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Cape York History

Cape York History - Indigenous Australians

Aboriginal people have inhabited the Australian mainland for more than 40,000 years. These people came to the Australian mainland from the north when Earth was experiencing much lower temperatures, causing substantial drops in sea levels. These levels ranged between 80 to 120 metres lower than at present, creating land bridges between the Australian mainland and Papua New Guinea, and narrow straits between the islands of the eastern Indonesian archipeligo and PNG and Australia. These small distances would have been easily navigated, and the sight of banks of clouds and the smoke from fires would have encouraged people to make the crossing.

There is no clear or accepted racial origin of the indigenous people of Australia. Although they migrated to Australia through Southeast Asia they are not demonstrably related to any known Asian or Polynesian population. There is some speculation that, based on mitochondrial DNA evidence, they are related to some racial groups in India.

At the time of first European contact, it is estimated that between 250,000 and 1 million people lived in Australia. Population levels are likely to have been largely stable for many thousands of years. Post-colonisation, the coastal indigenous populations were soon absorbed, depleted or forced from their lands; the traditional aspects of Aboriginal life which remained persisted most strongly in areas such as the Great Sandy Desert where European settlement has been sparse.

All Indigenous Australians were hunter-gatherers, while those along the coast and rivers were also expert fishermen. While all communities managed their food resources in various sophisticated ways, none practised true agriculture. Most Indigenous communities were semi-nomadic, moving in a regular cycle over a defined territory, following seasonal food sources and returning to the same places at the same time each year. From the examination of middens, archaeologists have shown that some localities were visited annually by Indigenous communities for thousands of years.

The Indigenous Australians lived through great climatic changes and adapted successfully to their changing physical environment. There is much ongoing debate about the degree to which they modified the environment. One controversy revolves around the role of Indigenous people in the extinction of the marsupial megafauna. Some argue that natural climate change killed the megafauna. Others claim that, because the megafauna were large and slow, they were easy prey for human hunters. A third possibility is that human modification of the environment, particularly through the use of fire, indirectly led to their extinction.

Indigenous Australians used fire for a variety of purposes: to encourage the growth of edible plants and fodder for prey; to reduce the risk of catastrophic bushfires; to make travel easier; to eliminate pests; for ceremonial purposes; and just to "clean up country." There is disagreement, however, about the extent to which this burning led to large-scale changes in vegetation patterns.

Indigenous communities also had a very complex kinship structure and in some places strict rules about marriage. In Central Australia, for example, men were required to marry women of a specified degree of cousinage. To enable men and women to find suitable partners, many groups would come together for annual gatherings (commonly known as corroborees) at which goods were traded, news exchanged, and marriages arranged amid appropriate ceremonies. This practice both reinforced clan relationships and prevented inbreeding in a society based on small semi-nomadic groups.

The above information was compiled from Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia. To learn more go to the Indigenous Australian Information sites listed on the links page.

Cape York History - European Settlement

The first undisputed recorded European sighting of the Australian continent was made by the Dutch navigator Willem Jansz, who sighted the coast of Cape York Peninsula in 1606, although it is claimed that sailors from he fleet of the great Chinese admiral Zheng He made landfall in the early 15th Century. During the seventeenth century, the Dutch charted the whole of the western and northern coastlines of what they called New Holland, but made no attempt at settlement. In 1770, James Cook sailed along and mapped the east coast of Australia, which he named New South Wales and claimed for Britain, planting the Union Jack on an island he named Possession Island, near Cape York.

The first European settlement in Cape York Peninsula was proposed by Sir George Bowen, the first Governor of the Colony of Queensland. His vision for this northern outpost included the provision of harbour of refuge for shipwrecked sailors, a supply depot and a coaling station to service the major international shipping route. He believed that, as an administration centre, it would encourage the growth of commercial activity and provide a settlement that maintained friendly relationships between settlers and Aborigines.

After first selecting a site on the western side of the island of Pabaju (Albany Island) ten kilometres south east of Cape York, it was agreed that the settlement should be set up on the mainland opposite the island. Mr John Jardine was appointed as Government Resident and established the settlement of Somerset in 1864. The need for a supply of fresh meat prompted Jardine to establish the first cattle station at Vallack Point five kilometres south of Somerset with some 200 head of cattle.

Mining brought further European settlement to Cape York Peninsula. In 1873, James Venture Mulligan led a party of 100 Georgetown diggers with 300 horses and bullocks to the Palmer Goldfield. At the same time other prospectors came by sea to the estuary of the Endeavour River. From there a trail to the Palmer was cleared under the direction of the surveyor A.C. Macmillan.

Police and staff from the Goldfields Department accompanied these miners and established the township of Cooktown in 1873. The gold rush continued up to Coen five years later. The rapid population growth created an increased demand for meat production, resulting in the establishment of many cattle stations over the following twenty years.

In 1885, John Embley, a Licensed Surveyor attached to the Queensland Department of Lands, surveyed an area to make York Downs his headquarters. From there he conducted surveys on the Peninsula for twenty years, setting the boundaries of many pastoral leases.

Following the collapse of gold mining during the early years of last century, the population of settlers rapidly declined and the pastoral industry diminished. Cooktown swelled after gold was discovered on the Palmer River in 1873. By 1880 there were up to 24 hotels and several banks and the population reached a peak of 4,000 to 5,000 only to gradually dwindle to 400 by the outbreak of World War II. The town survived mainly through small scale tin and gold mining and the reduced cattle industry.

The war years saw a rapid increase in development on Cape York Peninsula. A new aerodrome was built at Cooktown, and other military aerodromes were constructed at Coen, Iron Range, Higgensfield (near Bamaga) and Horn Island. The influence of the war effort with the temporary increase in population and the resultant infrastructure development should not be underestimated. The provision of these aerodromes enabled the establishment of regular public transport, and DC3 aircraft made the remote communities more accessible.

The introduction of Brahman cattle which responded more favourably to the tropical conditions, and the demand from the American hamburger market in the 1950s, stimulated a revival in the beef industry over the next two decades. Extensive investment from the United States of America in several large cattle stations in the mid-sixties further boosted the prosperity of the pastoral industry. With the sudden drop in cattle prices in 1974 and the introduction of the Brucellosis and Tuberculosis Eradication Program (BTEC) in the early 1980s, the pastoral economy of Cape York Peninsula declined again.

Large scale bauxite mining at Weipa started in the early 1960s. Production levels have increased and associated activities have continued sustaining a population of about 2,000. With the bi-centenary of James Cook's landing and the opening of the National Trust museum in the old Convent, the tourist industry was established in Cooktown. Cooktown's population has increased to 1,500 and an elected Shire Council has been re-established.

Visitor numbers per annum to Cooktown and the lower Cape York Peninsula are now 60,000, and 20,000 tourists venture to the top of the Peninsula and visit Cape York. (Information from Cape York Peninsula Development Association).

Moreton Telegraph Station ca. 1890
Moreton Telegraph Station History

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 poles 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.

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