Samuel Irvin was born in 12th January 1890 the youngest of twelve children to John Irvin and Margaret Violet (Craig) at Boucaut, South Australia who had arrived in South Australia from Scotland in 1878.
Sam started work aged fourteen on cattle stations and wool sheds, and was married at the age of twenty two to Mary, the daughter of Tom Farrell, the Police Officer at Burra, South Australia whom he met while working at Coonamoon Station. The couple had four children, Margaret, Jean, Donald and Kathleen.
In 1919 the family moved to Adelaide but unable to find work, Sam headed north to take up the first mail contract between Kingoonya and Coober Pedy in 1920.
He motorised this mail service which had previously been a camel train, and pack horse system and became a legend in his own time, pioneering this mail run and making his own road by dragging heavy logs behind his Reo truck. It was Sam that cut the last sixty miles of the track through to the opal fields. Sam had to also carry an enormous collection of spare parts in long boxes bolted to the running boards, as hardly anyone at that time had had experience or mechanical knowledge, nor were there garages or service stations but he mostly managed to fix anything with a piece of number eight wire.
Bushman of the Red Heart …Judy Robinson
He moved on then to the Oodnadatta to Alice Springs mail contract in 1925
For four years he bridged the gulf of sand between Oodnadatta and Alice Springs with trucks and camels, as well as the Alice Springs to Altunga mail contract until 1932.
In 1929 on the completion of the railway line to Alice Springs, Sam with his Federal truck, then entered into the Alice Springs to Tennant Creek mail contract, which was later extended to Newcastle Waters and then on to Birdum. He elected to follow “the Fizzer”s Footsteps” (the northern mailman who drowned at Victoria River NT, his last words being to his black boy assistant were “Save the Mail”)
Sam became a well known identity in Central and Northern Australia, every month battling to deliver His Majesty’s Mail, travelling 647 miles (1,042 kilometres) on Australia’s longest motorised mail run, between the two rail-heads – Alice Springs and Birdum (Larrimah). Thirteen times a year he would go out from Alice Springs with tons of canvas bags full of mail, through land of mostly emptiness and bad luck, constantly racing the rain and digging his way out of bogs. He hired camel teams once, to haul him out of the mud and then spent the next two days hauling the camel team out—but Territorians knew that if it was humanly possible to get the mail through on time, even on occasion with four bare rims, Sam Irvine did it.
Broad-shouldered and the ever-smiling Sam is a picturesque personality, typical of his country. Usually Sam has fellow passengers on his trips, but passengers or not he always has one constant companion — a fox terrier puppy which rides proudly on the bonnet of the truck.
Part of the country Sam travels is traversed every few miles by rivers and creeks usually dry, and there are 300 creeks and river courses between Barrow Creek and Birdum, and he had to cross them all the best he could. There were no culverts or bridges, and sometimes a temporary primitive bridge had to be constructed, with only the white insulators and the two wires of the overland telegraph pointing the way.
For three months of the year, during the dreaded “Wet” with the roads feet deep in slush and the big rivers coming down, every station, every little camp was isolated. Trucks and cars had to be abandoned. Only the sturdy little pack horses could get through, swimming the rivers, and sometimes left to die in the mud.
One of the many stories about Sam involved a well known lady at the time, Miss Ernestine Hill, a news writer and author of “The Territory” and others who travelled as passengers with Sam in 1932. Ernestine reported on her trip north “her odyssey of the mail track “ in the South Australian Advertiser April 1933 in her usual flourishing and flamboyant style, but still it captured the trials and endurance of Sam Irvine on his mail run.
The following is a condensed version of her experience in the newspaper article.
“Racing the Rain in the Heart of Australia” by Ernestine Hill (1933)
I sped north from Alice Springs on a day of clear heat with Sam Irvine, hero of the north, mailman of the overland, sitting beside him in his mail truck- 34 tons of truck and loading, with no windscreen. Sam was with a fine courage, singing above his screeching gears and grappling with the wheel to race the rain. On through the drought country we sped, thinking of all the telegraph stations that would mark the night stops. At Teatree (Ti Tree) we learned that the linesman (Overland Telegraph) had headed north to rectify damage caused by storm and already the weather was threatening.
