to be known as the Oodnadatta Hotel. Thomas Fogarty had the general store until his death in 1905 when Jessie Fogarty took over on 7 June. She remained until 1918.

By 1910 additional services had become available. There were now two bakeries, several butchers, a police station, railway station, post office, school, a doctor, water from a 20,000 gallon tank and two boarding houses. One of the boarding houses was kept by the Gregory Family who had followed the railway construction gangs from Lyndhurst and Farina to Oodnadatta.

A major addition and much needed facility was the Australian Inland Mission Hostel which was opened on 10 December 1911. With the town’s population increased to 187 and large numbers of people passing through it became one of several centres established by John Flynn as part of his ‘mantle of safety’. One of the first Padres to be stationed there was Robert Bruce Plowman. He later wrote several books including the 1933 best seller ‘The Man from Oodnadatta’.

Oodnadatta 1910.
Pictures kindly supplied by Leo Fogarty.

In the early days Oodnadatta couples who wanted to get married often had a problem finding a suitable place. When Thomas Fogarty married Jessie Grimes in November 1894 the happy occasion took place at the home of Mounted Constable Albert Williams. Later both the hostel and the nearby school were favourite place to exchange wedding vows. On 26 June 1911 William Henry Lyndhurst Griggory, 27, born at Mount Lyndhurst and now a labourer at Oodnadatta, married Metha Zimmerman 23, at the school. However John Watkins 27, railway packer of Oodnadatta married Elsie Jane Russell 20, at the home of Mrs W. Russell. Rose Ah Chee and Arthur Harvey were married on 19 October 1919 at the AIM hostel. Stanley Longhurst Farrell 30, engineer at Oodnadatta married Eileen Angela Roper 20, at her parents’ home on 24 June 1923 but Jack Rice and Lorna Giles were married by the Rev Emery on 7 December 1925 at the school.

Although Oodnadatta had been the end of the railway line for almost 30 years, most people were not impressed with the service or the trip itself. Trains between Adelaide and Oodnadatta only ran once every two weeks and took three days, with a bit of luck, to get there. Adelaide – Terowie was on broad gauge followed by a changeover to narrow gauge for Quorn. Arriving at Quorn meant a transfer to the Transcontinental or Ghan to continue to Hawker, Beltana, Marree and finally Oodnadatta. One traveller making use of this mode of transport in April 1919 said afterwards, ‘The heat was terrific and if I had not taken the precaution of getting the guard to fill up the waterbags before we left we should have been in a bad way’.

‘Night brought no relief from the heat, for a hot wind was blowing as from a furnace. The wind was as if it came straight from a super heated blast furnace and was accompanied by clouds of red dust that filtered through every crevice and covered everything inside and out with a red layer. There has been no rain to speak of at Oodnadatta for two and a half years and the country is absolutely bare’.

By 1921 Oodnadatta’s population had once more increased. There were now 170 people living in 49 houses. Thomas C. Cusack ran the Transcontinental Hotel, Frank S. Jones was the storekeeper and Dr Patrick Francis Shanahan was appointed Medical Officer. He had graduated from Adelaide University in 1893 and worked at Arltunga and Hawker. In 1922 the town got its Memorial Hall which was opened by Mrs E. Giles on 22 July.

In April 1924 the United Aborigines' Mission (UAM), influenced by Annie Lock, opened its first of several missionary facilities at Oodnadatta. On 4 December of that year Rev J.C. Jennison, President of the Australian Aborigines’ Mission wrote to the Minister of Education informing him of the excellent work being done by Misses Lock and Harris among the Aboriginal children. They ran a school, open to all Aboriginal and half-caste children of the town and neighbouring camps and a home for such of them as are orphans or friendless. Later, in 1933, Sister Lock would set up a small Lutheran Mission at Ooldea where she got to know Daisy Bates. The two of them did not always agree on the best method of helping the Aborigines.

At first the Mission at Oodnadatta operated from a small iron shed but soon had a school, church and a cottage for children. Other women (Sisters) to work at Oodnadatta were, Ruby May Hyde, Iris Mina Harris, before she married missionary William Wade and Miss Smith. With very few resources, and even less help, these Sisters cared for as many as twelve children for the next three years.

Some of the children taken in at Oodnadatta, and later Quorn and Eden Hills, were of Aranda, Arabana, Antakarinja or Pitjantjatjara background. Many of them eventually lost most, if not all, of their language, culture and identity. To compensate for this loss, children invented their own to be able to speak with each other. Molly Lennon, later known as Ruth McKenzie, was one of the Aboriginal girls taken to Oodnadatta in 1926. She later wrote 'Molly Lennon's Story, That's how it was'. When some of these children finally met their parents it was almost impossible to bridge the language and culture gap.

In an effort to isolate the children from their 'perceived harmful surroundings' the Sisters would like to move the home as far away from Oodnadatta as possible. However the Government of the day objected to the children coming any further south than Quorn.

In May 1927 the Sisters moved to Quorn where the house they lived in became known as the Colebrook Children's Home, after the President of the UAM. In 1925 Afghan cameleer Abraham Khan wrote to Police Commissioner R.L. Leane in Adelaide about people shooting at his camels. Killing camels was resorted to some times but only if they were on other people’s property. The Oodnadatta police used camels as late as the 1940s. Station owners often put notices up that they would kill camels on their property but just shooting at camels for the fun of it was not only illegal but also cruel. The Commissioner promised that the matter would receive attention.

Two years later real action was taken, not for shooting at camels but killing sheep. On 22 June 1927 five Aboriginal prisoners were delivered at Port Augusta Gaol under committal for trial. They had been arrested at Moorilyanna, northwest of Oodnadatta, for killing sheep and goats. It was stated that they were uncivilised and as wild as brumby horses and quite naked when arrested. When taken into Oodnadatta and on the train to Port Augusta they were connected together by chains the reason being that without chains they would escape, or be shot whilst attempting to escape.

When in 1927 a start was made with extending the railway line to Alice Springs, Oodnadatta was booming. As many as 120 extra men were working near the town. Sly grog selling soon became a problem but regardless of the heat and the occasional Monday lost the line was opened to Rumbalara on 23 December 1928 and to the Alice on 2 August 1929. By the early 1930s camels as ships of the desert were needed far less and their economic value decreased rapidly.

In 1944 Oodnadatta was to get a new police station. It was decided to transfer the old transportable station from Wudinna for the use of a second police constable. When this turned out to be too costly a new station was build for £350.0.0. On 10 May 1946 newly appointed Mounted Constable Collins, previously from Marree, started one of the last camel patrols with Northern Territory Constables Brown, Evans, two native Trackers and 9 camels. They visited such places as Duffield, Abminga, Eringa, Wennans Stockyard, Stephensons Creek, Tieyon Station, De Rose Hill, Kenmore Park, Ernabella, Victory Downs, Mount Cavanagh and Kulgara Station. They arrived back at Oodnadatta on 3 June.

When the last police camels went walkabout in 1949 they finally decided to get rid of them and sold all their waterbags, hobble chains, nose pegs, pack saddles etc, to the highest bidder which was Kidman’s Macumba Station for £35.6.0 in May 1951. It was from this time that the decline of Oodnadatta was really noticeable and its population was less than a hundred residents.

When finally the railway line was relocated and the last train left Oodnadatta for Alice Springs in 1980 many people wondered about the viability and future of the town. However the Aboriginal Community has bought the railway properties and other houses, started a renovation program and decided to make Oodnadatta’s history its future.


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