Gibson's Camp was on a desolate piece of land on one of the most desolate tracks in the North West during the latter part of the 1800s. It was named after Thomas McTurk Gibson, first Mayor of Port Augusta, who had used the spot to camp there while developing his Yudnapinna run in 1864. One of his first leases was taken up in 1857 in the Streaky Bay area, which in due course gave rise to the town of Streaky Bay.
No town or settlement had grown from Gibson's Camp. There was little or no vegetation and even less water. To improve conditions somewhat and make transport possible, at least in summer, GW Goyder, the Surveyor-General at that time, advertised for tenders for the construction of an underground rain water tank in 1877.
It was eventually dug and occasionally had some water in it as well. However, a reporter from the Port Augusta Dispatch was not impressed at all and wrote about his feelings about the place. According to him no sensible being, would choose that portion of the country as a fit and proper place in which to spend his holiday.
Until very recently no provision had been made for breaking the journey between Coondambo and Port Augusta. The friendly shelter of an ancient gum, or the clustering foliage of a she oak, was the only accommodation provided for the casual traveller who, without bluey or tent, was fain to congratulate himself upon the fact that Heaven was kind and the weather warm.
Wrapping himself in the folds of his great coat, sleep a calm, and if the mosquitoes and flies would allow it, untroubled sleep, until dawn of day, when sounding his own boot and saddle, he would onward plod his lonely, weary way, until his destination was reached.
Our enterprising townsmen, Ferrers and Barker, have with a spirit of speculation which deserves success, decided to establish a break in the journey, and to that end have erected at Gibson's Camp a hostelry, to be known as the Gibson's Camp Hotel, a description of which follows. WT Ferrers had tried in December 1881 to have the plans approved but without success.
Of course the proprietors of the place have not staked the sum of 2,500 pounds in an enterprise of this nature out of a spirit of pure philanthropy but, perhaps, though unknown to themselves, they have provided for travellers a house, where bed and board may he obtained, and the discomforts of a long and tedious journey somewhat alleviated, and many a weary wayfarer will doubtless thank them for their entertainment as he throws the saddle from his leg-weary nag, and hastens to his comfortable tea, assured at the same time that his honest steed will not lack for attention.
It hadn't been easy though. As early as 1880 John Johns had submitted a plan for a new Public House but nothing came of it. By the end of that year there was a store which also was involved in sly grog selling. When caught in the act, Francis Ormsby was charged ten pounds with another 3 pounds for costs. A hefty fine indeed! In September of the same year he was charged under the Master and Servants Act with refusing to fulfill a contract to build a house at Gibson's Camp. He had a good defence and after lots of arguing the case was dismissed.
He reporter went on to say that the new hotel was 50 miles from Port Augusta and may be described as the 'farthest out' on the track. Eighteen miles from the Port is the No. 1 Government tank, and at 38 miles is No. 2, then until the hotel is reached no more water is available. Arrived at the hotel, we find a large and substantially erected one story building, 70 ft x 35 ft, with a private entrance in addition to the usual bar doorway. Entering a hall, 7 ft wide, we find a complete suite of public rooms, dining room, parlor, dressing and bed-rooms, and at the rear of the building further bedroom accommodation is provided.
A passage runs the whole length of the building, and from this the rooms on either side are reached. The kitchen is a large room, and one of the most recently patented ranges makes the work of this important portion of the premises much easier than is usually the case in a country hotel. A bathroom is in course of erection, and large and commodious stables are provided, where eight horses may be comfortably accommodated.
The Government tank, which is close to the hotel, contains at the present time about 24,000 gallons of water, while a tank on the premises holds some 14,000 gallons. Providing for a dry season, the proprietors of the Camp have erected three large tanks, to be used, if necessary, for distillation purposes. From the Government well one day last week bullocks were watered and the supply available is calculated to water at the rate of 100 cattle daily.
During this time, John Johns had withdrawn his application for a publicans' licence for the new hotel on 2 March 1881 but, had submitted plans for the building of a hotel at Gibson's Camp. On 1 June a new application was again withdrawn. On 13 September when the Northern Licensing Bench was in session, WT Ferrers produced a plan for a hotel which was not approved. To make matters worse, Francis Ormsby, contractor for the job was declared insolvent in February 1882 and was given a 12-month prison sentence as well.
Somehow the building of the hotel was started and when completed became the first night's stop for the mail. Next morning it took the track to Whittata and beyond, carrying mail and often passengers and freight, including kegs filled with liquor, which apparently was illegal. Its first mailman was NA Richardson who would remain the mail contractor for the next 38 years.
The government, in an attempt to reduce costs, advertised the lease for the Government water tank at the camp in May 1882. A heavy downpour during the previous month had almost filled the tank, making it an attractive proposition. Finally, on 13 June William T Ferrers was granted a publican's licence, depending on a good supply of water independent of the government tank.
With the hotel up and running Joseph Jones was the new publican in March 1883 and Richardson started a new mail run to Gibson's Camp via Whittata, Pernatty Lagoon and Yeltacowie. Still better was that six stone and cement tanks had been completed on the road north for travellers and teamsters at Phillips Ponds, Lake Windabout, Ashton Hill, Ironstone lagoon, Kell's Camp and Gibson's Camp.
In December 1883 it was reported that a government boring party at No 2 tank had succeeded in striking good fresh water at a depth of 50 ft. If it proved permanent it would be a great boon. In February 1884 it was reported that the country was as bare as a desert, and even the saltbush had failed. At Gibson's Camp bullocks used for water drawing had to be fed on chaff, which was very expensive. There had also been some complaining about the lack of robes and buckets.
Joseph Jones denied all of it and according to him there was plenty of good water and feed. There were visitors who stopped at the hotel, including the Inspector of Water Conservation Works, Mr Strawbridge. With him was a Mr Wardle from America who was to teach South Australians how to select a suitable spot for finding water or an artesian well. On 4 April 1884 Jones' only daughter, Katharine, married Cornelius Joseph Ryan.
Later that month, a large constructive meeting was held at the hotel to discuss the wants of the Nor'West. The general opinion was that the government should push on their works for the conservation of water as quickly as possible. A few weeks later the place was blessed with some fine rain resulting in five feet of water in the main tank.
It became also possible to enclose the grave of Lock Reynolds, who had died some time ago, with a nice fence. More than three pounds had been subscribed for this purpose by some of the dead man's friends. Joseph Jones was willing to supplement the amount with a gift of ten pounds to complete the work.
On 2 June 1884 Samuel Gason wrote to the editor of the Port Augusta Dispatch from Gibson's Camp 'Having been told by M Jones, that some person or persons have complained to the Government about insufficient ropes and buckets on the well, for the information of the Government and public I beg to state that I have visited Gibson's Camp a number of times, and find that there are always sufficient ropes and buckets at the well. Teamsters and others throw the ropes and buckets into the well when there is rainwater in the tank, so as to procure it and save the labour of drawing from the well. Mr. Jones to my knowledge has been to a great deal of trouble and expense in keeping the well in repair to supply the famishing stock'.