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    Port Adelaide - Military Road

    An Essay on the Military Road

    A meeting of residents residing on the sea coast between Port Adelaide to Marino was held on 13 June 1855 and, in August of that year, they petitioned the government for the construction of a military road along the foreshore 'where alone its open character renders it liable to successful attack' In proof of their sincerity the memorialists subscribed the sum of £1,500 towards its construction and among the donors were Edward Stephens, Joseph Johnson, William Gray, J. White and A.H. Davis:

    On 9 January 1865 the Surveyor-General and Colonel Biggs rode over the proposed line of a military road from Semaphore to Marino and the Editor of the Register opined that there was likely to be a fort erected about 500 or 600 yards to the north of Semaphore and another upon a government reserve behind the sandhills, about a mile and a quarter to the southward of Semaphore towards Glenelg.

    It was envisaged the road would then run southwards immediately to the rear of the sandhills and entirely through purchased land to the Glenelg Creek 'a little above the present footbridge'. Near this spot, behind the sandhills, would be placed the third fort and a comment was made that 'the erection of a fort at Marino is a matter not yet decided upon.'

    To accommodate the road the only land to be purchased was that between the Semaphore and Glenelg Creek, the remainder of the line being along roads already laid down. The proposed line was so level and free from engineering difficulties that it was understood that the completion of the road might be looked for in the course of about six months. Apart from its primary use as a means of defence, the new line was considered to be an immense boon to the residents of Glenelg and the populated sections between that town and Marino, as there were no ready means of transit between Glenelg and Port Adelaide.

    There the matter rested until 1867 when a public meeting was held on 21 June at Mr Stevenson's schoolroom at Glenelg to consider the best method of urging upon the government the immediate commencement of a military road. It was noted that, although Colonel Biggs's report had been brought forward several times in parliament, nothing had been done, except for declaring it a main line and placing it in the hands of the Central Road Board which obtained an estimate showing that the whole cost of construction would be £18,000. A deputation from this meeting waited upon the Chief Secretary on 1 July 1867 and were informed that no funds were available at that time for such a purpose and this rebuff was a great disappointment for the citizens of Glenelg who earnestly desired a short route to Port Adelaide.

    Except for a plea from a citizen in November 1869, inactivity was the order of the day for many years until 1876 - its construction was urged because he was of the opinion that it would create employment for 'mechanics and others' and provide a 'conveyance for produce from the southern districts and general intercourse between them, Glenelg and the Port.'

    At a meeting of the Central Road Board on 15 June 1876, Mr W.H. Gray, Chairman of the West Torrens District Council, presented a memorial signed by the Mayors of Port Adelaide, Glenelg and Brighton and the chairmen of the district councils of Lefevre Peninsula, urging the board to adopt as a main road the road at present running from Tapley's Hill via Glenelg to Port Adelaide, in lieu of the military road between the two latter places. He said the former was made nearly all the way, while the other would run over swampy ground and sandhills and entail a very large expenditure, besides being a longer distance than the other. The Chairman of the Central Road Board said that the military road was the only one gazetted by the board and it could not entertain the idea of having two roads. However, if the government abandoned the military road, and the one suggested by the memorialists was a better one, the board would not hesitate to take it over.

    In January 1877 the government, dropped a bombshell when it announced that it was obvious that both the local press and public had completely misunderstood the government's intention because it had never contemplated running the military road as far as Glenelg. The road was simply to afford facility for rapid communication between the two points at which it had been arranged that batteries should be constructed, namely, at Largs Bay and a point about three miles to the south, and would have no connection with Glenelg:

    Accordingly, on 29 January 1877 four tenders for the construction of the military road between the Lefevre's Peninsula Road and the government reserve south of section 890 were opened at the office of the Commissioner of Public Works. The name of the lowest tenderer, however, was not declared, as two of the tenders were found to be apparently so near in their totals as to require to be checked by the Central Road Board's surveyor before a decision could be arrived at as to which was really the lowest amount.

    The 2 ½ miles of road, constructed by Mr John Deslandes of Glanville, was commenced in March 1877 and completed in April 1878 and consisted of a silt roadway covered to the depth of seven inches with metal. The silt was obtained from Hawker's Creek and the metal from the Stockade at Yatala. As the contractor was not allowed to use drays over the work he laid down a light tramway to which he conveyed the necessary silt and metal.

    In the late 1870s it was considered necessary to extend the road and have it pegged out and that was the way it remained for many years. Indeed, the road existed on paper only except for where it passed through the Semaphore district and in its then existing condition presented more obstacles than conveniences. It was one chain (22 yards) wide and beyond Fort Glanville it could have been looked upon as almost impassable, because it went through sand and swamp without any appearance of being a road at all, except from a vague suggestion conveyed by a line of forlorn-looking pegs.

