Alice Springs, From singing wire to iconic outback town

Alice Springs

Alice Springs
From singing wire to iconic outback town

by Stuart Traynor


Alice Springs: From singing wire to iconic outback town is the result of eight years of meticulous research unravelling the early history of Central Australia's first white settlement. It contains information, never before published, about its Repeater Station - today a significant heritage site - and how an iconic town, Stuart, was born nearby during a gold rush that made few people rich. The title gives the impression that the book is all about Alice Springs; but it is far from that. It is an almost encyclopaedic account of Central Australia, a ‘who was who’, its explorers, railways, Overland Telegraph and its 12 repeater stations along the line, pastoral settlement, Aboriginal population and their often shocking treatment by police. It also is about government regulations, surveyors, adventurers, pastoralists, station managers, Afghans, miners, massacres, missionaries, war, droughts and floods, rabbits and last but not least its small number of white settlers.

The book is also a tale of the country's heart and some of its most remarkable but little-known characters and the many unsung heroes. Among them Topsey Smith, Ida Standley, after whom Standley Chasm is named and Ida McKay to name just a few. At last some recognition and praise has been given to those who served the centre and its people, black and white, for long periods.

Stuart Traynor doesn’t hold back and there is a lot of dirty washing about several well-known people. Rape and murder were common as was abandonment of children fathered by whites, and of half-caste children torn between two cultures living at the telegraph station after the Morse keys stopped clicking in 1932. These and many others lived under the shadow of the most controversial piece of legislation in Australia's history, the forceful removal of children from their mothers. The birth of the Stolen Generation. Central Australia has a black history.

After John McDouall Stuart’s successful crossing of Australia and the securing of the contract to build the Overland Telegraph a waterhole was discovered in the centre by William Mills on 11 March 1871 and named Alice Springs in honour of Charles Todd’s wife. A repeater station was built there for the Overland Telegraph and its fascinating story, and how it worked, has been detailed by Traynor. He has included the names and adventures of most of the operators, some of whom stayed at their job for many years, regardless of the hardships and isolation.

Frank Gillen, all of 19 years old replaced Ted Harris in June 1873 and stayed for three years. This was followed by 11 years at Charlotte Waters and another as station master at the Alice for 8 years. Frank Scott, at 18 was appointed to the Alice in 1878. He thrived and stayed 10 years followed by 12 more years at Tennant Creek. John McKay worked 32 years at the OT whereas Bradshaw clocked up 51 years. There were many others, some of them spending their whole working life in the centre. Todd had faith in the young operators and was not disappointed.

The 1870s were good years in the centre with plenty of rain. This resulted in the opening up of the country and the establishment of the nearby town of Stuart and pastoral properties. Thousands of sheep, cattle, camels, horses and bullocks travelled north from South Australia. Unfortunately no one thought about the impact it had on the Aborigines. All these animals eating and drinking the scarce resources.

There were also the many exploring parties trying to find a stock route to Western Australia. Among them Gosse, who discovered and named Ayers Rock, which the Aboriginal called Uluru, Warburton and Ernest Giles. Warburton was in the habit of running down Aborigines, tying them up and hoping that they would show him their water holes. He just didn’t like Aborigines and showed no respect for their resources.

Hard on the heels of the explorers came the German missionaries. They established the Hermannsburg Mission as well as several others. German born Pastor Carl Strehlow served at Hermannsburg for nearly 20 years. Frieda Keysser followed him to Australia and married him on arrival in 1895. They were to have 6 children. Carl was a gifted linguist, mastered the Arrernte language and translated the New Testament and Lutheran hymns as well as producing an extensive language dictionary. Traynor has included much detail about the treatment of Aborigines who were believed to be a dying race as late as 1911.

The author cuts down many of the well-known identities, including Charles Todd. Among others are Herbert Basedow, an Adelaide doctor and anthropologist, who had an overblown opinion of his own importance and was Chief Protector of Aborigines for 8 months. He suggested that Aborigines should be tattooed for identification and administrative purposes.

Most of his 45 days in office were spent on pushing for better conditions for himself. Professor Baldwin Spencer took over from him and believed that Aboriginal children born to European fathers should be removed from their mothers. This included a boy apparently fathered by George W Goyder while surveying Darwin in 1869. It soon became official Commonwealth policy.

