Central Australia was, for thousands of years before the coming of Europeans, occupied by various sub-groups of the Arrernta (Aranda) peoples, stretching past Hermannsburg to the west, beyond Arltunga to the east, as far as Aileron to the north and almost to Oodnadatta in the south. Significant aboriginal sites able to be visited today include Corroboree Rock, Standley Chasm (Angerkle Atwatye) and the Ewaninga (Napwerte) Rock Carvings.
Between 1860 and mid-1862, John McDouall Stuart made three failed attempts to become the first European explorer to traverse the country from Adelaide to the coastline of the Arafura Sea (near present-day Darwin) before finally succeeding in late 1862. Although he never actually came up through The Gap in the McDonnell Ranges, the town of Alice Springs originally bore his name and today has many places named in his honour, including Stuart Park and the Stuart Highway.
Stuart’s explorations enabled the construction of the Overland Telegraph Line between 1871 and 1872, together with the regularly-spaced Repeater Stations, such as the Alice Springs and Barrow Creek Telegraph Stations, that linked Australia telegraphically, across Asia and Europe, to Britain.
That same year, the first of the pastoral stations, such as Owen Springs and Undoolya, were being carved out and in 1877, the Lutheran Mission at Hermannsburg was established
In 1888, the small settlement of Stuart Town (re-named “Alice Springs” in 1931) was proclaimed and its first 104 lots (essentially the present-day Central Business District) were surveyed.
The discovery of gold at Arltunga, in 1887, saw an influx of prospectors make their way on foot in search of their fortune and, for quite a while, they represented the largest non-indigenous population in the region. Stuart Town, by contrast, only had a “white” population of a dozen people, out-numbered even by the Telegraph Station to its north.
The town and the region continued to grow and the early part of the new century saw many developments, including the construction of a new Town Gaol in 1908 and the establishment of a hotel, a saddlery and two general stores.
In 1926, the town’s first hospital, Adelaide House, was built, followed soon after by the Old Courthouse and The Residency (1928) and the town’s first school, the Old Hartley Street School (1929). These developments heralded the arrival of the railway link from the southern states in 1929, as evidenced by the Railway Cottages on Railway Terrace.
Air services followed with the creation of the Town Aerodrome in the late-1930s and the launching of Connellan Airways in 1939.
The town’s new General Cemetery, established in 1931 to the south of the Town Aerodrome, began to take over from the earlier Stuart Town Cemetery, located in George Terrace. In 1934, the RSL Monument was erected on Anzac Hill, commemorating the fallen of WWI.
Growth of the town accelerated towards the beginning of World War II, reflected in the electrification of the town in 1937; the establishment of the Royal Flying Doctor Service (1939); the building of the Wallis Fogarty Store (1939); Tuncks’ Store; the government officers’ houses in the Heritage Precinct (1938 - 43); and the construction of the town’s New Prison, presently occupied by the National Pioneer Women’s Hall of Fame.
The war years (1939 - 45) accelerated development of the town, with improvements in water supplies and the sealing of the North Stuart Highway resulting from the need to defend Australia against the Japanese advance and the re-location to Alice Springs of the Territory’s administration following the bombing of Darwin in 1942. Little physical evidence has survived of the once-extensive military presence, but for the odd Sidney Williams Hut (such as the present day Totem Theatre); the Officers’ Mess at 4 Hele Crescent; and the Munitions Bunker on Gosse Street. The RSL Museum is a great source of information on this period of the town’s history.
The war years saw very few non-military building, with the exception of the Pioneer Walk-in Theatre, presently occupied by the YHA.
Following the end of WWII in 1945, the town experience an even greater rate of growth, as many soldiers who had passed through the town returned to settle in “A Town Like Alice”. The growth was assisted by the Army’s sale of surplus war buildings, materials and equipment, enabling improvements in the township and pastoral stations, the opening up of the Farms Area south of the Gap, and the establishment of a fledgeling tourism industry. Regular tours began to run to Ayers Rock and The Olgas, Simpson Gap and Palm Valley, and the town’s first man-made attraction was established: the Pitchi Richi Sanctuary, just south of The Gap.
In 1952, John Flynn’s Grave was erected in recognition of his contribution towards the development of Alice Springs and outback Australia. Four years later, the John Flynn Memorial Church (1956) was also built in his honour.
The 1960s and 70s saw tourism continue to grow, as the town came to epitomise The Outback through books and movies of the time, such as “A Town Like Alice”, “Jedda” and “The Overlanders”. New Hotels, such as The Riverside (Todd Tavern) and many of the surviving commercial buildings, such as the Heenan Building at the southern end of Todd Mall, were built at this time.
Interest in the history of the town and the central Australian region has continued to the present day, with the establishment of the National Pioneer Women’s Hall of Fame, the Central Australian Aviation Museum, the Strehlow Centre, the Araluen Art Gallery, the National Road Transport Hall of Fame, the Old Ghan Railway Museum and the Alice Springs Desert Park.
All in all, The Alice has something for anyone who appreciates the importance of looking after heritage for future generations.