Although as early as 1939 Australia was ranked 7th in terms of telephony traffic, Cape York was still very much disadvantaged in this regard, with mail being delivered by pack horse until after the end of the Second World War. It was only in 1987 that the construction of microwave telecommunications links allowed residents throughout Cape York to at last be able to communicate via dial telephones.
In the early 1880′s the need for effective and efficient communications with the rest of the world saw the Queensland government instruct J.R. Bradford, Inspector of Lines and Mail Route Services, to survey a route along the Cape York peninsula to Thursday Island for the construction of an electric telegraph line. Bradford was experienced in surveying and building other lines in the north, and he saw this as simply another task to be completed.
Bradford and six others set out from Cooktown in June with 36 horses and supplies. At first the journey appeared to go to plan – the horses were given a regular spell and the going was good. But just two weeks after the expedition left Cooktown, the horses began to die. Bradford later surmised that they had been poisoned by eating the young shoots of ironwood trees that were common to the area.
By July, Bradford had come down with ‘fever and ague’ but struggled onward through increasingly treacherous country. As the expedition continued to move north, conditions became more inhospitable. The men lived on a diet of damper, cured meat and the occasional sweet potato, and struggled with limited water rations. They battled bushfires, dense scrub and shifting sand as they travelled across some of the most rugged country in Australia.
At every point Bradford considered the practicalities of building the telegraph line and marked the bloodwood trees he thought suitable for telegraph poles. He noted the areas that were well timberered, well watered and suitable for setting up camp along the route.
As time went on, he began feeding the horses flour to keep them alive, and threw away horse shoes and other items to lighten the packs. By August, the expedition had run into serious trouble. Bradford expressed heartache at the prospect of leaving behind sick and injured horses, and concern at dwindling rations.
Finally, after three gruelling months the expedition reached the beach and then Somerset. Most of Bradford’s expedition returned to Cooktown on the steamer ship Gympie, while Bradford and Healy continued on to Thursday Island aboard the SS Corea. (extract from the Australian National Archives newsletter ‘Memento’, Number 21, September 2002)
In the 1860s construction began on the Overland Telegraph Line. The northern section ran through very difficult country and the telegraph survey expedition was only the fourth overland expedition ever made to Cape York. Work on the Cape York peninsula section was completed in 1886, except for 90 km between Moreton and Mein where telegrams were carried by horse and rider until the line was completed. The line consisted of galvanized cast iron ‘Oppenheimer’ poles manufactured in Germany. Each pole was designed to support a single wire.
Frank Jardine, after whom Australia’s most northerly river is named, was given the job of arranging delivery of materials to work gangs along the line. During the wet summer season of 1886-87, only 35 km of line were built and 200 km of clearing completed to the last station at Mein.
The line was completed and served Australia well for almost 60 years until the outbreak of war when better communications were required in the face of the threat to the northern coastline. In only four months during 1942, 1200 US Army Signal Corps members and 70 Australian Post Master General staff added cross-arms and an additional four lines to the existing poles.
After more than 100 years of service, the line was closed in 1987. Tenders were called initially for removal of the wire, and later for removal of the poles and cross arms but it was too late! Insulators, wires and even poles have been removed, many for use in stockyards, gates and sheds, and remain a testimony to the durability of the galvanized poles, which were reused without further coating, even though they were by this time 110 years old.
Moreton Telegraph Station was completed in 1887. All the stations were built like forts to protect staff and equipment from “wild blacks”. Buildings were constructed of heavy gauge galvanised iron and on two diagonally opposite corners a protruding ‘turret’ was built with gun ports allowing each an uninterrupted view along two side as well as forward. All windows were fitted with iron shutters which could be bolted from within.
The only transport at this time was by horse, so Electric Telegraph Stations were strategically placed close to water. Hence the Moreton Electric Telegraph Station could draw on water from the Wenlock (originally called the Batavia) River. Most water tanks were built inside the station to protect them from being punctured by poisoned spears from hostile Aboriginal people. An 1888 report requested a police station in the Moreton area because of increasing Aboriginal problems.
By the time Roth arrived in the area 11 years later it seemed times were more peaceful. He wrote in his Report of the Northern Protector of Aboriginals for 1899 that as well as work carried out by Missions and Stations, the government had established various food-relieving centres in different parts of the Northern districts of the colony. The Moreton Electric Telegraph Office was one of these centres. It had a regular monthly expenditure of five pounds, distributed by post and telegraph officials.
Moreton eventually ceased communication operations in 1987 with the introduction of the modern era of telecommunications.