Alice Springs History

Located 1524 km south of Darwin, Alice Springs is the second largest town in the Northern Territory with a population of about 30,000 and an annual growth rate of nearly 6 per cent.  Recognized as the 'Centre of Australia' Alice Springs owes its modern popularity to a booming tourist industry which brings people to 'The Alice' to either explore the beauty of 'The Centre', particularly the magnificent MacDonnell Ranges, or head off to Uluru (Ayers Rock) and Kata Tjuta (The Olgas) which lie to the south-west.

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 present town of Alice Springs was surveyed in 1888 and initially called Stuart, after the explorer.  In 1933 is 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 gold rush 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 center of administration the town boasted services which seemed incongruous given the small population.  A school was built in 1914 and the first Australian Inland Mission nurse arrived in the town in 1915.

An interesting aside is Pine Gap:
It isn't listed on any of the standard tourist itineraries but Pine Gap, a classified Australia and US joint defense space research facility (the road runs west off the Stuart Highway 20 km south of Alice Springs), is one of the most important satellite tracking stations in the USA's battery of defense. It became operational in 1969 and is characterized by huge white balls which can't be seen from the road. It is operated by the CIA and specializes in collecting information on Russian and Chinese military operations which are picked up by satellites and beamed down to the Pine Gap installation.

Home page   |   Alice Springs page