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Katherine, Northern Territory: Tale of Three Towns


The town of Katherine is located in the Northern Territory of Australia, on the Katherine River, 314km south of Darwin. It is known as the place where "The outback meets the tropics".


Aboriginal People

The Jawoyn, Dagoman and Wardaman Aboriginal people traditionally lived and congregated around the area now known as Katherine. However, communities of the Walpiri People, of the Victoria River District and Tanami Desert people also, now live in the Katherine district.

There are about 30 Aboriginal language groups in the Katherine area and the various tribal groups who once lived semi-nomadic lifestyles had a comprehensive knowledge of the flora and fauna of their area and intermarried with other clans.

The traditional foods of the Aboriginal people of the Northern Territory included echidna, goanna, mud mussel, long-neck turtle and witchetty grubs, which are high in protein; also, honey ants and native plants like green plum, yam and bush onion. If you are suffering from the flu, however, you could try squashed green ants as a remedy, or, sap from wattle trees, if you have a headache.

Before European settlement, bush tucker was readily available around Katherine, but with changing land use, theses food sources declined. 

The Aboriginal people of Katherine today, still share their traditional spiritual beliefs,  through Dreamtime stories, art, dance and song.
Christine Owney, a Jawoyn tribe resident of the Manyallaluk/Eva Valley community, weave baskets from tree roots. Sgt. David J. Hercher
Aboriginal painting, Katherine Gorge, NT, Australia, Sardaka

The Europeans

Dr Ludwig Leichhardt was the first European to visit the Katherine region in 1845 when he discovered the headwaters of the Katherine River.

In 1862, the explorer John McDouall Stuart passed through the Katherine region and named the river "Catherine", after the daughter of his benefactor, James Chambers. However, the name was misspelt and has remained that way ever since. Only ten years after this, the Katherine Telegraph Station was built and the Overland Telegraph Line completed.

George McLaughlan surveyed the land south from Darwin to Katherine, for a route of the Overland Telegraph line, that would run from Darwin to Adelaide, in 1870. Around this time, a shack existed at the crossing of the river belonging to Barney Murphy. A year later, the shack was being used by visitors who were travelling to Pine Creek during the gold rush.

A shanty town developed from the 1870s, near the Katherine River Crossing. The Gallon Licence Store, built by Bernard Murphy and three other buildings occupied the site which would later become the Sportsman’s Hotel. The overland telegraph and original post office would be situated above Knott’s Crossing, adjacent to the Sportsman’s Arms Hotel.
The hotel at Old Katherine, NT, Queenslander (Brisbane, Qld. : 1866 - 1939), Wednesday 31 August 1938
The Gallon Licence Store was built in the 1870’s on the Katherine River Crossing area. It is part of original town, Katherine, NT
Knott's Crossing, identified by NT Library (1-Jan-1906)

The Overland Telegraph

The Overland telegraph line opened 22nd August 1872, with the Telegraph Station up river from the crossing.
Katherine Telegraph Station. Date: Unknown. Library & Archives NT
On the verandah of the Katherine Telegraph Station, Minister Thomas, Sir Walter Barttelot, Dr Gilruth, circa 1912, National Library of Australia

Springvale Station

Dr W.J. Browne, who was born and died in England, took up a lease at Spring Vale (or Springvale) Station near Katherine in 1876, as did Gilbert McMinn, a surveyor and public servant, from County Down, Ireland, who operated Springvale and Bonrook runs.

Springvale Homestead, which was built in 1879, is the oldest standing homestead in the Northern Territory. It was established in 1879 by Alfred Giles, ex Overland Telegraph linesman, as part of Dr William Browne's pastoral lease. Giles stocked the station with sheep and cattle brought up from Adelaide and built the homestead in 1879. The sheep were later moved to Glencoe Station 145 kilometres (90 mi) south-west of Katherine.
Springvale station, Katherine, NT. Stone buildings with communal porch. Building on left probably a house. Far left is a bamboo framed shed. Springvale Homestead. (taken 1-Jan-1920). Library & Archives NT
36. Crossing Bed of Katherine River in Northern Territory
Crossing Bed of Katherine River in Northern Territory, n.d
At Springvale, shepherds were "southern blacks from Alice Springs". When these Aboriginals went home, they were given a revolver for self-protection (Giles, nd.: 155). At one period there were also Chinese shepherds who had a flock each at Springvale (Giles, nd.: 133). The sheep did not thrive at Springvale and so, were taken to Delamere Station 170km south west of Katherine, but in 1882, they were removed

Elsey Station lease was taken up by Abraham Wallace in 1879 and named after Dr Elsey, a surgeon who travelled with the Augustus Charles Gregory expedition. Today the station is owned by the Mangarrayi Aboriginal Land Trust. A replica of the Elsey Homestead was built for the film "We of the Never Never".
Replica of the Elsey Station Homestead from the novel and film, "We of the Never Never", Katherine, NT

Gold!

