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History of the Atlantic Cable & Undersea Communications
from the first submarine cable of 1850 to the worldwide fiber optic network

William George Stretton and the Overland Telegraph
by Paul Stretton

Introduction: Paul Stretton shares this story of his ancestor W.G. Stretton's involvement with the Overland Telegraph, which connected to the first submarine cable to Australia.

--Bill Burns

The Overland Telegraph

In the months prior to William’s departure to the Northern Territory preparations had been underway to construct an overland telegraph line from Port Augusta to Darwin. At the same time an underwater cable would be laid from Java to Darwin, thus connecting Australia to the rest of the world.

On the 20th of August 1870 the “S.S. Omeo”, with 80 men on board, sailed from Adelaide and arrived in Darwin on the 9th September. Six days later on the 15th of September the first telegraph pole was planted near the south eastern end of Kavanagh St. in Darwin. William was given the honour of raising the flag.

Mr. W.G. Stretton, 1870, afterwards head of the Customs, Darwin

William was appointed Chief Storekeeper with the unenviable task of organizing and rationing the food and supplies for the teams of line workers.

At first, progress on the line was good and by Christmas Day the teams had reached Pine Creek, having erected over 250 kilometres of cable. But shortly after the New Year it started to rain; the wet season was upon them.

By the 28th of January the line had reached the Katherine River, which was in flood. It rained constantly for weeks and it was not until the 24th of February that the men were able to cross the swollen river in rafts. But the delay meant that their supplies were now running dangerously low.

Ten days after crossing the river the men went on strike, however all but eleven were convinced to return to work, and the line pushed on to the King River. But again the men refused to work because of the inadequacy of the supplies and they all returned to the Katherine River camp.

The supervisor of the teams, William McMinn then annulled the contract and returned to Adelaide. The South Australian government put together a second construction team for the Northern Section under the leadership of Robert Charles Patterson, Assistant Engineer for the railways. Patterson arrived in Darwin on the “S.S. Omeo” on 24th of August accompanied by the Government schooner “Gulnare”, “Lajo”, and “Antipodes”. They were joined by the “Golden Fleece” and “Himalaya” on the 13th of September. Of the 500 bullocks that were transported north only 356 survived the journey, and 10% of the horses also perished.

The “Gulnare” sailed from Darwin to Southport where it unloaded 115 bullocks, 100 horses, 30 men and supplies. There were 11 bullock teams each consisting of 10 bullocks and 12 horse teams with 8 horses in each.

The entire construction party set out from Southport under the command of Stephen King and Alfred Giles, both respected explorers. Traveling in slow stages they reached the Katherine on 30th September 1871.

The teams were divided into sections. The first section under C.W. Rutt would start construction from the King River and proceed to the Elsey River, a distance of 80 kilometres. The second section, under Mr. McLachlan was to start from the Elsey and work south to Daly Waters. The third section, under R.C. Burton would push south from Daly Waters to meet up with the construction teams laying the line north from Adelaide. William was the chief storekeeper for Burton’s section.

Meanwhile the “Gulnare” was sent around to the Roper River laden with supplies but it struck a reef off Vernon Island and had to be towed back to Darwin by the “Bengal”. The “Gulnare” was declared a total wreck.

The telegraph teams had managed to push as far as the Elsey River where they camped, but things were not going well. They sent reports back to Patterson in Darwin that they were running short of supplies and that most of their stock were dying or were severely “knocked-up”. Patterson ordered the “Bengal” to be loaded with the stores from the ill-fated “Gulnare” and sent to the Roper River while he left Darwin to join the men on the line.

On the 7th November 1871 the cable from Java was brought ashore at Darwin and by the 11th Darwin had international communications.

