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Katherines Varied History


Back in the beginning, Katherine actually had three different names:- The Katherine - which was the name given to the tiny settlement established around the Overland Telegraph Station, located at what is now known as Knott's Crossing. This was the main ford of the river between Darwin and the South.

Emungalan - this was the districts second settlement. Between 1917 and 1926, it was the terminus of the Northern Territory Railway. The site was later abandoned after the railway bridge was built in 1926. It was situated on the right hand side of the highway heading towards Darwin, roughly between the Gun Club turnoff and Emungalan Road. The railway complex was north of the Low Level turnoff (Zimin Drive) on the left-hand side of the highway.

Katherine - its final and current name. Katherine was established in 1926 after the railway had crossed the river. The present site had expanded along the river and then to Katherine East during the 1980s. Aboriginal (Indigenous) People The first arrivals in the district were Aboriginals, known as the 'Jawoyn'. They lived a seasonal lifestyle, living in small groups, gathering a wide variety of animal and vegetable foods from the river and bush. The Katherine area was the site of three Aboriginal groups. The Pastoral Industry disrupted their lifestyle as the pastoralists did not recognise Aboriginal claims to the land, but viewed them as cheap readily available labour. Aboriginal resistance resulted in conflict on both sides. Aboriginal labour camps were established at Springvale, Rockhole and Graceville during the war. Manbulloo was also the site of a camp, which had remained there until re-established at Binjara. To accommodate, the labour camp settlers, who were members of various groups, Bamyili (now Barunga) was established in 1946. In 1967, the Aboriginal people were permitted to be counted in the national census, and be granted equal rights and status. The Mimi centre played and continues to play a role in promoting their art and craftwork.



A number of explorers opened up the Top End for pastoral interests. Ludwig Leichardt made a trip along the Northern coast to Pt. Essington, otherwise known as Victoria Settlement in 1845. This journey led Ludwig over the source of the Katherine River. In 1856, Augustus Gregory explored the Victoria River area, turning eastwards, exploring the region through to the Roper River, camping at Elsey Creek. John McDouall Stuart crossed Australia from South to North and reached the Katherine River in July 1862, approximately 90km upstream from the current township of Katherine. It was John Stuart who named the river after Catherine Chambers, a daughter of James Chambers (his sponsor), but the misspelling of her name was never corrected. George McLaughlin surveyed the Palmerston - Katherine sections of the Overland Telegraph Line, while John Ross and Alfred Giles (in May 1871) led a party from an Adelaide Telegraph Co. through to the Katherine. Mc Minn and Serison surveyed stretches of the Katherine River downstream from the Katherine in 1876.

In 1879, Alexander Forrest completed a journey through Western Australia by reaching the Overland Telegraph Line 250km south of The Katherine. He followed the OTL to The Katherine, stayed six days, visited Springvale, then continued to Palmerston, now known as Darwin. In 1883 David Lindsay, a government surveyor, explored Arnhem Land during a five-month trip, using The Katherine as the start and finish point. It is believed that he may have been the first white man to see the Gorge.



The overlander men performed great feats of endurance by driving large mobs of cattle and their animals overland to stock Northern Territory runs. Ralph Miller moved 300 cattle and 150 goats for OTL construction parties. He started in 1870 and finally arrived in April 1872. Wentworth DÁrcy Uhr drove the first cattle into the NT in 1872, by following Leichardt's route around the Gulf of Carpentaria. Nat Buchanan ('Paraway') was the most outstanding. In 1881, he and 70 men drove 20,000 head of cattle to stock the Top End's first run ''Glencoe". He then established Wave Hill in 1883, then drove 4000 cattle west to establish 'Ord River'. He continued his droving exploits until late in life, establishing a reputation both as a survivor and a leader.

Alfred Giles, who established a white settlement in the Katherine area, drove 5000 sheep and 100 horses in 1972 to OTL stations between Charlotte Waters and Yam Creek. In 1874, he repeated the journey with 500 goats. Then during 1878 and 1879, he stocked the Top End's second run, 'Springvale', after a 20 month trip, with 12,000 sheep and 2000 cattle, and horses and bulls.

The run was initially owned by Dr W.J. Browne, but Giles managed the station, then in 1887, became the owner. His wife Augusta was the first white woman to live on a Top End run. Although living an isolated life, Giles and his family had frequent visits from prospectors, drovers, explorers and more frequently, Robert Murray (and wife Jane), station master of the Katherine OTL station from 1875 until his death in 1893. The two families had a close and long friendship, one which Giles recorded in his diaries. The diaries, written during his droving and Springvale days, present a priceless portrait of early NT and Katherine life and enabled a far more complete picture to be formed than could have been expected. Unfortunately, Springvale wasn't a successful run and changed hands frequently after Giles left in 1894. The Springvale Homestead was built by a local mason, Fred Stone in 1884 and remains the oldest existing building in the area. In 1902, the permanent population was 4 men and 2 women, a stark comparison to the current population of approximately 11,000.


World War II

Katherine was placed under military control in 1942, serving as a staging area. Troops camped in the areas such as the Low Level, Manbulloo and Katherine South area. Army meatworks, ice works, bakeries and vegetable gardens were established in Katherine, with the town's airstrip becoming a subsidiary base for Darwin. The strip received a visit on March 22, 1942, by nine Japanese bombers, who left 84 bombs (mostly Daisy Cutters) as mementoes. Many civilians had been in Katherine in the days after the first bombing, but the bombing raid on Katherine forced the hurried evacuation of the majority. The Army acquired shops, houses and land to use for its needs, recompensing owners after the war. In addition to upgrading Manbulloo and Katherine, the RAAF also built Tindal and Venn airstrips in the district. Katherine had become a major staging area during the War with up to 100,000 service personnel passing through, however by 1946, regulations had relaxed and people were returning home.


During 1924 - 1926, the railway bridge was built (a new bridge built to replace it in 1976 due to flooding). Its construction brought many immigrants to the are, most prominently White Russians. These were men forced to leave Russia after fighting on the wrong side during the Civil War. Names like Galloping Jack, Zimin Drive, Cossack Road, Long John Creek and Ivanoff Road commemorate these men. Many of them later took land along the river and planted peanuts, which became a major industry until the mid-1950s, when high costs, insecure markets, low returns and Crown Rot disease finally brought it to an end.


You can find more information by visiting the Katherine Museum, located on Gorge Road.  


Katherine Museum

The Katherine Museum is situated 3kms from the Post Office, along Giles Street. 

You can experience our region through visual and audio interpretation. Our Museum site was the town's old aerodromes and was bombed 91 times on the 22 March 1943. 


  What will you get to see in Katherine Museum?


 museum  .

Clyde Fenton’s Gypsy Moth

Overland Telegraph Line Display  

1998 Flood Movie

Second World War Display   

Russian Peanut Farmers

One Man, Three Cultures, The Icon


And a whole range of machinery to wet a mans appetite, but also a walk down memory lane for the ladies. Spend a couple of hours or a couple of days, there is so much to see, specially when you start floating down that sweet memory lane. The Katherine Museum also has a magnificent rock garden that is still in progress. It boasts tables and chairs in a beautiful surrounding for the entire family to enjoy a picnic lunch. A bit like a botanical garden but a bush version which is absolutely beautiful. What are you waiting for? Come down for a visit!