In 1888, a small gold-bearing reef was discovered at Maude’s Creek 20 km east of Katherine. Many Chinese arrived to work the gold fields by 1889, but by 1894, the mining leases at Maud Creek had been abandoned. In 1891 copper and silver were discovered and in more recent years, more gold was found here.

The Sportsman's Arms Hotel

The Sportsman's Arms Hotel.Library & Archives NT (taken 1-Jan-1929)
Tom Pearce (“Mine Host” of We of the Never Never) was the manager of the Sportsman's Arms Hotel near Knott's Crossing in 1900 (named after Frederick George Knott and his wife Kate who were the first people to farm the north side of the river. The hotel was later known as the Commercial Hotel and the Crossways Hotel on Katherine Terrace). Tom Pearce planted boab trees, with seeds from Bradshaw's Run.
Tom Pearce, He had a reputation ofbeing able to handle telegraph polessingle-handed.Territorians will remember him for having swum the Katherine while it wasin flood during one 'wet.'Three times he crossed a
torrent 70 ft. deep, infestedwith crocodiles and dangerous with trees being swirled
downstream, to repair thetelegraph that gave Australia communication with theworld. Chronicle (Adelaide, SA : 1895 - 1954), Thursday 17 January 1952

We of the Never Never

The autobiographical novel by Jeannie Gunn, first published in 1908, We of the Never Never, describes her view of the town of Katherine, as she passed by there in 1902, on her way to Elsey Station:
Jeannie Gunn), identified by NT Library, circa 1902
Coming up from the river, the Katherine Settlement appeared to consist solely of the “Pub” and its accompanying store; but beyond the “Pub,” which, by the way, seemed to be hanging on to its own verandah posts for support, we found an elongated, three-roomed building, nestling under deep verandahs, and half-hidden beneath a grove of lofty scarlet flowering ponchianas.

“The Cottage is always set apart for distinguished visitors,” Mine Host said, bidding us welcome with another smile, but never a hint that he was placing his own private quarters at our disposal. Like all bushmen, he could be delicately reticent when conferring a favour; but a forgotten razor-strop betrayed him later on.

In the meantime we discovered the remainder of the Settlement from the Cottage verandahs, spying out the Police Station as it lurked in ambush just round the first bend in a winding bush track—apparently keeping one eye on the “Pub”; and then we caught a gleam of white roofs away beyond further bends in the track, where the Overland Telegraph “Department” stood on a little rise, aloof from the “Pub” and the Police, shut away from the world, yet attending to its affairs, and, incidentally, to those of the bush-folk: a tiny Settlement, with a tiny permanent population of four men and two women—women who found their own homes all-sufficient, and rarely left them, although the men-folk were here, there, and everywhere. 

Cheon, a Chinese cook, was a character featured in "We of the Never Never" (Gunn 1908). SLSA
Katherine old Post Office quarters., date taken, 1-Jun-1925. identified by NT Library
Katherine River Hotel, photo taken 1935. Original hotel in "We of the Never Never", Library & Archives NT

Crocs

A newspaper article about the town of Katherine in 1909, in the The Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertiser stated that, "The waters of this beautiful river teem with fish and crocodiles". And Mr Kingston who owned the Sportsman's Arms Hotel at this time, grew huge pumpkins and water and rockmelons on land adjoining his hotel.
Chinese carriers for the Katherine. (shows laden horse drawn dray crossing dry gully, and Chinese people on foot carrying loads from shoulder poles -Between Pine Creek and Katherine, NT, circa 1912
A coach which runs between Pine Creek and Katherine River, Queenslander (Brisbane, Qld. : 1866 - 1939), Saturday 26 May 1917
Originally police in the Northern Territory were part of the South Australian Mounted Police, assisted by Aboriginal Trackers.