On the 10th November Patterson rode into Rutt’s camp at the Katherine River. He continued on and by the 25th he had joined McLachlan 67 kilometres south of the Katherine. A week later he was with Burton on the Elsey River. Burton was desperately sinking wells trying to find water for his men. Patterson returned to Rutt’s team who had managed to reach the King River but were very short of supplies; William may have accompanied him. Rain began falling constantly now and Patterson realized that the whole enterprise was in danger of failing. A short time later a supply team under Mr. Hack, despite being continually bogged, managed to reach Rutt’s camp but because of the continuous downpour could not make any further progress to McLachlan and Burton. By the 20th of December Patterson and Rutt had reached the Elsey but could go no further.

The leaders of each section had sent teams of men to the Roper River to find out what had happened to the supply ship but nothing had been heard from them. Patterson decided that he himself would make the dangerous journey. He selected four men to accompany him, William George Stretton, Jim Burton, E. Bayfield and Dyke. On the 23rd of December with 2 “4 in-hand” buggies they headed out from Warlock Ponds on the Elsey for the Roper River. The next day they were bogged, having traveled only 11 kilometres in 9 hours. By 5 o’clock in the afternoon, after extricating themselves numerous times, they came across the camp of Ralph Milner, who was overlanding a flock of almost 3,000 sheep. William and the others were incredulous. Patterson immediately purchased 1,000 sheep for the men on the line.

When William awoke on Christmas Day after a miserable night of teeming rain, it was to a countryside totally awash with water. It was decided to leave the wagons and to continue on with only the horses. Even without the buggies they found themselves continually bogged, but eventually they caught up to the team of men from Rutt’s section. They continued on and on the 30th of December they caught up to McLachlan and Burton’s men at the Roper River. A total of 40 men were now camped at the Roper with only two days of provisions left; their lives depended on the “Bengal” reaching them in time. Patterson had no idea where the ship was and he realized that he would have to find out.

On New Years Day William and the men removed the wheels from a wagon, turned it upside down and wrapped a tarpaulin around it, they then lashed 10 empty kegs underneath and fashioned oars out of tree branches. After naming the makeshift boat “Elsie”, after his wife, Patterson, William Stretton, Jim Burton and two others, possibly Bayfield and Dyke, set off downstream in their flimsy craft. It was an act of outstanding bravery, for if they could not find the “Bengal” then they would almost certainly perish.

For two days they floated downstream in pouring rain and at dusk on the second day, through the branches of the trees on a bend in the river, they spotted the masts of a ship; by nightfall they were on board the “Bengal” and were safe, after a journey of nearly 50 kilometres.

Meanwhile, having run out of supplies, McLachlan’s men, accompanied by Alfred Giles, walked back to Rutt’s camp on the Elsey. Nothing had been heard of from Burton’s section.

On the 3rd January the men on the “Bengal” loaded up two longboats with supplies and with four oarsmen and a coxswain in each boat sailed back upstream to the teamster’s camp where a makeshift jetty had been constructed. One account suggests that William rowed back upstream on one of these longboats with the supplies.

Patterson, on the “Bengal”, ordered the captain to take his ship slowly upstream towards the landing place where the jetty was; it took eight days to make a meager 22 kilometres and the rain continued unabated.

On the 13th January one of the longboats returned and so Patterson knew that his men were safe. The next day a small vessel called “Larrakeeyah” arrived with Postmaster J.A.G. Little on board, who informed Patterson that a relief party would arrive at the Roper from Adelaide and that Charles Todd, the man in charge of the overland telegraph enterprise, was with them.

At the landing William had to ration out the supplies and being fully aware of the plight of Rutt’s men, 11 kilometres away at Leichardts Bar with little or no supplies, it was decided to send Stephen King out with a packhorse team to try and reach them with some desperately needed food.

Patterson launched the ship’s pinnace and arrived at the landing the day after King’s departure to find the entire area flooded.