    After leaving Mr Bucknall's (present day Estcourt House) the sand was varied by swamp, but for military purposes there was good cover with the scrub in close proximity; while the sandhills thereabouts were compact and more solid, there being no drift. Travelling south a swampy road was traversed for some distance and much of it was under water in the wet season for when the floods of the River Torrens came down and joined the Port Creek, the road throughout Grange was represented by heavy drift sand, and to Henley Beach and beyond it was all but unmade.

    Indeed, most of the country was barren waste and there was nothing to recommend the road from Grange to Glenelg, except the military bridge crossing the Patawalonga:

    In September 1880 a petition signed by 661 persons was presented to parliament seeking an extension of the road to Glenelg but their plea fell upon deaf ears. In the mid-1880s South Australians lived in the apprehension of hearing that war had been declared between England and Russia. The former country had organised and fully equipped fleets and armies, Victoria and New South Wales had made arrangements for their defences and the colonies, generally, had sought to put their citizens upon a war footing.

    However, the government of South Australia had pursued throughout in what it might have considered masterly inactivity, but which most people called mischievous incompetence. Take the military road, for instance. In 1885 it was certainly useless as it then stood. At this time it was supposed to be a good macadamised track from the south end of Fort Largs to an undefined point beyond Glanville, but as a matter of fact the road had always borne a more unfinished appearance than the colony's defence measures themselves.

    For many years the military road was a byword and a reproach, for where it did not consist of dense sandy patches an intrepid traveller was met with deep ruts and almost impassable holes. On several occasions the necessity for remedying this unenviable state of affairs was urged on the government and promises were made from time to time, but until April 1885 comparatively little was executed.

    On 18 April 1885 a great flourish was made about the energy and organisation of the Public Works Department in finding work for the unemployed in constructing the military road which, it was said, would be finished in six weeks. To do this four parties of surveyors were sent to lay out the work and an experienced surveyor and twenty gangers were brought down from the north It may have influenced the government in coming to this decision that there were a large number of men out of work, particularly so at Wallaroo and Moonta owing to the partial stoppage of mining operations. Free railway passes were offered to these men and the first lot came down on 23 April 1885, 'all sturdy fellows and apparently prepared to do ample justice to the department.' The Port Adelaide cabmen treated the miners rather shabbily for they contracted to drive several of the men to the works at the rate of one shilling per head, but dropped them some distance from the site of the camp thereby forcing them to carry their swags and billies to their destination.

    On the next day tents were put up and other things incidental to the camp attended to. In bringing along the tents, tools, etc., great difficulty was experienced owing to the extreme heaviness of portions of the road and waggons drawn by three stout horses had to be called into requisition. By the end of April, 125 men were employed in road making and camped in tents south of Fort Glanville:

    There was no 'government stroke' observable in the work of the men; their faces wore a contented look as though they were glad to have found something to do which would enable them to keep the wolf from the door of the houses containing their wives and children. Another gang of men were employed on the southern portion and, of them, about 90 with drays engaged in loading up seaweed on the beach for laying on the road. As to supplies, a butcher and grocer from Semaphore paid daily visits to the camp during the dinner hour when the men purchased whatever they might require. Fortunately, there was a good supply of water obtainable from wells in the locality and this was carted to the camp in tanks.

    During a visit by the Commissioner of Public Works the first case against 'the prohibitory liquor law' was dealt with. The offender had secreted a bottle of spirits in his clothes and in the afternoon was discovered to be quite intoxicated. He paid his penalty for the indiscretion by receiving the 'sack', but 'pleaded hard for his six children before leaving.'

    The road was completed in August 1885 and General Downes was questioned as to why it was not continued from the Sturt Bridge to Glenelg and the reply was that the authorities did not want the road worn by ordinary heavy traffic! Therefore, the necessity for making a road between Glenelg and the military road was forced upon the West Torrens District Council in 1892 and the contract was entrusted to Mr C. Fuller for a road of about half a mile at a cost of £320.

    By 1904, in several places north of Estcourt House the road was lost beneath drifting sand and was impassable to anything but the lightest vehicle and for that reason the thoroughfare - once so popular a route to the city - was shunned. Some time previously the Woodville District Council had planted marram grass on the sandhills in an attempt to arrest the drifts. The condition of the road was keenly felt by the James Brown Home for Crippled Children and Aged Blind which was practically isolated from the outside world. Mr Adamson, the superintendent, informed some visitors that cartage to the home from Semaphore had been increased by eight shillings and sixpence a ton because of the difficulties experienced in negotiating the road.

    The advance was ominous and provided pitiable evidence of the neglect of years. Schemes to remedy the matter had not got beyond the 'talking' stage and meanwhile the sand was banking up into miniature hills. The Woodville District Council and the Commissioner of Crown Lands were the responsible parties and each tried to evade responsibility and to shift it on the other. Meanwhile, of course, nothing was done, but it was established that to clear a course along the road would have necessitated the removal of 500 loads of sand.

