It’s 150 years since the completion of the Overland Telegraph Line, which connected the north and south of the country, and then Australia to the rest of the world.

Story Kerry Sharp  Photo Tourism NT/ Shaana McNaught

On September 17, 1870, the dignitaries and townspeople of Palmerston (later renamed Darwin) converged at a freshly dug hole on a hilltop overlooking the Timor Sea to witness an epic moment in Australian colonial history. Harriett Douglas, eldest daughter of the town’s government resident, Captain William Douglas, had been chosen to ‘plant’ the first and northernmost of 36,000 poles that, nearly two years later, would carry the single cable for Australia’s transcontinental Overland Telegraph Line (OTL). 

Nearly 3000km to the south, work crews were being mustered in Port Augusta, SA, ready to also start planting poles, at a rate of ‘20 to the mile’, along roughly the same route taken by Australian explorer John McDouall Stuart on his triumphant 1862 expedition to the Top End coast. 

The OTL project was funded by the SA Government and led by its visionary postmaster-general and superintendent of telegraphs Charles Todd, who suggested such an initiative in 1863. Less than two years after construction began, the north and south-facing cable ends had been connected at remote Frew Ponds, 650km south of Darwin, opening the way for direct morse code messaging across most of the continent.

Australian history enthusiasts will celebrate the 150th anniversary of the OTL’s completion this year, with re-enactments, exhibitions, talks, presentations and other commemorative events planned to coincide with significant dates connected with this ambitious undertaking. They include an NT Heritage re-enactment at Frew Ponds, where a highway memorial to Todd now stands, exactly 150 years to the minute and day – 12.10pm on August 22, 1872 – that the project’s northern section overseer Robert Patterson soldered two cable ends together to open the line for the first messages to flow. Hundreds of people are expected to be there when NT historian, author and OTL devotee Derek Pugh replicates Patterson’s ‘launch’ by ceremoniously smashing a tea-filled Hennessy brandy bottle against the final pole, to the salute of 21 pistol shots fired into the air.

This story excerpt is from Issue #142

Outback Magazine: April/May 2022