Alice Springs - Culture and History

Alice Springs (including Chambers Pillar Historical Reserve, Henbury Meteorite Park, Simpsons Gap National Park, Standley Chasm)

Historically it owes its existence to the fact that it was a vital link on the Overland Telegraph Line. It subsequently became the major railhead in the Northern Territory with cattle and goods being shipped through its goods yards.

Alice Springs is 576 metres above sea level and lies on the often dry Todd River. It is in the MacDonnell Ranges and lies on a rich alluvial plain. The Todd River, which was first discovered and named in 1871 by the parties building the Overland Telegraph, flows only after heavy rains. It rises in the MacDonnell Ranges and disappears 320 km south-east into the sands of the Simpson Desert.

The springs, after which the town in named, lie to the north-east of the town and were discovered in 1871 by the team building the Overland Telegraph. The surveyors were William Whitfield Mills and John Ross and there is some dispute as to which of these two men found the springs and named them. Mills did write that he had discovered a pass through the MacDonnell Ranges which led to an area 'with numerous waterholes and springs, the principal of which is the Alice Spring which I had the honour of naming after Mrs. Todd.'

The reason for this 'honour' was that Sir Charles Todd, the then Postmaster-General of South Australia, had been the driving force behind the building of the Overland Telegraph. Lady Alice Todd was his wife.

Prior to the arrival of Europeans the area had been the home of the Aranda Aborigines who had been living in the area for at least 10 000 years.

A notice at the Alice Springs Repeater Station conveys the antiquity of Aboriginal habitation neatly when it points out 'it is worth remembering that the probable occupation of this site spans 330 generations of Aborigines as well as 5 generations of Europeans.'

The repeater station which was built at Alice Spring in 1871-2 was the first European building constructed in Central Australia. The station was closed in 1932 and is now open for inspection as an important part of the early European history of the area. Built of local stone the station consisted of the postmaster's residence, an observatory and store room, the telegraph room and barracks. The buildings have had a chequered history being used at various times as an Aboriginal reserve for the maintenance and education of part-Aboriginal children, an Army camp and an administration block. They were improved in the 1960s which accounts for their pristine condition and all the new cement work.

The station, an ideal point from which to lead expeditions into the hinterland, was largely responsible for the initial establishment of the town. It lies 3 km to the north of the town and is clearly signposted as the Alice Springs Telegraph Reserve. There are guided tours each morning at 10 am.

The town was surveyed in 1888 and called Stuart, after the explorer, until 1933 when the popular name of Alice Springs was officially adopted. It was planned that Stuart would be the major railhead in The Centre but it wasn't until 1929 that 'The Ghan' actually reached the town.

As late as the 1930s the town was little more than a lonely outpost. The goldrush at Arltunga in 1902 saw a brief boom but the population was still less than 50 in 1927. The arrival of the Central Australian Railway ('The Ghan') in 1929 saw the population of the town jump to 467 by 1933.

As an early centre of administration the town boasted services which seemed incongruous given the small population. A gaol was built in 1907, a school in 1914 and the first Australian Inland Mission nurse arrived in the town in 1915.