The Northern Territory became a territory of the Commonwealth on 1.1.1911.
Katherine Police Station shows two small buildings with wrap around verandahs set on a slight rise in an area prone to flooding. Approximately 1911, SLSA
Katherine Police Station, old police cell (taken 23-Jan-1928).Library & Archives NT

The Railway

The train line reached Pine Creek, 90 km north of Katherine, in 1888. Singhalese and Indian gangs completed the earthwork and 3,000 Chinese labourers laid more than one kilometre of track per day. The line south to Emungalan (may come Aboriginal word meaning "Place of Stone") opened in 1917, when the Northern Territory Railway reached Katherine on route to Alice Springs. The Old Katherine Railway Station was built in 1926 and became the headquarters of the North Australia Railway during WWII.
Emungalan train station, identified by NT Library, circa 1921
Three men at Emungalan Railway Station), identified by NT Library, circa 1922. This was the terminus of the North Australia Railway from 1917 until 1926
Railway station, with water tank in background, Katherine Historical Society Collection, n.d.
Two teams laden with provisions for the outback telegraph stations leaving the Katherine. Chronicle (Adelaide, SA : 1895 - 1954), Saturday 25 July 1925

Travel and Change

Tin was discovered at Maranboy about 70 kilometres east of Katherine in 1913 by prospectors Scharber and Richardson.

George McKeddie, was one of the first publicans in the Katherine district, he took over the Sportsman's Hotel in 1912. George McKeddie, who was one of the first publicans in the Katherine area, has a road named after him in the district. He took over the Sportsmans Hotel in 1912. His Aboriginal wife, Annie Duwun, a Larrakia woman also, has a road named after her in the Northern Territory. The couple had two children.
Northern Territory Times and Gazette (Darwin, NT : 1873 - 1927), Saturday 25 May 1918

Second Settlement

A second settlement developed in the Katherine area between 1914 and 1917, about 3 km from the original settlement at Knott’s Crossing, called Emungalan (Aboriginal meaning "Place of Stone"). A railway station was built here in 1917.
Chinese families at Emungalan, approximately 1906-07. identified by NT Library
In May 1918, Ah Fong was a baker and grocer at Katherine and Mr K. R. Gillard opened a dining room at the rear of his store.
Bill Carter's bakery, Katherine. Corrugated iron building. Bill Carter standing beside it. Circa 1920, identified by NT Library
There was no gaol at Emungalan, so detained prisoners were shackled to a tree while they awaited transportation to Darwin.
Gillard's store and boarding house, Emungalan, circa 1920, Observer (Adelaide, SA : 1905 - 1931), Saturday 21 August 1920
Northern Territory Times and Gazette (Darwin, NT : 1873 - 1927), Friday 8 August 1924

A Third Settlement

Catherine O'Shea opened a boarding house at Emungalen and when the railway line allowed easy crossing of the Katherine River in 1926, Catherine and her husband Tim, moved to the new Katherine settlement and opened "O'Shea's Railway Hotel".
O'Shea's Katherine Hotel, Katherine, 1948. identified by NT Library

Manbulloo Station

Manbulloo Homestead, twelve miles from Katherine, NT, Sydney Mail (NSW : 1912 - 1938), Wednesday 6 March 1929
Manbulloo Station, just outside Katherine, which has 60 kilometres of Katherine River frontage, was established about 1917. It is located on the opposite side of the Katherine River to Springvale. Owned by the British company, Vesteys, Manbulloo was also the site of Aboriginal labour camps until 1974.

Vestey's Meatworks located west of Katherine was operating in 1917, but closed in 1920.

Manbulloo Station was sold to "a mix of foreign and local [investors]" (Argentinian interests) in 2019.
Worker at Newry Station, NT, Recorder (Port Pirie, SA : 1919 - 1954), Thursday 19 October 1939. Newry Station was purchased by a finance company from Vietnam in 2019

The Bridge

From 1924 to 1926, a bridge was built over the Katherine River, which resulted in the station at Emungalen closing and the railway station and many people and businesses relocated to the current site of Katherine, across the river.
A train crossing the newly constructed bridge spanning the Katherine River, Chronicle (Adelaide, SA : 1895 - 1954), Saturday 27 November 1926

The Terry Expedition

Michael Terry, who was born in England, was an explorer and motor vehicle pioneer. During 1922, he travelled from Longreach to Katherine by car. Read more
Michael Terry was an explorer who used motor vehicles. He arrived in Australia from England in 1919 and during 1922 he travelled from Longreach to Katherine by car. Chronicle (Adelaide, SA : 1895 - 1954), Saturday 29 August 1925

Peanuts

In 1933, Innokentiy Temofeevech (Jim) Zimin began to clear and cultivate a block of land on the Katherine River and then, to grow peanuts. Unreliable rainfall and other problems led Zimin to grow other crops, including cotton.

