A GLIMPSE OF ONE OF THE GIANTS WHO BUILT OUR
CHARLES YELVERTON O'CONNOR 11/1/1843
Written by P.W. Davis, Mayor, City of Pt. Lincoln,
South Australia, based upon the book C.Y. O'CONNOR, THE CHIEF,
written by Merab Tauman.
This small tribute to one of Australia's genuine heroes comes from a
belief that we should not forget those who built our Nation
feats should be recognized and applauded when one considers our present
era. Our present leaders' skills lie in the sell off, lease-out and
tear-up of that which our forebears delivered. This article is written
in the hope that it may stir our youth to remember their pioneers. May
our youth forgive us our leaders' sins, and may our youth reclaim the
magnificent inheritance delivered by people like CHARLES YELVERTON O'CONNOR.
"THE CHIEF" C.Y. O'CONNOR was born in Ireland,
the child of "landed gentry," during one of Ireland's periodic potato
famines. His parents sold their farm and home to provide food and succour
for the starving families surrounding them
C.Y. was born of compassionate,
caring people; a trait he inherited and for which those who worked for
and with him in his later life generated most loyal and devoted service
no matter where he travelled, nor how demanding their work.
He began his formal education and experience
in Dublin training to be a surveyor, together with associated accounting
and mathematical skills. He could see the limitations of his home country,
which, with stories of opportunities in New Zealand, convinced him to
migrate at the age of 21 years in 1864. Initially working on the North
Island he soon moved to the South Island where one of his first tasks
was the survey and construction of a road over the Southern Alps to
the Hokitika gold fields.
He faced major engineering problems
. very steep
terrain, little mechanical assistance or skilled labour, annual rainfall
of 120 inches, [or some 3 metres], in a cold, inhospitable environment.
But his reputation for determination, capacity to work long hours in
debilitating conditions and overcome engineering difficulties ensured
his superiors were watching him
. In 1870 he was appointed engineer
for the Westland Province with responsibility to deliver a permanent
harbour at Westport on the stormy west coast facing the Tasman Sea.
[C.Y was now aged 27 years.]
Effectively, his engineering skills opened up
the Westland district to gold mining, and he developed the Ports of
Greymouth and Westport by protecting their exposed westerly aspect with
massive breakwaters. Much infrastructure round Christchurch was due
to his design and engineering.
Over the next ten years his reputation grew
as he designed and delivered rail lines, roads, bridges, ports and general
infrastructure for New Zealand. By 1883 he had risen to the position
of Under Secretary for Public Works for New Zealand. The New Zealand
economy slowed severely in the late 1880's and 1890, due to similar
causes as Australia's experience
. Droughts, a real estate slump and
various banking failures resulted in much economic hardship. This, coupled
with some disappointments with his own expected promotions decided C.Y.
to consider the future of his family and himself.
He had married a Scottish lass, Susan Letitia
Ness, in 1873. Together they raised seven children, four girls and three
boys whilst in New Zealand. Throughout his life he and his family enjoyed
happy, harmonious times. Whilst he worked long hours, and many times
was away from home supervising projects he always cared for his large
family. He was renowned for his horse riding skills and, particularly
upon arrival at Fremantle where he and his family settled, rode daily
for pleasure and to inspect his various projects.
Generally, he would spend Mondays within his
office at his home preparing projects; night times he and his eldest
daughter, Aileen, would work long hours writing up his reports. He and
his family were known as generous, happy hosts to the many people who
visited his family home.
Early in 1891 he received a letter from Mr.
John Forrest, Premier of Western Australia. The letter encouraged him
to re-settle with his family for a period of five years with a salary
of £1,000 annually. Meanwhile, he was disappointed to be offered a salary
of some £750 from the N.Z. Government to accept the role of Marine Engineer
for New Zealand. He felt disillusioned and frustrated. He wrote in some
private notes that, "I am in the position of a fifth wheel of a coach
and better out of it."
Thus, following further correspondence with
Mr. Forrest, on the 21st April 1891, C.Y. accepted an offer of £1,200
per annum for the position of Engineer in Chief of Western Australia.
His 25 year's work in New Zealand, [excluding one week's leave taken!!!]
should have resulted in him being paid a retiring allowance of some
£1,500; but he was granted less than one third of this sum. He felt
bewildered and disappointed with the N.Z. Government.
