Alice Springs History

Alice Springs began its modern history as Stuart, a telegraph station on the Adelaide to Darwin line, and the end of the Ghan railway.

Aboriginal history

Before white settlement Alice Springs was inhabited by the Arrernte Aboriginal people. Mparntwe (pronounced mbarn-twa) is the Arrernte word for Alice Springs and was created by the actions of several ancestral figures including the caterpillar beings Ayepe-arenye, Ntyarlke and Utnerrengatye, the MacDonnell Ranges being but one of their creations.

Creation stories also describe traditional links with areas as far afield as Urlatherrke (Mt Zeil) in the West MacDonnell Ranges and Port Augusta in South Australia. Arrernte people continue to live in Mparntwe, observe traditional law, look after the country and teach children the Arrernte language and the importance of their culture.

The Alice Springs Telegraph Station, the site of the original settlement

The Pioneers

In 1862 explorer John McDouall Stuart led an expedition (his third and final attempt) through the Centre, to the north coast, navigating and mapping the country for white settlement. As arguably Australia’s pre-eminent explorer, the Stuart Highway honours his remarkable feats of exploration and leadership.

Following in Stuart’s footsteps, the construction of the Overland Telegraph Line from Adelaide to Darwin was completed in 1872 and made it viable for pastoralists to take up leases in the Centre. However, it was the discovery of alluvial gold at Arltunga, some 100 kms east of Alice Springs, in 1887 that provided a population boom for the Centre.

The Cameleers

Afghan Cameleers forged their place in Central Australian history, driving their camel trains 600 km across the desert to deliver essential provisions from the railhead at Oodnadatta to Alice Springs. “Their contribution to the opening up and accessibility of the great mass of inland Australia was enormous and vital. The very backbone of Australia’s economy, the traditional spheres of pastoralism and mining, owe an immense historical debt to the cameleers and their camels.” (Tin Mosques and Ghantowns – Christine Stevens 1989.)


In 1929 the railway line linking Alice Springs with Adelaide was completed and mechanised trains replaced camel trains. Motor and air transport to the Centre grew more frequent and reliable, as Alice Springs overcame its isolation. It was not till February 2004 that the train line was extended right through to Darwin. The completion of this long awaited line extension meant that this train line would become one of the great north-south transcontinental journey's of Australia.

Naming of the Town

Until the early 1930s, the town’s official name was Stuart. Alice Springs was the name given to the waterhole that was discovered and named by Government Surveyor W W Mills in March 1871, whilst exploring the MacDonnell Ranges during the construction of the Overland Telegraph Line, after Alice Todd, wife of the Superintendent of Telegraphs, Sir Charles Todd. The Alice Springs Telegraph Station was built adjacent to the waterhole. However, this dual naming created such confusion for administrators in Adelaide that on 31 August 1933 the township of Stuart was officially gazetted Alice Springs.