It was at Skull Creek in the lee of Central Mount Stuart that the truck settled down to the axles in creamy cocoa mud, and the rain was upon us. After a long struggle in the firelight, swags were eventually unrolled for the night.
We were 18 hours late reaching Barrow Creek then fled on, under black cumuli and the rumble of thunder.
At the wells of the stock-route, the gates of salvation to the drover on a dry stage, but now standing out as stark as gibbets against the sky, settlers of the lonely country east and west had waited hours for their mail. Tucking the letters inside their coats, they started back, riding sometimes 40 miles through driving rain to a little bough shade homestead in the wilderness.
A mile past the Devil’s Marbles two acres of remarkable granite boulders, we heeled over at an angle of 175 degrees in a little sandy creek. To break a congealed and unholy silence, I asked cheerfully “What creek is this?” The mailman bit his cigarette in half with suppressed emotion. “Wauchope, Wauchope, Wauchope!” the frogs in the bog then repeatedly reminded me.
The load was dumped and the camp-fire lit for a second night, but here a kindly Providence sent to our aid a party of five men travelling north with Mr. Ted Lowe of Mataranka Station, the only travellers on the road in a month. Three hours work with spades and shovels and we were clear, only to get bogged on a blazing crimson mulga flat for the rest of the night and the whole of the ensuing day.
Two tons to be carried piecemeal a quarter of a mile
Three times the load was dumped in the wilderness and after hours of manual labour, carried piecemeal (one by one) across the turgid creeks, with eight men, matting through the ant beds and spinifex and with one perpetual concerted push, we accomplished eight miles from daylight until dark, to camp that night on a far backwater of the Gilbert Creek.
Noon found us happily in at the Tennant’s Creek (Telegraph Station), sharing the warm hospitality of Mr. Waldemar Holtze and Mr. Ernie Woodroffe, the two veteran telegraphists of the line, and in the afternoon at Banka Banka, a typical outback station founded in the eighties by Tom Holmes (Nugent) of the “Ragged Thirteen” fame.
Now and again we heard the bells of a drover’s plant making back for Kimberley, or passed a lonely bag-man with a pack and a “spare,” otherwise the road was deserted. Late night brought us to Helen Springs, where a bush family, that of Mr. John Bohning, had written an epic of pioneering in the wilderness.
Next day we were off again at full speed, this time to settle down, to the bonnet in a gilgai, less than a mile from the homestead, only to sleep that night on the track itself.
We were pulled out at daylight by a team of patient little grey donkeys, we reached Powell’s Creek (Telegraph Station) at lunchtime, there to be guests of Mr. A. A. Ward, Postmaster at the big pleasant station. Afternoon found us threshing helplessly again through the mud of the black soil plains. It was at dusk, when we had abandoned all hope, bedraggled figures, knee deep in the bog, with no dry wood for a campfire, that a light truck driven by Mr. A. Sargent, storekeeper at Newcastle Waters, loomed up against the sunset. They had travelled six miles of unadulterated glue to haul us across the creeks to safety.
Finding the track during the “wet” 1932
At Newcastle Waters, where five great roads converge, a wire (telegram) was sent to Birdum for the pack-horses to come to Daly Waters for the mail, which was already a week late.
At the Daly Waters outpost the mails were unloaded once more, to become the burden of 35 pack ponies to cover over 57 miles of just bush, while been bitten to madness by the wet season flies. They accomplished 37 miles in the first day, to a camp in rain at the Ironstone Bore. In the late afternoon of the following day to a notice on a tree was brought to our attention, which read; “Stop, look, listen for Birdum.” To find Birdum, a square of tin among the trees, and you have to do all three.
Rain sodden and hungry, stiff with the cold and the riding, I crept at last to the little hotel there, to catch the train to Darwin in the morning.
For me the long trail was over. For Sam Irvine there lay the road back, a hurried lone journey in time to catch the train again at Alice Springs.
For the outback mailman, rain or sun, through menace of thirst or possibility of drowning, all life must run to schedule.
