Gunbarrel Road Construction Party
Updated: Jan 10
This is a tribute to all of the men who worked with Len for many years on the construction of the famous desert roads. They worked together in very difficult harsh conditions and were handpicked for the roles they were to carry out as they had to be not just hard workers, but tough, resilient and able to think outside the box as well.
Who were the Gunbarrel Road Construction Party (GRCP)?
After Len’s initial surveying role at Maralinga was completed in 1955, later in the year he assembled a small party of men to assist with the building of the first stage of the Gunbarrel Highway, a prelude to future road-building projects. This party became affectionately known as the Gunbarrel Road Construction Party and, with various changes in membership over the years, were subsequently responsible for the creation of over 6,500 kilometres of access roads for scientific observations relating to Woomera, Emu, Maralinga and the subsequent worldwide geodetic survey. One of the best known of these roads is the Gunbarrel Highway which runs from Victory Downs, near the Stuart Highway, west to Carnegie Station, a distance of 1500 kilometres.
They were so named as Len liked to keep the roads as straight as possible – ‘as straight as a gunbarrel’
Who were the GRCP members?
Len was always the team leader and according to Doug Stoneham, was well liked by all the men. “We all enjoyed Len’s company as our boss. He was forever bright and cheerful”.
The members changed over the years but the early members included:
Len Beadell – Surveyor
Doug Stoneham – Bulldozer
Scotty Boord – Grader
Bill Lloyd – Supply driver
Frank Quinn - Supply driver
Rex Flatman – fitter and heavy equipment mechanic
Willy Appleton – Driver/Cherry Picker
Paul Christensen – Cook
Other members of the team over the years included:
Alex Bonney - Fitter
Jim Kennedy – Fitter
Cyril Koch – Cook
Tom Roberts – Cook
Bill Schapel – Cook
Eric Ward - Cook
Eric Graefling – Driver/cherry picker
Ron Rutherford – Driver/Cherry Picker
‘Shorty’ Waldon – Grader
Even Lassie & Bonnie the dogs get a mention on a few of the plaques!
What did GRCP members do?
As part of the team, they all had to work together, however each one usually had a unique role they were responsible for. A summary of some of these are explained below:
Doug worked with the Department of Works for 43 years until his retirement in 1990. He arrived at Maralinga early in 1955, met Len Beadell the surveyor and began the work that changed the maps of Australia forever. Doug drove a series of bulldozers, following Len’s flashing mirror and very pistol flares, during construction of the roads up to & including 1960 when he left due to family commitments. Towards the very end of the projects in September 1963 he later re-joined the team when Len called him back to drive the grader during the last stages of the Windy Corner Road. He then drove the grader back to its final resting place at Giles Weather Station. Doug cut the famous Gunbarrel Highway in stages between 1955 and 1958 and his work also included the Sandy Blight Junction Road, Windy Corner & Mt Davies Roads. Doug once said he “loved every minute of it. Work was close and handy, and it was better than working in town.” He also approved of straight roads, or at least ones with only “sweeping curves”!
After a long battle with cancer Doug Stoneham died on 17 January 2006 and was buried at Smithfield Memorial Park in a beaut spot, complete with a sweeping country view.
Walter ‘Scotty’ Boord
Scotty was born in Scotland, moving to Australia early in life. He operated a road grader for many years on the country roads of South Australia with the Department of Works, also spending eight years in the bush with Len and the GRCP. During this time Scotty also worked on projects at Woomera and Giles. Years of lifting heavy grader tyres got the better of his health, and he developed a hernia. He was a quiet man by nature but always got the job done.
Scotty Boord was the last surviving core member of the Gunbarrel Road Construction Party, and his death in July 2007 at the Murray Bridge Hospital marked the end of an era. Scotty was well known for his Scotsman's farewell which was, "Goodbye and Bugger ya".
Paul had previously worked as a shearer’s cook and had lived in the bush all his life. He started with the GRCP in 1955 and had an exceptionally calm and quiet temperament and a good measure of bush humour. His food was very good and was enjoyed by all the team or they got the reply “go and get yourself a tin of bully beef”. He made an especially good damper or ‘survey cake’ as Len called it. Len often joked that Paul only washed his left elbow on Wednesdays and Sundays to knock down his bread while lumbering along in his truck. Paul was with Len in the early and later years, leaving for a few years in the late 50’s. He had polio as a child and, according to Len, put his trousers on lying down.
Paul Christensen died in 1967 of pancreatic cancer; he was 60 years old.
Fitter and heavy equipment mechanic
Rex had prior specialised experience in the technical details required for heavy earth-moving plant. He was responsible for servicing the machinery including the bulldozer, grader, refrigeration equipment, the cherry picker’s Land Rover and the three Commer trucks. Rex’s work was of the highest calibre, and he was always thorough and meticulous.
Rex Flatman died on 27 February 1990 and his ashes were scattered near Giles Weather Station in 2004 overlooking the Rawlinson Ranges.
Willy (Bill) Appleton
Willy’s jobs included hand picking any sticks, roots or stones left after the final grading on a new section of road.
Long distance supply driver
Frank’s job was to bring fuel, rations, water & equipment to the flying camps which often involved driving hundreds of kilometres. He had plenty of experience, being the mail & goods driver around the NT/SA border for many years and had carted cattle, wool etc around the outback most of his life. He also had an on & off again contract to cart fuel to Giles Weather Station in the 60’s. He worked with the GRCP in 1955, then again for the years 1960-63 although Len occasionally bought supplies off his truck in the intervening years. Nothing ever fazed Quinny who got on well with everyone and nothing could stop him from getting the job done, helped by his strength and ingenuity.
Frank Quinn had a favourite saying....."Time means money to me". He died late in 1977 after a heart pacemaker operation earlier in the year. His black kelpie dog "Lassie" is marked on a few of Len's plaques.
Part of the dedication of Outback Highways reads:
“To the members of the Gunbarrel Road Construction Party …… without whose resolution and hard work, despite extreme conditions, the 6000 kilometres of loneliest roads in the world which opened up 2.5 million square kilometres of the waterless wastes of Central and Western Australia could not have been made.”
Beadell Tours website www.beadelltours.com.au
Len Beadell, Outback Highways 1979
Mark Shephard, A Lifetime in the Bush The biography of Len Beadell, 1998
Photographs are copyright and are used with kind permission from the families of Len Beadell, Doug Stoneham and Scotty Boord.