South Australia - Colonial: 1855-1900.
First inter-colonial line to Victoria (No. 1 line) - 22 May 1858.


The critical barrier for telegraph lines to reach the Victorian border was crossing the Murray River or crossing the outfall of the Murray at Lake Alexandria. Decisions to be made included:

There were two South Australian lines which crossed South Australia from Adelaide and then linked to Victoria in the 1800s:

  1. the No. 1 line from Adelaide via Goolwa to Mount Gambier and thence to Portland (i.e. to the Victorian Western Coast line) - see below;
  2. The No. 2 line via Mount Barker and Wellington to Border Town and thence to Kaniva, Nhill and Horsham (i.e. to the Victorian Horsham line).

In addition, there were two additional lines which crossed from the south-east area of South Australia to Victoria:

  1. the line via Penola to Casterton;
  2. the line via Narracoorte to Apsley, Casterton and Hamilton (i.e. to the Victorian Cross-Country line);

The links to other Colonies were:

Charles Todd was a visionary and held the dream of linking Australia with the world (i.e. with England). His success with the Adelaide to Port line immediately led him to begin the second stage of his vision - to link Adelaide and Melbourne. He therefore called on Sir Richard McDonnell, the Colonial Governor, and informed him that the link to Melbourne was "of prime importance". At that time, the Victorian goldfields were producing significant amounts of ore, the prospectors were increasing in numbers - and many of the inhabitants of the Victorian gold fields wanted to eat South Australian flour and wheat.

On 4 April 1856 - about 6 weeks after his successful opening of the first South Australian lines to Port Adelaide and Semaphore - the Colonial Secretary moved an address in the Legislative Council requesting the Governor to communicate with the Government of Victoria as to the establishment of an electric telegraph between Melbourne and Adelaide. This motion was carried. Later that month, the Governments of Victoria and South Australia entered into an agreement to establish an inter-colonial telegraph line.

In July 1856, Todd went to Melbourne and met his counter-part Samuel McGowan. They developed a joint proposal for their respective Governments underlining the need and feasibility of a telegraphic link between the two Colonies. Their proposal was accepted immediately. All parties concerned could see that it was highly desirable for New South Wales also to be included as soon as possible. Hence the concept of a national Australia-wide telecommunications network was born.

As he returned to Adelaide, Todd detoured and personally surveyed the 300 mile route the line would follow from Portland near the Victorian border to Adelaide. It had been agreed that there would only be one South Australian station with which the Victorian lines could link - at Mount Gambier - "the intervening country, for 180 miles (in South Australia) being little better than a desert" (see p.12 of the Report). The South Australian Legislature approved Todd's recommendations and voted £20,500 to erect their component of the line.

Tenders were advertised in the Gazette and in newspapers (South Australian and those in other Colonies) on and about 18 February 1857 in the following terms:

"Electric Telegraph. - Tenders are invited and will be received at the Chief Office of the Magnetic Telegraph, Adelaide, South Australia, until Monday, the 9th March next on the part of the Government, for the erection of a line of Electric Telegraph from Adelaide to the South-eastern frontier of the colony, at or near the mouth of the Glenelg. The line will be in the three following divisions:

  1. From Adelaide to Port Elliott and Goolwa (about 65 miles).From Goolwa to Guichen Bay (about 145 miles).
  2. From Guichen Bay, via Mount Gambier, to the frontier near the mouth of the Glenelg (about 115 miles).

Persons Tendering may Tender for tho whole line, or separately for each of the foregoing divisions. The Tender should state the sum per mile for which the work will be undertaken".

The contract for the erection of the line was awarded to Mr. Thompson of O'Halloran Hill at £40 per mile for 300 miles.

Construction of the No. 1 line:

The line to the south began from Green's Exchange and ran along King William Street, the Bay and South and Main roads to Glenelg and Noarlunga and then to the south-east to Willunga (39 km south of Adelaide). The prime concern was then to cover as much distance as possible in the shortest time to make the link to Melbourne. A Telegraph Office was opened at Glenelg nearly two years later.

Todd had determined that the route should go as far south as possible (i.e. to the coast) and then run south-east to Victoria. To achieve this objective, he ran the line from Willunga:

The total distance of the line was 325 miles.


Adelaide to Goolwa.

In March 1857, E. C. Cracknell, then the Deputy Superintendent of Telegraphs for South Australia, left Adelaide with a complement of men, horses and equipment to help Todd survey and mark out the intended line. A few months later, The Register of 2 June 1857 reported as follows:

The Magnetic Telegraph.
"Mr. Todd has returned from his overland trip, having satisfactorily accomplished the purpose of the journey. He has pegged out the line for the telegraph along the whole of the route to its junction with the Victorian line near the mouth of the Glenelg.

The contractors, it appears, are actively engaged in putting up the posts at the Adelaide end of the line and the distance between this city and the Goolwa will probably be completed and ready for use before the end of the present year, by which time, no doubt, the magnetic instruments will have been received from America.