IT IS SALUTARY TO OBSERVE THAT HAD NEW ZEALAND
SHOWN SOME APPRECIATION FOR THIS REMARKABLE MAN BY SIMPLY PAYING HIM
HIS DUE REWARD, NEW ZEALAND WOULD HAVE ENJOYED THE FRUITS OF HIS REMARKABLE
SKILLS FOR MANY MORE YEARS, RATHER THAN AUSTRALIA. New Zealand's loss
was Western Australia's gain
In the early 1890's Western Australia was a colossal
landmass with huge distances, no infrastructure, little labour or engineering
skills to deliver the needed roads, bridges, ports, rail lines and buildings
of a fledgling State. But W.A. did possess Mr. John Forrest, and his
brother, Alexander. Whilst it is true today that the Forrests are not
well recognized for their contribution to W.A., theirs is a somewhat
better known story than our C.Y.
Sir John Forrest was the political power who
negotiated the rail infrastructure, the Goldfields pipeline, the Port
of Fremantle and helped deliver the Transcontinental rail line for Western
. It was Sir John who repeatedly stood behind his engineer,
and he had the courage to back politically the visions of C.Y. that
produced his engineering marvels. Certainly, the two men did not always
agree, but repeatedly, it was the political clout of Sir John Forrest
that supported the practical visions of C.Y O'Connor.
Thus, in June 1891 C.Y. arrived to carry
out the will of the first W.A. Parliament led by Mr. Forrest.
It is an interesting aside to note that Mr. Forrest's
first cabinet consisted of only 5 men, himself included.
The general instructions from Mr. Forrest stated
he was to develop, "Railways, harbours, everything." Thus C.Y was truly
taking a plunge into the great unknown! At this time, 1891, W.A. possessed
some 190 miles of Government owned rail track and some 400 miles of
private track. And, needless to say, [like their eastern counterparts]
of differing track widths. The Government owned rail track was losing
approximately £40,000 annually. The track was poorly laid, with steep
grades and underpowered locos.
One of C.Y's first recommendations was for the
Government owned railway workshops, then located at Fremantle, to be
re-established inland some 20 odd miles over the Darling Ranges in conjunction
with the private rail workshops
. Twelve years later the Midland Junction
Rail Workshops were established. But the first and overriding challenge
of the Government was to deliver an all weather seaport that could quickly
service the capital, Perth, with inbound mail and cargo.
At that time, Perth had to be serviced from
Albany, some 250 miles away to the southeast and connected with Perth
by a slow, privately owned rail line. As a visit to Albany today will
show, the city is sited within a magnificent protected bay
Sound, as Matthew Flinders named the Port. The shoulder of land to the
west protects Albany from the huge westerly swells and seas rolling
across the Indian Ocean and past the entrance to pile up upon the Great
Within the sound there is a constant small surge to remind one of the
power outside the entrance, but within there is sanctuary for all vessels
in any weather. Nearby, there are fertile, healthy farmlands and the
magnificent stands of Jarrah and Karri forests with which to build infrastructure
not far away. Thus, not surprisingly, Albany served as W.A's major port
for some 50 years.
But Premier Forrest desired C.Y. to investigate
the hazards of Fremantle despite the obvious costs involved in overcoming
it's exposed and dangerously shallow nature. The challenge was staggering.
Fremantle faces roughly due west, with little protection afforded by
offshore islands to the same swells and seas that roll past Albany.
At Fremantle, despite Rottenest Island protection, the Indian Ocean
collides with Australia. There were various navigation hazards within
the manoeuvring area, particularly for sailing vessels that needed much
sea room to change their heading.
When C.Y. arrived there did exist a jetty extending
in a south westerly direction some 3,800 feet from Arthur Head, the
southern headland, but the low water depth alongside was a mere 12 feet.
The dangers to shipping lying alongside ranged from being stranded and
damaged, to facing severe gales at anchor with the risk of dragging
onto the lee shore. Particularly due to the shallow, rocky entrance
of the Swan River and given the very dangerous North Westerly seas,
Fremantle seemed an impossible major seaport. Thus, Albany continued
the main port for shipping, though some 250 miles distant from Perth.
However, C.Y. began a detailed investigation, leading to design and
construction plans centred on dredging out the stony mouth of the Swan
to a depth of 36 feet together with major breakwaters that would provide
a deep-water port within the shelter of the Swan River.
His time spent planning and building seaports
on the west coast of New Zealand proved invaluable. The planning took
some 7 months to complete. Delays imposed by political bickering within
Parliament, differing engineering opinions, and defence of his costings
all consumed his time. However, on the 16th November, 1892 work commenced
on the construction of the northern breakwater, or mole, from Rous Head
with a major public ceremony to mark the occasion.
