John McDouall Stuart dominated exploration in Central Australia. Other explorers had ventured into the north of the Flinders Ranges, but it was Stuart who made the most impact on Australian history in this area.
Stuart made several attempts to cross Australia. His attempts, financed by William Finke and James Chambers, were eventually successful, especially when compared with the size and the cost of the Burke and Wills expedition. As an example, Stuart, with two other men and thirteen horses, left Adelaide in March 1860, on the first of three almost continual treks across Australia – all successfully completed.
As he pushed northwards, on what was later the route for the Overland Telegraph, Stuart named Peake Creek, the Neales River, Mt Dutton, Mt O’ Halloran, the Stevenson and Finke Rivers. On one occasion Stuart’s party was forced to return after conflict with Aborigines at Attack Creek, just north of Tennant Creek. In 1861, he again set out determined to cross the continent, but was forced to return after failing to find water north of Newcastle Waters, only 160 kilometres further on from Attack Creek.
Stuart finally did cross Australia and on July, 24th 1862, he was able to stand on the coast near present- day Darwin. By the time he returned to Adelaide in December, 1862, he had travelled about 16 000 kilometres in three trips through some of the harshest country in the world. During these trips he spent only three months replenishing stock and refitting in Adelaide. This enormous effort had an adverse effect on his health and almost claimed his life. The impact of the harsh environment took its toll – he never fully recovered – but pressed on regardless.
The Overland Telegraph Line was a great engineering feat. Stuart had mapped and documented a track right across Australia but the centre remained almost untouched by Europeans until 1870 when the South Australian government finalised negotiations with the British-Australian Telegraph Company to build a telegraph line across Australia. This would link the submarine line to Java.
The construction of the line was divided into three sections, the southern, central and northern sections. The Macumba River, about 50 kilometres north of Oodnadatta, divided the southern and central sections. Once the line was in place, a relatively safe track was established. Water points were developed, communication was available and visible route was marked. Any person in trouble along the line only had to climb a post and break the line to be assured of immediate help.
Government surveyors assisted with information for maps of the area surrounding the line. The Peake, south of present day Oodnadatta and Charlotte Waters became service centres for work on the line as well as obvious locations for repeater stations.
Although supplies and materials had to be carted by camel from Port Augusta and working conditions were appalling by today’s standards, the central working section was completed on time and communications opened to Tennant Creek, 2180 kilometres north of Adelaide by December, 1871.