History of the Stock Route
A fascinating tale of bravery & determination
The stock route was first proposed by East Kimberley pastoralist James Isdell in 1905. The route, which crossed the territories of nine different Aboriginal language groups, had been explored previously in 1896 by the Calvert Expedition and Carnegie Expedition but was largely declared an unviable proposition.
In Western Australia, at the beginning of the 20th century, East Kimberley cattlemen were looking for a way to traverse the western deserts of Australia with their cattle as a way to break a West Kimberley monopoly that controlled the supply of beef to Perth and the goldfields in the south of the state.
The problem for East Kimberley cattlemen was their cattle were infested with Boophilus ticks which were infected with a malaria-like parasitic disease called Babesiosis. It was feared these ticks would survive the sea journey down to Perth and then spread through southern herds of cattle. This gave West Kimberley cattlemen a monopoly in terms of supplying beef to the south and resulted in high prices.
Being an East Kimberley Cattleman, James Isdell was desperate to break the monopoly the West Kimberley cattlemen enjoyed. With other East Kimberley cattlemen desperate to find a way to get their cattle to market and the Government of Western Australia keen for competition to bring beef prices down, the 1905 proposal of a stock route through the desert, put forward by Isdell, was taken seriously.
Isdell, who was also a member of the Western Australian Legislative Assembly, strongly argued these ticks would not survive the long journey down the dry stock route and so would pose no risk to southern herds of cattle. He finally won the argument and in 1906 the Government of Western Australia appointed Alfred Canning to survey the route. With a team of 23 camels, two horses and eight men Canning surveyed the route in less than six months. He needed to find significant water sources along the way; enough for up to 800 head of cattle at a time and no further than a day’s walk apart.
Once the survey had been completed Canning returned with a construction party and between March 1908 and April 1910 built and installed 51 Wells along the route. Commercial droving finally began in 1910, but the stock route did not prove popular.
It was not until 1928 when a Royal Commission into the price of beef in Western Australia led to the renewed interest in the stock route. In 1929 William Snell was commissioned to repair the Wells and found that the only Wells undamaged were the ones that Aboriginal people could use. In 1930, Alfred Canning then aged 70 was also commissioned to help complete the work.
After surveying and working on the stock route for so many years, Canning produced a detailed map of the area showing positions of Wells constructed 1908–9 and 10. Today the map has become a symbol of Australia’s pioneering history.
During the Second World War the track was upgraded at considerable expense in case it was needed for an evacuation of the north if Australia was invaded. Including horse drives, there have been only 37 recorded drives between 1910 and the last run in 1959.