The township of Wilson was proclaimed on 6th January 1881, being named by Governor Jervois after General Sir Charles Wilson, a compatriot and highly regarded Officer of the Royal Engineers.
Wilson was laid out at this site as a rail siding – by this time, the relative speed and economy of rail transport (as opposed to bullock and horse drawn drays) made access to it vital in development and sustainability of agricultural and mining development in the Far North of SA. As the surrounding area had been opened up for farming, the settlers had sought the provision of a rail siding to service their needs. The existing settlement to the north at Kanyaka was not suited to provision of a rail siding due to the local gradient, so the local service hinterland for the new Wilson township included the Kanyaka area (Wilson was often referred to as Kanyaka Siding in the early days) as well as the plains surrounding the town and Cradock to the East.
The town established quickly, with a General Store being advertised at Wilson/Kanyaka Siding in February 1881. By 4th March 1881 the Kanyaka Post Office had closed, with services likely relocated to Wilson, and the 2 storey Great Northern Hotel had also closed, being salvaged for stone and tin for new buildings at Wilson. Construction of the Gillick Arms Hotel at Wilson commenced early, with a well initially being sunk to provide water for people and teams, and was completed by late 1881.
Wilson continued to develop, with a Wesleyan Church of weatherboard and tin (24x16ft, or approx. 8x5M) completed in May 1882. By Jan 1884 Wilson boasted 3 stores, the Chapel, a school, a saddler, a butcher, a blacksmith, a carpenter and a builder, the Hotel and a branch of the Commercial Bank – by this time, it was being touted as developing into the biggest and most important town north of Port Augusta in years to come. The development of the wheat farming towns in the far north of SA was by now being restrained, if not halted, by the poor (or perhaps more properly, more usual and less favourable) seasons – questions about the wisdom of resuming the pastoral land for cultivation and closer settlement were being aired as settlers throughout the north lost their properties and homes.
Also recorded during 1884 were freight loadings from Pt Augusta being unloaded from the train for on-carting by bullock teams to developing silver and lead mines in Western NSW, as well as ore from those areas being brought to Wilson for railing to Pt Augusta – this now seems incongruous, but doubtless highlights the advantages rail held over the stock-led teams at the time.
A lack of water, however, plagued the settlement. During the initial survey, a local correspondent had noted that it was “about as waterless a place as they could have picked” (22nd Oct 1880) and by the time of a public meeting on 22nd May 1885 it was apparent that Wilson siding was losing wheat cartage to Hawker, Gordon and even Carrieton because it was unable to supply water for the thirsty bullock teams who brought the wheat in to the railway.
A Government Survey in June 1885 found 12-14 dwellings, a population of around 50, and noted that water was sourced from the well when available or retrieved from Kanyaka Springs, about 3 miles/5kM away. Wilson was now a social and sporting centre for the district, with sports days, cricket matches and a show recorded in the papers of the time. (In 1898, the population was around 70 with 18 houses.)
Wilson’s new Post Office, Telegraph Station and Residence was completed in Nov 1887, and then rocked by a substantial earthquake in Jan 1888. Student numbers at the school peaked at 51 in 1884-86, but had fallen to 15 by 1910. The “wheat peak” of production in the Wilson area was in 1916-17, with substantial cultivation still occurring and strong yields of up to 30 bushels/acre. Unfortunately for the farmers, the massive bagged wheat stack at the rail siding was infested by an intense mouse plague and those years which followed were again years of hardship which saw decline for the area and the town.
A brief resurgence followed the return of WW1 servicemen, however a number of poor years culminated in the disastrous drought of 1928-29 and the depression years, when a number of landholders sold out or turned to running sheep. Postal services retracted to an agency as the Post and Telegraph facilities closed in 1933, and the school and hotel both closed in 1942 with the sale and relocation of the Church also around this time. The signal arms on the railway for the Wilson siding were removed from their masts in Feb 1949.
Service provision at Wilson finally ceased with the closure of the Postal Agency, by then operated from the former Station Masters’ residence, on 5th November 1954. The Railway Goods Shed was sold and removed in Jan 1959.
Wilson stands now as a reminder of the stoic settlers of the north of SA, the hardships and trials of attempts to eke out a living farming in such an area with low and unreliable rainfall and relatively poor soils, the importance of the rail network to those developments, as well as the changes in settlement patterns afforded by greater transport mobility, the greater capacity to store daily needs which came with power and refrigeration, and the extended social networks which universal communications and accessible personal transport have engendered.