The remarks of the Premier, now Sir John Forrest,
at the ceremony are worth repeating: " Last year I was not in favour
of C.Y. O'Connor's plan because I thought then it would cost too much
money and there was too much risk connected with it. But the Engineer
in Chief has stuck to his scheme, he urged it with all his power, and
Parliament decided we should have the works as he planned them. In this
action of the engineer you see the character of the man; He was not
afraid to take responsibility of this great work. I believe that in
him we have an able and energetic, a brave and a self reliant man, and
I only hope in this great work he has undertaken that he will be successful."
O'Connor's plan envisaged an initial expenditure
over five years of some £560,000 with the second stage costing another
£240,000. He believed that the completed second stage would provide
safe haven for the world's largest vessels. Some idea of the magnitude
of the project can be gained by the dimensions of the longer, northern
mole off Rous Head. It was to project seawards initially for some 3000
feet with an additional 500 feet to be added as the Port developed.
The completed, settled width of the breakwater deck was to be 30 feet
wide and the stones would weigh on average, between 12 to 20 tons. Initially,
the constructed breakwater deck width was some 50 feet wide but the
actions of storms [and his own calculations] indicated the settled deck
width would be of the order of 30 feet. And so it eventually proved
In 1894 work commenced to construct the Southern
Mole with limestone quarried from Arthur Head. Within two years the
southern mole was completed and the previous headland had become a levelled
site suitable for handling the ever increasing flow of cargo arriving
from overseas. A railway bridge was constructed across the Swan River.
A quarry at Darlington was constructed..
Inbound cargo moved north to
Perth during daylight with the quarried granite rock cladding being
moved through the nights to protect the limestone breakwaters.
So, for the next few years the two great projects
of breakwater construction and deepening of the mouth of the Swan River
progressed. Limestone was quarried from Rocky Bay, wharves were built,
cargo sheds constructed and slowly the Port took shape. By 1895 the
first stage of the northern mole was complete and the mouth of the Swan
had been enlarged to some 200 feet wide and 30 feet deep.
Perhaps a sign of things to come occurred in
May 1897 when the first large vessel, the S.S. "Sultan", of some 1,270
tons, sailed up the Swan River and berthed alongside the newly constructed
wharves. On 8th October, the first English steam freighter of some 5,500
tons arrived. She was some 400 feet in length. Two years later, "Barbarossa",
of some 10,800 tons arrived safely, swung in the basin and tied up alongside
C.Y's wharves to discharge cargo into the sheds he envisaged some eight
And so the work at Fremantle continued
and widening the entrance, strengthening the two moles, building more
wharfage to a total length of nearly 6,000 feet, sheds for cargo, maintenance
of the railway, and dredging plant repairs
. Some 20 years later the
battleship, H.M.S. HOOD arrived, was turned within the swinging basin
and tied up. She weighed some 42,000 tons and was then the largest ship
. C.Y.'s Fremantle Harbour had delivered all he promised, but
sadly, he was long departed.
But other issues demanded the attention of Government
and it's senior engineer through this period of 1891-96. Gold had been
discovered in a region known as "the Yilgarn," amongst other fields
in the late 1880's. Prospectors were swarming into W.A. hoping for instant
wealth. They arrived at Fremantle and Albany all determined to reach
the goldfields opening up all over the West. Today, the town of Southern
Cross is about the centre of this, then, particular "golden region"
of W.A. Gold was discovered 110 miles further east at Coolgardie in
1892. Not long after Paddy Hannan found his gold near what is today
. Conditions were appallingly primitive.
Neither transport nor water sustained prospectors
on their trek to the goldfields with nothing to greet them when they
arrived. Just bone dry dust in extreme temperatures and water being
sold at 5 shillings a gallon along the way. So, Sir John Forrest determined
that a priority should be to establish rail transport out to "the Yilgarn".
Much political debate delayed any progress.
From the time of his arrival in Fremantle in
1891, C.Y. had indicated many improvements needed in existing rail transport
before any further expansion should be considered. But political and
private financial bickering delayed his improvements to the existing
190 miles of Government track and rolling stock. He tried desperately
to have a major Government maintenance depot established near Midland
Junction, then servicing some of the southern, privately owned track
that terminated at Albany and the Jarrah forests.
But Government and private interests demanded the Fremantle yard remain
the maintenance centre despite its obvious limitations. The lightweight
Government owned rail track from Perth and Fremantle out over the Darling
Ranges was upgraded to 60 pounds weight. Reduced gradients, better maintenance
facilities at Fremantle and more powerful locos pulled longer, more
profitable, heavier loads.
