Queensland Places – Cape York Telegraph – Maintaining the Line

The Musgrave Road House is a remnant of a series of permanent telegraph stations that were situated along the old Cape York Telegraph Line, completed in 1886 and closed in 1929, and which linked Queensland with the rest of the world.

Once open, the telegraph line needed constant maintenance to ensure that the vital communication link remained open.  This was to be a constant challenge with gangs of well trained and experienced linesmen dedicated to the maintenance of the line itself, as well as its service track.  Replacement line and equipment had to be transported over long distances, through rough country.  Also, as refrigeration was non-existent, the transporting and storage of food was an on-going issue.  As well, in addition to the supplies needed by the maintenance gangs, the actual telegraphic stations themselves needed to be regularly supplied.  The work was never ending with poles, line and equipment regularly falling victim to the harsh conditions.

Horses were used heavily to transport linesmen and equipment and the temporary workers’ camps, as well as the permanent telegraph stations, needed to be strategically situated, for example close to water.  Accommodation for the maintenance gangs varied but appears to have improved over time.  In the early period of the line’s existence, semi-permanent camps were common, built roughly of local materials with canvas or bark roofs.  By the mid 1920s, things had improved comparatively, with accommodation and storage of goods and equipment being within more solidly built permanent buildings.  Notwithstanding this gradual improvement in accommodation for the maintenance gangs, it must have been a welcome respite for them to stay temporarily at a permanent telegraph station along the way.

It should be remembered how dangerous the work could be and some workers were injured or killed.  For instance, Sam Thompson was killed in a fall from a horse in around December 1918 and was buried close to the Musgrave Telegraph Station, now the Musgrave Roadhouse.

Telegraph Linesmen Camp, Jardine River, ca 1920, State Library of Queensland Neg. No. 55608

Telegraph Linesmen Camp, Jardine River, ca 1920

This photograph, taken in around 1924, shows one of these telegraph maintenance camps, in the vicinity of the Jardine River, with the figure posing for the camera believed to be George Baxter, who was a linesman in the mid 1920s.

Brian Randall – Queensland Places Coordinator, State Library of Queensland.