He is a friend to everyone in the north and many owe thanks to him, for Sam has grub-staked more than his share of unfortunate travellers. Friend and confidant, doctor and nurse, private secretary and bush lawyer on occasion; guardian angel for the many miles of desolation, Sam Irvine is one of the most popular and best known figures of the Centre.
I shall always remember him, sitting upon a pyramid of mailbags in the mud, drinking a pannikin of strong cold tea, and wet to the skin, removing from his weary limbs the yellow clay that carried his skin with it. “His Majesty’s Mail” said Sam, surveying the wreckage “I wish that he could see this lot”
(This trip reportedly took seventeen days)
(The Mail – Sunday 25th May 1935)
In addition to being the mailman, Sam runs a carrying service, owns a few mines at Tennant Creek, and his hobby was horse racing. He raced a horse in Alice Springs called “Boxhead” and had one or a share in a horse in Adelaide, which ran under the name of “Barlowerie” and won the Grand National Steeplechase in 1930.
In December 1937 Sam had the misfortune and injured himself while lifting a heavy drum of petrol and had to spend some time in the Tennant Creek hospital recuperating.
The new mail contractor then being Mr Kurt Johanson.
Sam worked as the acting manager at Granite Downs, SA, before moving back to the Northern Territory carrying general freight all over the outback in his Federal truck.
In 1940, Sam got a job with the NT Works Department as a grader driver, constructing an all weather road from Alice Springs to Birdum.
Later still, Sam Irvine purchased his own Caterpillar grader after tendering for and winning a contract with the same department, grading hundreds of miles of roads throughout Central Australia.
Some of these tracks today form part of the modern Stuart Highway.
In the mid 1950s, Sam retired to Alice Springs, and in 1959 suffered a stroke and passed away on the 12th of November 1959.
2005 Sam Irvine was inducted into the National Road Transport, Shell Rimula Wall of Fame Alice Springs.
When the history of the north is written in years to come, Sam’s name will figure prominently among the men who paved the way …
Irvine Crescent – Alice Springs, Irvine Street – Tennant Creek (1935) and possibly Mount Irvine – Roper Gulf Shire are named in commemoration of Samuel Irvine.
More newspaper cuttings:
Mailman Sam Irvine got the contract of shifting the 40 half-caste boys and their effects from Birdum to Alice Springs at 30/- per head. Mr. V. White, the Superintendent of the compound accompanies the expedition. They are expected on to-day’s train
The Northern Miner (Charters Towers, Qld. : 1874 – 1954) Saturday 7 January 1933
“ONLY ROAD TO DARWIN”
Mail Man Complains.
“INVADER COULD GROW A RICE CROP.”
Mr. Sam Irvine, who carries the mail once a month between Alice Springs and Birdum, 1300 miles, the longest mail route by road in the world, strongly criticised this weekend the official neglect of the north-south road.
Not a tap of work has been done by the Commonwealth Government on the 300 odd miles of road north from Tennant Creek for many years, and then it was only fire ploughed.
This road, washed out by successive rains, is a sheer disgrace. It is Australia’s only artery between north and south
Year after year Sam pleaded for 160 yards of metal in one swamp, but in vain, and in the last few weeks five trucks have been bogged at once in this very spot.
Must the vast northern coastline of Australia be attacked before the Commonwealth comes to its senses? .. (written in 1933)
He said successive summer rains had left it in a disgraceful condition, and before tanks, tractors, or anything the Government might attempt to rush through in case of emergency or could get near Darwin or anywhere close to the coast, they would hopelessly bog and invaders could safely entrench themselves and grow a crop of rice before a shot would be fired.
The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842 – 1954) Tuesday 9 February 1937
Sam’s story was compiled from
- Judy Robinson’s “Bushman of the Red Heart”
- Truck Drivers Hall of Fame – Alice Springs
- Ernestine Hill‘s “The Territory”
and several newspaper clippings, including
The Advertiser (Adelaide, SA : 1931 – 1954) Saturday 29 April 1933
The Mail (Adelaide, SA : 1912 – 1954) Saturday 8 December 1934
The Mail (Adelaide, SA : 1912 – 1954) Saturday 25 May 1935
Barrier Miner (Broken Hill, NSW : 1888 – 1954) Wednesday 10 February 1937