The Bush Telegraph Heritage Centre is the central feature of the Cardwell Heritage Precinct owned by the Cassowary Coast Regional Council. The precinct includes the 19th century court house and gaol, an outdoor museum and the original School of Arts building that is now home to Hinchinbrook Regional Arts. The 1892 Town Hall (J.C. Hubinger Museum) was seriously damaged by cyclone Yasi but a replica building is now complete.
The Bush Telegraph Heritage Centre in Cardwell is a landmark for the development of communications in northern Australia.
Australia’s first telegraph line was erected from the centre of Melbourne in 1854. Only 12 years later the telegraph network reached north to Bowen (then Port Denison), and a further three years on the Government decided to extend the telegraph to Cardwell.
As the Government completed the line on December 29 1869, crowds gathered in celebration in Cardwell to watch the erection of the final pole. After an era in which the only way to communicate with friends, relatives and businesses in far away places was by letter or physically travelling by horse or ship, suddenly communication was all but instant – of course at a higher price.
The Cardwell telegraph office officially opened five days later on January 3rd 1870, as the Government continued building the line to the Gulf of Carpentaria, opening the link with Normanton in 1872.
Despite the fact that Cardwell’s original Telegraph Office was a ‘temporary’ building, it remains, now faithfully-restored as the heritage-listed Bush Telegraph Centre on Highway One in the centre of town.
It was the Cardwell Historical Society formed in 1985 that worked with the former Cardwell Shire Council to preserve the old Telegraph Office, along with the old Shire Hall that became a library and is now the J. C. Hubinger Museum.
The telegraph office also became Cardwell’s Post Office. After the first public jetty was built in 1872, coastal steamers arrived twice-a-month with mail, some of which was then taken by packhorse services to land-locked settlements as far as Georgetown.
Cardwell remained Australia’s most northern port on the east coast up to 1873 when, through the electric crackle on the telegraph line from Cardwell, the world heard the sensational news of the discovery of gold on the Palmer River, triggering another human rush for riches.
The Telegraph and Post Office was a focal point of business and community life in Cardwell for at least a century. Townspeople gathered anxiously as the mail was sorted, or waited for a phone call or for replies to telegrams. The communications in morse code between Post Offices often included news of the day from bigger towns and cities.
As automatic telephone exchanges replaced female telephonists, and electronic teleprinters over-rode the need for morse code, the role of the Telegraph Office changed, and with it rural lifestyles. Where previously at least four or five people had been employed, suddenly one one person, with a part-time worker, was all that was required.
A visit to Cardwell’s Bush Telegraph Heritage Centre will give you a feel for what life used to be like, and offer other information and photographs on Cardwell’s earlier identities and their lifestyles.
The 1870 Bush Telegraph building, restored in recent years under heritage guidelines, survived cyclone Yasi with limited damage.