    The government then wrote to the Port Adelaide and Woodville councils offering to defray half the cost if they would execute the work. An estimate was formed that it would cost £130 to remove the sand and plant marram grass. The Corporation of Port Adelaide declined to take any part in it and the Woodville District Council objected to do it on the score of expense, which it estimated at nearly four times the amount mentioned. It is only fair to say that when the government handed over this portion of the road to the Woodville council an annual grant of money was made for its upkeep and repair and none of this was spent as intended. And as Dr Benham, a local and irate resident observed, 'it must be remembered that means were found to remove effectually some equally formidable sandhills near the Grange many years ago.'

    It was said that the Woodville Council intended to appeal for assistance to the Federal Government on the grounds that the Military Road belonged to the Defence Department. But this was a forlorn hope, because even the most flighty novelist would hardly imagine that the road was likely to be used for military purposes. It seemed to many rate payers that this proposal was only an attempt to shelve the question - 'a proceeding that should not be allowed as the existence of this horrible obstruction to a useful road [was] a disgrace to the country,' as Dr Benham observed:

    Following urgent appeals from many quarters the government accomplished the removal of the offending sand and the road, maintained in a tolerable condition, was used by motor cars and light vehicles until 1917 when a disaster happened. A land owner on the sea coast side of the Military Road sold some of his land, including the sandhills, to one or more glass making companies which promptly set to work to dig away and remove a large quantity of sand from the dunes.

    Consequently, the carriage along the road was effected by large waggons and, the loads being heavy, the road was cut to pieces and in places looked like a ploughed field. On receipt of a complaint the council acknowledged same, regretted the damage, but refused to make the necessary repairs and, instead of prohibiting the sand carting, merely passed a by-law limiting the weight of the loads. In February 1918 action was expected from the government to reconstruct the road but by April 1919 nothing had been done and the sand carting proceeded with further damage to the road.

    Subsequently, a deputation to the Minister for Local Government said that if the road was not repaired 'the industry of glass bottle making would be lost to South Australia', while the representative from the James Brown institution informed the minister that he was having difficulties in getting trades-people to call; the glass companies won the day. Further removal of sandhills occurred in 1928-1929 when the subdivision of West Beach was created:

    As the decades passed the spoliation of the sand dunes continued and, in the latter half of the 20th century, the sight of concerned citizens confronting land developers' bulldozers, as they raped the coastal dunes to the west of Military Road, was a not an uncommon sight. However, that is another story.

    An essay on marram grass is to be found under Adelaide - Beaches & Bathing

    General Notes

    A proposed "military road" from Port Adelaide/Semaphore to Marino is discussed in the Observer,
    11 August 1855, page 5d,
    16 June 1855, page 5c,
    14 January 1865, page 4f (supp.),
    29 June 1867, page 3e (supp.),
    6 July 1867, page 3f,
    11 January 1865, page 2g,
    22 June 1867, page 3d,
    2 July 1867, pages 2h-3f.

    A letter re the need for a road from Glenelg to the Port "not only in a military sense, but also in a sanitary and commercial view" is in the Register,
    12 November 1869, page 2h; also see
    15 January 1877, page 5c,
    22 September 1880, page 5c and Place Names - Portland Estate.

    An alternative road from Glenelg to Port Adelaide is discussed in the Observer,
    17 June 1876, page 7e,
    1 July 1876, page 20f,
    10 February 1877, page 7d,
    13 April 1878, page 12f,
    15 January 1877, page 5b.

    Military Road is described in the Register of 10 April 1885, pages 5a and 6c:

    For later events and the reconstruction of the road see Express,
    29 April 1885, page 6e,
    25, 27, 28 and 29 April 1885, pages 6c, 6h, 6c and 7g,
    4 and 14 May 1885, pages 6b and 3b,
    16 June 1885, page 7d,
    12 August 1885, page 5b,
    7 December 1892, page 5c,
    29 April 1885, page 5f,
    21 and 24 August 1897, pages 6d and 7d.

    The Register of
    29 July 1904, page 4g says "the thoroughfare - once so popular a route to the city - is now shunned", while on
    19 January 1907, page 6f it is said that:

    Also see Register,
    25 January 1907, page 6d,
    24 and 28 July 1908, pages 4h and 7f,
    25 April 1919, page 9e,
    15 May 1925, page 11b,
    The News,
    1 September 1933, page 6f,
    24 July 1934, page 4d.

    "Sandhills and Floods on the Military Road" is in the Register,
    28 July 1908, page 7f.

    "A Marine Drive" is in the Observer,
    20 November 1926, page 43c.