Parties are employed in different portions of the route in making preparations for setting up the posts but it is feared that, along the swampy parts of the line, nothing can be done until after the winter. Much of the timber, we understand, will be supplied from Tasmania, under a contract entered into by Mr. Hinckley. It will be landed on the coast at spots most convenient for the purposes of Messrs. Thompson, the contractors for erecting the line of telegraph.

The Victorian portion of the line is laid out so as to serve, when necessary, as a road eighty feet in breadth; but on our side of the border, no such contingency has been kept in view. This circumstance will partially account for the greater cost per mile of the Victorian telegraph, in comparison with that of South Australia".

Progress was faster than had been expected. Indeed, at one stage Todd anticipated that communications on the Adelaide-Goolwa section could be established by mid-October. By December 1857, the Adelaide-Goolwa line was open. An interesting observation on the direction taken by the line was published on 16 December 1857:

"The Electric Telegraph, which is to be put in communication with ours (i.e. Victoria) at the border, is being proceeded with, although in many respects not in a very artistic manner. The line runs from Goolwa - alongside the road to Adelaide but it zig-zags over the hills in a manner so incomprehensible that it would greatly shock the well-ordered faculties of Mr. MacGowan. Perhaps a strong conviction of the increased energy of the electric current, in the form of forked lightning, has led these worthy people into these eccentricities".

The South Australian Register noted on 3 November 1857:

"There had been a deal of heavy clearing between Willunga and Port Elliot, as all who have travelled through that district will readily suppose. The bush posts consist of stringy bark and gum saplings. In order, as far as possible, to guard against the effect of a bush fire, Mr. Todd caused the ground to be cleared over a radius of ten feet from each pole; but we fear that this will be quite in effectual; and even to preserve this slight safe guard, it will be necessary to send men every season to renew the clearing. Unless some chemical preparation can be applied to the posts to render them incombustible, we fear that at one point or another bush fires will every summer inevitably destroy our medium of intercolonial communication".


Across Lake Alexandria and the Coorong.

Submarine cables for Goolwa and for Lake Alexandrina arrived in December 1857. The cable was relatively light - weighing only 17 cwt. to the mile. Ten miles of cable were required at £80 per mile. In Todd's Report for the first half of 1859, he reported that:

"once or twice (the cable) got injured and it was once carried away by the force of the current. Mr. Todd has therefore resolved to do away this risk and carry the wire across by driving a pile in the centre of the channel and affixing a tall pole thereto.

A second wire, all the way from Adelaide to Mount Gambier is asked for in the report and has been since acceded to. For the greater part of this distance, this will be merely a duplicate wire on the existing poles but for seventy miles it will be by a new route, forming a loop line, and avoiding Lake Alexandrina altogether by crossing the Murray at the township of Wellington".

(Ed note: It was too early to heed the New York directive of 1882 related to overhead versus underground/subterranean telegraph wires).

The Murray River/Lake Alexandrina at Goolwa.
Postcard image shows the extent of the water
under which the submarine cable was laid.

On 26 November 1860, the cable under the Goolwa channel was damaged and arrangements had to be made for keeping up the communication from Hindmarsh Island while the cable was examined and repaired. Such interruptions were not uncommon.

The line to Wellington was laid via Strathalbyn. Todd wanted an alternative line to that crossing Lake Alexandrina. As a Telegraph Office was not opened at Wellington until 1865, it is possible that a repeater station was established there. The line from Wellington met up with the main line at about MacGrath's Flat.

The line across the Coorong was supplied with posts from Mount Jagged.


Line from Meningie to Mount Gambier.

The Meningie - Mount Gambier portion of the line required 50 miles of posts which were ordered from Tasmania. They were landed at Guichen Bay and at Lacepede Bay. The line was also constructed from the Victorian border and again progress was rapid despite the need for heavy clearing in that region.

Supplies were difficult to purchase in South Australia and so the following were bought from Myers of Melbourne (total cost £4,500).

More details are given in the 1858 Electric Telegraphs Report to the NSW Legislative Assembly as well as in McGowan's 1856 Report (p.11-14).

The day on which the feat of electric communication between South Australia and Victoria was accomplished was Saturday, May 22nd, 1858 (Todd's Annual Report for the year to 30 June 1858). On that day, 60 messages were sent from Adelaide to Melbourne.

About 23 July 1859, the House received Message No. 13. noting that £3,600 had been added to the Estimates being half the cost of a second intercolonial telegraph wire to duplicate the first as far as Mount Gambier. This line was constructed but the Victorian line was not - much to Todd's chargrin.

Interruptions on the coastal line were common. They were reported in the press - for example, the Adelaide Observer of 8 September 1860 noted "Telegraphic communication was prevented between Guichen Bay and Adelaide during parts of Monday and the following day in consequence, it is said, of some disarrangement at Willunga Station".

The Adelaide Observer of 3 November 1860 reported that "An additional wire is to be placed on the line of telegraph between Guichen Bay and Adelaide and is to be carried on to the boundary of the colony. The alteration is now going on here. The course of the line has been slightly altered near this place and new posts have been supplied where needed".

The agreed 1858 rates are shown elsewhere.