Before the day heated up, I headed off to the original Alice Springs.
The town going by the name of Alice Springs is a couple of miles South of the original and used to go by the name of Stuart.
To reach my destination I followed the Todd River Path, the river now mostly dry with a few patches of broken crust over still damp mud from the weekend rains.
The rocky hillside sheltered a couple of kangaroos from the sun and the breeze was strong enough to waft the flies out of my face.
Have I mentioned the flies yet? Bastards. Lots of ’em. And they’re only going to get worse where I’m going tomorrow so I have so far refrained from flynet use.
A bit like your coat – you don’t put it on until necessary or you won’t feel the benefit.
Alice Springs Telegraph Station was the original settlement and it’s now a museum where for 15AUD, your entry fee gives you a free guided tour.
Crystal and Ren took me out for a walk around the Station, apologising for the fact that they are inexperienced. Everyone has to start from somewhere and the two women delivered a highly informative and engaging tour – explaining the equipment and telling remarkable and emotional stories from the Telegraph Station’s history.
The Telegraph Station was built in 1871 during the construction of the Overland Telegraph Line from Adelaide to Darwin.
Charles Todd, whom the river was named for, declared the Overland Telegraph Line open in 1872 and his wife gave her name to the Spring that they thought they had discovered… Alice’s Spring.
It wasn’t a spring, the water doesn’t flow permanently.
The first message to be sent from the Alice Springs Telegraph Station was actually news that the first man appointed to be stationmaster had died en route from Adelaide.
The Station as part of a network was isolated until 1888 when the Stuart township, which was renamed Alice Springs in 1933, was established.
What’s the Stuart connection and why was the Station so isolated?
In the late 1850s and early 1860s, there was a race to be the state that reached Darwin and annexed the Northern Territory.
Why? Australia was to be connected to London by telegraph via Darwin. Whoever controlled Darwin, controlled the telegraph and the communication.
Several expeditions set off from the state capitals to race to across the Australian Outback to reach the most Northerly city.
Scotsman, John McDouall Stuart was the first, in 1862 and claimed the Northern Territory for South Australia (Adelaide).
This was no mean feat. Months of hardship resulted in Stuart developing scurvy and sand blight (blindness caused by the dry heat and the sand scratching his eyes). He had thought he would die in the desert but returned to Scotland to visit his sister in 1864 and died in London two years later.
There was little fanfare around his achievement. He didn’t have a great reputation and though he named many natural features for friends and sponsors, he was sparing in naming anything after himself.
The Stuart township was probably an attempt to rebalance this in 1888.
So why was Alice Springs and the twelve repeater stations so isolated?
The first telegraph wires were fence wire… cheap but pretty poor for transmitting messages long distance. It wasn’t until 1898 when copper wire was installed and the telegraph poles had to contend with termites, with iron eventually being selected as the material of choice.
The Alice Springs Telegraph Station had a number of buildings… the Barracks, the Post and Telegraph Station and the Station master’s house where several families were raised over the existence of the Station.
In the centre of the site was where the Bungalow School stood. The Bungalow School was part of the policy of separating mixed race Aboriginal children from their parents and ‘raising them white’.
These children were/are the ‘Stolen Generation’.
Where children were born to parents who had European ancestry (e.g. one Aboriginal parent and a European parent or where an Aboriginal parent had mixed heritage), they were simply snatched by the authorities and sent to boarding schools for indoctrination. The official plan was to ‘breed out’ Indigenous blood.
In 1914, the Bungalow Institution was established in Stuart. In 1932, the Telegraph Station was closed down and repurposed to house the children.
The children, 130 of them, slept in a corrugated iron shed.
Some of their mothers would creep into the compound at night to knock on the windows to speak to the children. During the day, some of them would stand at the fence watching their children across the Station.
In 1942, the children were moved to islands as part of wartime evacuation, after Darwin was bombed. After the war, the Station became the ‘Bungalow Native Reserve’ – by 1953, the population was 300.
In 1960, the Bungalow was closed and the 1960s saw the campaigns for recognition and restoration of rights to Indigenous peoples.
Ren told me that she hadn’t really been interested in history until she took this job. Now she is absolutely fired up as a result of the research that she has undertaken to prepare for her role as a guide.
It’s the stories of the people who lived and worked here either by choice or through force that are so powerful. I had a few shivers running down my spine as I walked around.