Tough Overland mail run brought back to life


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By Andrew Spence

If you’ve ever complained about long airport queues when boarding the 55 minute Adelaide to Melbourne flight or a sore back after the eight-hour drive between the South Australian and Victorian capitals, spare a thought for travellers in the 19th Century.

The Overland Royal Mail passenger and mail service from Adelaide to Melbourne, which ran from 1867 to 1886, took 64-and-a-half hours and included rides on trains, stage coaches and a paddlesteamer.

This month, the South Australian lake town of Meningie will re-enact a section of the mail run as part of its 150th anniversary celebrations.

The re-enactment will leave Meningie next Sunday (October 30) at 9am, on the paddlesteamer Oscar W, making the 53km journey across Lake Albert, Lake Alexandrina and passing Australia’s only inland lighthouse before arriving in Milang about 3:30pm.

The mail will be picked up by a 1925 Studebaker Buckboard and driven 20km to Strathalbyn then loaded on to the Steamranger train headed on a 35km journey to the Adelaide Hills town of Mount Barker.


Meningie was a busy river port in the early 20th Century. Photo: State Library of South Australia

After spending the night in Mount Barker, the mail will be loaded into a 1929 Graham Paige 7-seater, similar to the one used to do the run in the 1930s.

It will travel down the old Princes Highway through towns including Hahndorf and Stirling and passing local landmarks such as Eagle on the Hill and Devil’s Elbow.

“When we get to Adelaide at 12.30pm, students from Milang, Meningie and possibly other schools are going to witness the mail being put into the mailbox at the GPO,” Andrew Dawes, Meningie Progress Association member, says.

The students are also contributing to the journey by writing letters to each other, which will be ferried across the lakes.

While the mail run only lasted two decades, the importance of Meningie as a regional port continued well into the 20th Century.

“Part of Meningie’s establishment in 1866 would have been because of the mail route, which began the following year, and I’m sure it would have played a role in helping the town grow,” Andrew says.

“There certainly was a reliance on the paddlesteamers to bring supplies in and out of Meningie and of course the stage coaches didn’t only carry mail, they used to also take passengers.”


A Stage coach arrives in Kingston following the difficult journey from Meningie. Photo: State Library of South Australia

Andrew says support from a number of community groups, including the Milang Historical Society and the Friends of Oscar W had helped generate interest in the re-enactment.

“Whether this event leads to more regular events of that sort we don’t know but we might be able to build on it,” he adds.

The original Overland route left Adelaide in stagecoaches to Milang where mail and passengers boarded a Meningie-bound paddlesteamer.

The difficult 14-hour, 155km, overnight stagecoach journey through the Coorong from Meningie to Kingston followed, before passengers were give a reprieve on the three-hour train trip to Naracoorte.

From Naracoorte, stagecoaches took mail and passengers the 180km to Hamilton, crossing the border into Victoria in the process.

The final leg of the almost three-day journey was a 10-hour train trip from Hamilton to Melbourne. The cost per passenger for the 925km trip was a little under £7.

The mail route was altered in the 1880s as more railways were built and superseded when the main South Australian rail line was connected to the Victorian system in 1887. This enabled continuous rail travel from Adelaide to Melbourne, becoming the first single gauge inter-colonial link in Australia.

The mail re-enactment is part of a series of celebrations to mark Meningie’s 150th anniversary celebrations from October 28-30.

Headline image (courtesy of Graham Pratt) is the Paddlesteamer Oscar W which will make the journey from Meningie to Milang as part of the mail re-enactment

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