Meanwhile Todd arrived at the Roper on the “S.S. Omeo” and was joined by the “Larrakeeyah” and both ships began the journey along the river. When they were joined a short time later by a paddle wheeler named the “Young Australian” Todd got on board and headed upstream to the landing, arriving there on Sunday afternoon 4th February 1872. Several days later the “Omeo” arrived after having earlier run aground. By Tuesday the 13th February the supplies had been unloaded and at noon the “Omeo”, in company with the “Young Australian” sailed back down the Roper.

It wasn’t until the 25th of March that the waters receded enough to make an attempt to reach the men on the line. Patterson and four men (which included William Stretton and Arthur Giles) with pack horses made the attempt.

Unknown to Patterson, Milner and his sheep had managed to reach a large camp of men from different sections at the Elsey. The men had called it Union Camp. 300 sheep each were dispatched to Rutt’s and Burton’s camps but were unable to get far because of the flooded countryside.

On the 29th of March William and the pack horses arrived at Union Camp.

Patterson was informed that Alfred Giles was on his way to Burton’s camp at Daly Waters with 300 sheep. Patterson ordered William Stretton and Arthur Giles to take 9 pack horses loaded with flour, sugar and tea to Burton’s camp. On the 8th April Alfred Giles reached Burton’s camp at Daly Waters to the great relief of all. He made his camp at Stuart’s Swamp where six days later, on the 14th April, he was joined by his brother Arthur and William Stretton. On 16th April the Giles brothers went out in search of some lost horses, when they returned to camp they found R.C. Patterson there. He had sent William to Daly Waters to inform them of his arrival.

On 26th April William, Alfred Giles and J. Le M. Roberts returned to the depot at Stuart’s Swamp. The next day William returned to the main poling camp while Patterson and Giles returned to the Elsey.

By now all the teams were back at work planting poles and laying wire. William, with Burton’s team, was at Newcastle Waters. Rutt was pushing south from Daly Waters towards Frews Pond and Mitchell, who had taken over from McLachlan was nearing Newcastle Waters.

On the 8th June William was joined by Alfred Giles who had come up from Tennant Creek, where the central section of the telegraph line had reached. By the 2nd of July William and Burton had reached Powell Creek. It was here three days later that Alfred Giles again rode into camp to find William Stretton and Stephen King recuperating from illness. On the 8th July Burton’s team had cabled north to Renner’s Spring and on the 12 August 1872 Burton’s section of line was completed. Burton and William and the rest of the section collected their equipment and possessions and began the long trek north to the Roper river to wait to be picked up by the “S.S. Omeo”.

On the 22nd August while camped at Frews Pond William was present when the last section of cable was joined. At noon Patterson joined the last section and received an electric shock but with the aid of a handkerchief the line was joined and 21 shots were fired from revolvers. At the same time the town bells in Adelaide rang out with the news.

By 28th August William was with Burton at Milner’s Lagoon, a month later he boarded the “Young Australian” at the Roper river and the next day with 300 other telegraph men he was camped on Maria Island awaiting the arrival of the “Omeo” to convey them all to Adelaide.

On 9th October the “Omeo” arrived and collected the men. The ship sailed into Brisbane on the 31st October where everyone went ashore. The next day she set sail again and arrived in Newcastle on the 4th November. William and Alfred Giles acquired two horses and rode out into the countryside for four miles to take in the sights. The ship sailed next day and by the 8th had reached Port Phillip where some passengers were unloaded. The next day they set sail again and arrived in Adelaide on the 10th.

A huge banquet was held in Adelaide on the 15th and the following day a parade set out from the General Post Office in King William Street at 11.15am and was led by a brass band to the Exhibition Building.

This vast undertaking was completed in one year and eleven months, over 3,000 kilometres, using 36,000 poles and at a cost of 479,174 pounds.

Back Row: A.J. Giles, W.G. Stretton, J. Le M.F. Roberts
in the centre: C. Musgrave, W.W. Mills
in front: D.L. Beetson, T.P. Deane

Last revised: 26 October, 2011

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