On January 18 1872, John Lewis, his brother James, Walter Soward, and a man called Petersen, set off from Adelaide, bound for the Coburg Peninsula, Northern Territory.
There may have been a sore head or two on that morning, for they’d enjoyed a loud farewell lunch the previous day at the Criterion Hotel on King William Street. The trip didn’t start well, for John had left their horse plant at a depot called Gum Creek with a “trustworthy” local.
On arriving at Gum Creek John found that his horse-minder had hidden all the horses and demanded a “reward” of £2 to “find” them. But John Lewis was not one to be crossed. As he later wrote:
“I gave him the reward, and something into the bargain.”
John was that rare type – hardworking, loyal and trustworthy – yet he expected the same qualities in others, and reacted strongly when disappointed.
Born in Brighton, South Australia, in 1844, he grew up roaming the sand hills and beaches. It was there that he first encountered Aborigines, the beginning of a life-long regard for Australia’s first people. In a minority amongst his contemporaries, he treated all he encountered with respect.
“One of my favourite pursuits was, when I got out of school, in very rough weather, to go and lie in the sand hummocks and listen to the breakers rolling in. Another thing I liked was to get into the blacks’ camp, and watch them making baskets and mats out of the rushes growing near the beach, and to see them cooking the ﬁsh which they secured, and eating what we call the native apple (mundo), which grew in a little bush along the sand hills. I was always very interested in watching what the aborigines did, because I thought they were such wonderful people.”
John ran away from home when he was fourteen, worked on farms for a while, then was an apprentice blacksmith. The bush called him, however, and most of his youth was spent working cattle and sheep. The summons to the Territory had caught him by surprise, when a friend arranged for him to be granted a parcel of land on the Coburg Peninsula.
It must have seemed like a tall order, to cross the forbidding interior for some land he had never seen, but John was an adventurous soul, and never shy of a challenge.
Finally, united with their horses at Gum Creek, the small group started north, at first over terrain they knew well, stopping at sheep and cattle stations for respite and company. Locust plagues, however, were roaming South Australia’s grasslands, denuding the land of every blade of grass. Stunned at the damage, John and his party skirted east of Lake Torrens and through Leigh Creek, into the Flinders Ranges.
Unlike so many earlier whites to travel through Central Australia, John Lewis’s party happened to strike one of the best seasons in years. They found good pasture for their horses almost everywhere. Waterholes were brimming full and alive with fish. Even the normally dry Finke River was flowing, and John described it as the best river north of Adelaide.
There were also people at regular intervals, bullockies carting poles for the Overland Telegraph Line, others droving sheep or cattle to feed the crews, and lone prospectors desperate to find that secret reef. John reported contact with numerous Aboriginal people, who he described as “friendly and harmless,” though pilfering of stores was apparently a problem.
They stopped at the newly built Alice Springs Telegraph Station, and spent time with some of the crews. A job offer from the Telegraph Company meant a chance to earn some cash and get to know the country.
At that time, with the line still incomplete, the telegraph line penetrated from Adelaide north as far as Tennant Creek, and from Darwin south as far as Daly Waters. In between was a three hundred mile gap. In order to get messages through, John was hired as a pony express, taking telegrams between the two terminus stations, to be re-transmitted at the other end. John’s employer, Mr Charles Todd (See “So who the Hell was Alice Anyway?”), apparently referred to the service as an “Estafette.”
During this time of running messages between the ends of the line, John and his men heard the first news of gold discoveries around Pine Creek. The idea of Territory Gold started to feature in John Lewis’s plans. With hundreds of hours of riding, or tramping beside a wagon to think, John put his mind to how much capital he might have at his disposal, and how it could best be deployed in the mining industry.
Finally, the last stage of the Telegraph Line was completed; a momentous occasion:
“I went with Patterson and Mitchell to a point a few miles east of Frew’s Ironstone Ponds, where the two ends of the wire were to be joined, connecting Adelaide with Port Darwin. We met with Harvey, who told us that the wires would not be joined until twelve o’clock; so we returned to the camp, then made for the last join, and arrived there at about twelve o’clock. At ten minutes past twelve on August 22, 1872, the wires were really joined. Twenty one shots were ﬁred from our revolvers, and a bottle of supposed brandy was broken over the last post. (I think it was tea.) Among those present were Messrs Patterson, Rutt, Mitchell, Howley, Ricks, Hands, Bayﬁeld, Hack, and myself. It had long been a desire of mine to see the wire connected between south and north, and I was glad I had seen this accomplished.”
The “Estafette” now redundant, John was free to head north towards the diggings.
Part Two next week.
This story in full, and many more, are available in the book “Galloping Jones and other True Stories from Australia’s history.” Available now from theozbookstore.com
Written and researched by Greg Barron
Photo of John Lewis from “Fought and Won” by John Lewis.