Gold was discovered at Arltunga in April 1887 and John Mueller, an early operator at the OT station at Alice Springs and a Senior Inspecting Officer, was one of the first to take out a claim. In 1895 he was appointed Mining Warden for the goldfields which he kept until September 1906 when he was charged with embezzlement and served 6 months in the Port Augusta Gaol. By 1914 mining was finished at Arltunga.

Harry Lasseter claimed to have found a fabulous gold reef in 1897 when he was 17 years old. In 1930 the Central Australian Gold Exploration Company was formed. It bought a plane naming it Golden Quest; it crashed. It got another one, the Golden Quest II and with Lasseter tried to find it again. Lasseter died in the effort but the reef was never found.

There are also the ‘feel good’ stories such as the one of Jerome Murif who in 1897 got on his bike in Adelaide and 73 days later finished the job in Darwin, No such things as support crews. Francis Birtles made more than a name for himself. He rode his bicycle solo from Sydney to Brisbane and on to Darwin in 1907. After a little rest he went south through Central Australia. In 1912 he was the first to drive a car from Perth to Sydney. In 1920 he offered his services to the Commonwealth Government if they would pay for a car and £1000 towards his expenses to get the railway extended from Oodnadatta to Alice Springs. It was accepted.

Naturally there are also the adventures of Henry Dutton, Ernie Allchurch and Murray Aunger who drove the first car from Adelaide to Darwin in 1907. They had the car put on the train at Coward Springs to Oodnadatta as there was no petrol for them. They got bogged and had to come back in 1908 to complete the trip successfully. That same year Fred Blakeley rode his bike from Farina to Darwin.

Reverend John Flynn worked for 40 years to improve the lives of people in the bush. He was more interested in building hospitals rather than churches, employing more nurses than ministers and giving away more books and magazines than bibles. His practical Christianity made him a legend in his own time. Police Sergeant Bob Stott ruled the centre for 16 years and was liked by almost everyone. He finally retired in 1928 but was killed a year later by the Glenelg train.

Not all policemen were liked or served with distinction. The two examples highlighted by Traynor are Wurmbrand and Willshire. The Native Police also comes in for much criticism. In 1926 a massacre took place at Forrest River when 31 Aborigines were killed, but locals said it was more likely to be between 70 and 200. Two years later at Yurrkura on Coniston station about 30 Aborigines were killed in retaliation for the murder of Fred Brooks.

The book also gives some interesting stories about the building of the railway. First to Marree and later to Oodnadatta. When the Northern Territory, with a population of 1729 whites and some 50,000 Aborigines, was handed over to the Commonwealth in 1911 it promised to complete the line to Darwin but failed to say when. The railway finally reached the Alice on 29 June 1929 and the first train steamed into town on 5 August. It was a pivotal event which accelerated its transformation from a dusty little village into one of Australia’s most romanticised town. It increased the town’s population from 90 in 1928 to 560 in 1930.

Once again no one had thought about the effects it would have on the Aborigines or on the Afghans. They had been the ones who transported all supplies between Oodnadatta and the Alice and the surrounding pastoral properties and mines. It killed their trade and many left the town. The town itself had few comforts. There was a pub, the Stuart Arms Hotel built in 1889, a police station, gaol, two stores and a saddlery but no electricity. Provisions which previously came once a month by camel from the south via Oodnadatta were now delivered by train.

Whereas the arrival of the railway was a turning point in the history of Alice Springs, the Second World War was an event of even greater significance. No longer an obscure town, it became now a major service centre. There was a major upgrade of the roads and plenty of work for everyone. The main road was officially named the Stuart Highway in July 1941. Many Aborigines enlisted for Army service but were paid less than the white soldiers. The rapid changes of the 1930s and 1940s were accelerated and the centre’s population of 2000 in 1947 grew to over 5000 by 1960.

Alice Springs is no longer the small, outback community romanticised in Nevil Shute's novel A Town like Alice. The repeater station at the Alice has become one of the most famous attractions of Central Australia and in 1987 was visited by more than 200,000 people. This highly readable and detailed account of the history of Central Australia goes a long way to a better understanding of its settlement and development and its good, and black history. The one problem with Stuart Traynor’s book is that once you start reading, it is almost impossible to put it down!

Review by Nic Klaassen

Alice Springs, PB 430 pp,
with BW photographs, timeline, end notes, bibliography and index is available at $39.95, from
Wakefield Press
Telephone 08 8352 4455


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