This article originally appeared in the Esperance Tide, our lovely local magazine. Just a note that space did not permit me to include details about the Dundas-Balladonia Telegraph line, which was added at a later date. This was a fascinating period of time in our little town’s history.
Esperance Post Office and Telegraph Station
In the early days of their time in the Esperance area, the Dempster brothers recalled a time where they did not receive any communication from ‘the outside world’ for 11 weary months. This isolation was difficult for the early settlers, and the ships that bought the mail could be unreliable. The solution was a telegraph line, which would connect Esperance and surrounding settlements with both Albany and Perth, and the Eastern States.
By the end of the 1850s, the capital cities in the Eastern States, from Brisbane to Adelaide, were all connected by telegraph line. WA was slower to take up the new technology, partly due to the incredibly long distances involved in connecting to the rest of the country. In 1860, the South Australian and Western Australian governments began discussions regarding a telegraph line connecting the two states. This line took seventeen long years to eventuate, and followed the route taken by the explorer Eyre along the coast from Adelaide to Albany, with the telegraph poles and wire being transported by sea to coastal points.
On New Year’s Day in 1875, the first of the poles for the telegraph line connecting Eucla to Albany was erected in front of the Albany Post Office. This section of telegraph line would cover 1290 kilometres, through mostly unsettled land, and would take 7000 telegraph poles. This was a huge feat for the newly formed WA government, which committed a budget of £30,000 to the project, at a time when the state’s entire yearly revenue was about £135,000. The SA government committed to building the line as far as Eucla. On the 8th of September, 1876, the line to Esperance was completed, and the Esperance Telegraph station was officially opened for telegraphic traffic. In October of 1876, the first Station Master arrived in Esperance to take charge of the Telegraph Station – fifteen-year-old George Stevens. The telegraph line became a big employer for the area, with regular repeater stations required along the line. Messages were decoded and relayed by hand in Morse code.
Progress on the Telegraph line past Esperance was slow. Plans to build the next Telegraph Station at Point Culver were scrapped, and the safer harbour at Israelite Bay was chosen instead. Materials were transported to Israelite Bay using the schooner Mary Ann. In July 1876, the Mary Ann was anchored off Bellinger Island, close to Israelite Bay, during one of these trips. After a strong wind blew up overnight, the Mary Ann was wrecked on Bellinger Island. Fortunately, the crew and cargo was all saved. This was not the only disaster to occur during the building of the line. While unloading telegraph poles from the schooner Twilight at Point Culver, one of the boatmen was pinned underneath a load of poles, and drowned. In Esperance, the well-known Indigenous explorer Tommy Windich also became sick and died while working on the Telegraph line as a guide.
The original telegraph stations built at Esperance and Israelite Bay were four room weatherboard buildings. These rooms served as an office, storeroom, and quarters for the station master, his assistants and the telegraph linesmen. Many of the early settlers of the Israelite Bay area were able to make some much-needed extra money by helping to build the telegraph line, or by working as linesmen on the finished project. The Ponton brothers and John Sharp helped to transport the wooden poles, and settler John Paul Brooks became the first linesman at the Israelite Bay Telegraph station. This station was officially opened on the 5th of December 1876. The Eucla Telegraph Station was officially opened a year later, on the 9th of December 1877. The telegraph line across the Nullarbor to Eucla had been built using steel poles, which were much more durable, in contrast to the jarrah posts used by WA. Another difference was that in these pre-Federation days, WA used international Morse Code, while SA used American Morse Code. This meant that the telegraph operators sat opposite each other, with a wall between them representing the border between WA and SA. Each message had to be decoded and passed through a pigeon-hole in the border wall.
The importance of the telegraph line was demonstrated very quickly. John Sharp, one of the pioneers who lived at Pine Hill, became very ill soon after the opening of the telegraph line. After finding him in a bad state, William Ponton rode to the Israelite Bay Telegraph station, and sent a message to a doctor in Albany. The doctor diagnosed scurvy, and William rode back to John with fresh vegetables and lime juice from a ship which was docked in the bay. John made a quick recovery, his life undoubtedly saved by the telegraph line.
In 1895, the Esperance Post and Telegraph Office was built, where the current post office now stands. This stately stone building with wide verandas was opened in 1896. The Norfolk Pine planted in front of the building still stands in the Esperance Post Office Square today. Unfortunately, the stone building was torn down in 1971. A beautiful stone building was also built at Israelite Bay to replace the weatherboard Telegraph Station. At its peak, there were around 150 people living in the Israelite Bay area. The Israelite Bay Telegraph Station was closed in 1925, after a new telegraph line was built alongside the new Transcontinental Railway. The building was sold to Henry Dimer in 1927, and he took the wood and tin from the roof to build shearers’ quarters. The stone ruins, in excellent condition, still stand at Israelite Bay today. A stone Telegraph Station was also built in Eucla, and it was reputedly the busiest telegraph station in Australia for a time. In the 1890s, a plague of rabbits in the area devastated the vegetation on the sand dunes at Eucla, causing huge drifts of sand to encroach on the town. The townsite was abandoned and rebuilt 4 kilometres north of the original site. The stone telegraph station, half buried in sand, can still be visited today.
In 1912, Esperance was chosen to be a part of the Wireless Telegraph network. The stone Coastal Wireless Station was built on Dempster Head (which is sometimes known to locals as Wireless Hill). This wireless network helped to link Western Australia to the outside world. It was also very significant for communications with ships off the Australian coast, and was used heavily during World War I, when an army delegation was sent to Esperance to guard the communications tower. The original building still stands on Orr Street, although it is now disused and privately owned. Telegraph services continued to be used in Australia until the 1950s, when the use of the telephone overtook telegrams in popularity. The last telegraph message to be sent by landline in Australia was in 1963.