In 1836, when Colonel William Light’s ship, the Rapid, sailed into the Port Adelaide River inlet and anchored in the Gawler Reach, it entered the ecological and cultural landscape within the Tjilbruke Dreaming Track of the Kaurna Aboriginal people.
Along the Track, which stretches from Cape Jervois to Outer Harbor or Mudlang (The Nose), Kaurna people hunted the emu, made camp and performed ceremonies. At the time of the small-scale European settlement on the Le Fevre Peninsula, from the mid-1840’s until 1912, Kaurna people coexisted with the settlers.
When the Semaphore area was surveyed for sale in 1849, Le Fevre Peninsula was virtually an island of sandhills and tidal swamps. Just two years later Mr. George Coppin, the ‘Father of Australian Theatre’, built a two storied timber hotel, The Semaphore, on the southern corner of Blackler Street and The Esplanade. He erected a very tall flagpole to signal the approach of ships and new customers to the White Horse Cellars, his other hotel in Port Adelaide. The area around his beach inn took the name he conferred on it – The Semaphore.
By 1856 an official Government signal station had been set up at the corner of Semaphore Road and The Esplanade. Signalmen on watch recorded the identity, arrival, departure and destination of all ships in the Gulf. They also relayed information on water depth, tides and instructions for loading and discharging cargoes. Maritime pilots had to live within one mile of the station, and each had a personal flag which summoned him when a ship required a pilot. The Signal Station grew increasingly complex over the years and became a picturesque landmark.
Semaphore’s importance as a communications centre was confirmed when a Telegraph and Post Office was established in 1856. The Time Ball Tower was erected in 1875 adjacent to the Signal Station. Before wireless time-signals were invented these towers were found at all main ports throughout the world.
The district was very isolated until a precarious wooden bridge, later replaced by the Jervois Bridge, was opened in 1859. The Semaphore Jetty was completed in 1860, but it was two years before the bridge and jetty were connected by a hard-surfaced road. Many early settlers were seafarers, a significant number of them Cape Horners. The bridge/road link meant that Port Adelaide businessmen could commute to the seaside village and many built large homes in Semaphore. The entrepreneurial sap began to rise: churches, halls, private schools and pubs flourished. Semaphore developed into an affluent suburb.
In 1878, the new iron swing Jervois Bridge opened, carrying both road and rail traffic and the era of Semaphore as a resort began. The numerous boarding houses were popular with holiday makers who enjoyed regattas, the segregated swimming baths on the jetty and concerts on the ‘front’. During the Edwardian years, the attractions were huge carnivals, sideshows, tearooms and the Wondergraph Open Air Cinema.
In 1917 an electric tram service from Port Adelaide was inaugurated. The 1920’s were boom times during which the Palais dance hall and picture palaces attracted large crowds. Mid-century, a change occurred in Semaphore’s fortunes. The tram service ceased in 1935, the functions of the Signal Station and Time Ball Tower were transferred to Outer Harbour, and the grand old jetty was much shortened by severe storms. However, Semaphore was still a very popular destination in spite of motor cars making holidays further afield possible.
The inertia of the past few decades has preserved this charming village in solid Victorian condition. Today Semaphore is a fascinating place of history and heritage. New life has once again stirred the vibrant Semaphore community spirit, with unique shops and cafes.