First Flying Doctor

Clyde Fenton, the Territory's first flying doctor, was based at Manbulloo airstrip near Katherine. He was was appointed medical officer, at Katherine in 1934 and acquired a small Gipsy Moth aircraft and began operating as pilot and doctor.
Clyde Cornwall Fenton OBE (16 May 1901 – 28 February 1982) was the Northern Territory's first flying doctor, Daily News (Perth, WA : 1882 - 1950), Friday 8 April 1938

Plane Crash

Adelaide mail plane, which crashed at dawn onWednesday when taking off from Katherine, NorthernTerritory. Three of the crew and a passenger were killed. Left. — The plane's back was broken when it fell into the river. Courier-Mail (Brisbane, Qld. : 1933 - 1954), Saturday 21 January 1939

Floods

Katherine during floods. Left to right: Katherine Store; The Institute; Post Office; Hotel. Circa 1936
Daily Telegraph (Sydney, NSW : 1931 - 1954), Saturday 13 January 1940

WWII

On 22 March 1942, the town of Katherine was bombed by the Japanese. At The Gallon Store at Knotts Crossing, a bomb crater and other damage can still be seen.

The Katherine Aerodrome terminal building was completed in 1945, but now functions as a museum.

Manbulloo Airfield was a World War II airfield built at Manbulloo Station, near Katherine, from where US bombers attacked Japanese airfields, ground installations, shipping, and industries in the Netherlands East Indies and the Bismarck Archipelago. The RAAF also built Tindal and Venn airstrips in the district.
September 1944. Ground crew pull a trolley load of bombs to be loaded onto a Consolidated B24 Liberator bomber aircraft, code name GR-K (serial no. A72-40) of No. 24 Squadron RAAF, prior to a raid, Manbulloo, NT,
The Australian War Memorial
Ground crew of No. 24 (Liberator) Squadron RAAF service one of their aircraft (serial no. A72-38) after its return from a mission in the South West Pacific area. Manbulloo, NT. circa July 1944
Soldiers with Aboriginal children, identified by NT Library, date taken 1-Jan-1944
Aboriginal ordalies at 121 Australian General Hospital, 121 Australian General Hospital, Australian War Memorial
Armidale Express and New England General Advertiser (NSW : 1856 - 1861; 1863 - 1889; 1891 - 1954), Monday 23 March 1942
General view of Aboriginal graves, just outside town, Katherine, NT, Second World War, 1939-1945, AWM

CSIRO

CSIRO established a research station at Katherine in 1946; many Aboriginal workers lived and worked at the agricultural research station.
Tobacco Could Be New N.T. Industry, Chronicle (Adelaide, SA : 1895 - 1954), Thursday 29 January 1953

Bovril 

The iconic British meat extract paste, Bovril, was developed in the 1870s. Bovril leased land close to racecourse and began to build a Bovril meat extraction plant, in 1947. Just a few years later, the building and project was abandoned.
The Bovril Meatworks building partly completed, identified by NT Library, date taken 1-Jan-1951
In 1952, Katherine had a population of about 500 people.
Street with sign Welcome to Katherine, Lawley-Brown Collection, Library & Archives NT, (CC BY 4.0)

Around Katherine

Katherine Gorge in the early morning light, Iambexta. Katherine Gorge in nearby Nitmiluk National Park, is owned and run by the Jawoyn people. Nitmiluk which means Cicada Dreaming, comes from a Dreamtime story.

Remains of a bomb crater at Knotts Crossing, Katherine, NT
Springvale station, Katherine, NT, built by stone mason Fred Stone
The O'Keefe House is located off the Victoria Highway road, at Katherine, NT It is built of corrugated iron and was one of Clyde Fenton's Nurses' residence, and later taken over by the Officers in WW2
Knotts Crossing near Katherine NT
Tom Pearce planted boab trees at Katherine, NT
Katherine Museum, NT, building was the passenger terminal and air radio building for the Katherine Aerodrome. It was used for 30 years from 1945 until the Aerodrome officially closed in 1975
Former Katherine Railway Station, NT, located on Railway Terrace was built in 1926
The Wheel Rim Shrinkage Pit was constructed in about 1917 near the blacksmith's shop at Emungalan on the northern side of the Katherine River, read more
The Katherine railway bridge was constructed in 1924 as part of the extension of the railway from Emungalan to Birdum
 The Katherine railway bridge was constructed in 1924 as part of the extension of the railway from Emungalan to Birdum
Katherine Gorge, Gorge Road, NT
Old locomotive in Ryan Park, Katherine. NT
Katherine Low Level Nature Park. NT 
Found around Katherine, NT, Jawoyn word for "male" (the local aboriginal language around Katherine)


Things To See and Places To Go

Katherine Museum

Katherine Rail Trail

History and Heritage

Emungalan Graves at the end of Gwendoline Drive

Aboriginal Art and Culture

Katherine Street Names




Books To Read


We of The Never Never, Jeanie Gunn (Public Domain)

Territory, by Judy Nunn

The Silent Country, Di Morrissey