Slowly, the 40,000-pound annual operating loss
turned to surpluses on this 190-mile line as improvements designed by
C.Y.'s team generated efficiencies. Political progress was desperately
slow but a decision was made to build track out to Southern Cross
But not the needed money. By late 1891 the railhead was some 80 miles
west of the Yilgarn. 1892 turned into 1893. Camels were carting the
increasing loads of freight demanded out east on the new goldfields.
Water was desperately scarce, significantly increasing the operating
cost of railways as carriages were converted to carry water for the
steam engines. Finally, Parliament voted the needed 110,000 pounds to
satisfactorily complete the rail line out to Southern Cross in late
But precious water was critical to steam engines
as well as humanity. Extreme summer temperatures effectively stopped
rail transport due to water shortages for steam production. Nothing
could progress without water
. Thus, C.Y.'s surveyors spent time surveying
potential catchment sites along the rail track that would store water
for steam engines as well as the needed public supply along the line
to the Yilgarn.
An interesting observation from one of C.Y.'s
trusted surveyors, [Mr. W.H. Shields] with skills in reservoir design
and construction is worth noting,
. "When the construction of the Yilgarn
Line began the last supply of water for engine purposes was obtained
from the Burralong Pool, a waterhole in the Avon River two miles from
Northam [the Avon, like many Australian rivers, only flows during winter
months, and some years not even then] leaving a length of some 400 miles
of railway extending into a streamless and practically unknown country
to be provided for."
Decisions were made to build large tanks at Cunderdin,
Kellerberrin, Merredin and Parkers Road. These storages totalling some
25 million gallons were completed by June 1894,using teams of camels
Camels consume less than one third of the daily water intake of a bullock
and tractors were still some 25 years away. All the dams held water;
and enabled heavier loads of rail cargo to be hauled; again on more
reliable, more frequent schedules.
By late 1895 the rail line had reached Southern
Cross, the centre of "the Yilgarn." But the successful gold mining efforts
further east at Coolgardie and Kalgoorlie resulted in demands for the
railhead to continue eastwards. By now there was serious shortage of
rolling stock to service the increasing rail infrastructure of W.A.
C.Y. drew up rolling stock lists that showed a necessity for some 625,000
pounds to meet the new demands. Parliament objected to this massive
borrowing for rolling stock. But cargo was piling up at the developing
Port of Fremantle.
By February 1896, the "West Australian"
newspaper reported that between 15,000 to 20,000 tons of inbound cargo
was stranded upon the wharves of Fremantle. The paper commented, "
the rush of cargo will, it is fair to estimate, continue at a rate of
between six thousand to seven thousand tons a week." Grudgingly, Parliament
voted a reduced borrowing of 400,000 pounds for new wagons and locomotives.
Huge tonnages of cargo were arriving at the now
secure harbour of Fremantle
. even though it was far from completion,
and the rail system was the only method of moving cargo off the wharves.
Severely dry years resulted in the four new water tanks at Cunderdin,
Kellerberrin, Merredin and Parkers Road all running dry by late 1895.
A new crisis had to be confronted. Investigations
showed that to run the rail line and supply the rail towns out to the
Yilgarn a supply of some 200,000 gallons DAILY was needed
.! C.Y. requested his trusted Mr. Shields to prepare
a scheme to keep the rail line functional through the hot summers
Another six large earth tanks were constructed
. In 1898 a huge catchment
from a granite rock face leading to a large dam near Karalee, some 30
miles from Southern Cross, resulted in another 12 million gallons storage.
But still tanks ran dry, rail haulage slowed. More tanks were built,
some duplicated, condensers were constructed and fired from locally
cut timber. Put mildly, water shortage was at constant crisis point
And there was the gold boom exploding a further 110 miles eastwards
at Coolgardie and Kalgoorlie not being addressed.
It is not possible for us today to contemplate
. A ration of less than 5 litres a day per person
costing about $6 per litre in our terms. But back on the coast at Fremantle,
the railway repair and maintenance sheds could not keep pace with rolling
stock maintenance. Parliament bickered over C.Y.'s suggested improvement
of moving out to Midland Junction. Nothing constructive happened until
June 1896, five years after C.Y.'s initial recommendations for Midland
Junction were refused. More political and financial haggling continued
but at least the pollies were talking
. Talking, but not delivering!
C.Y. felt the increasing load of his responsibilities
over the entire range of State engineering needs. Political pressures
were rising to supply Coolgardie with water.
Fremantle Harbour construction
. railway construction demands
. Water for locomotives....
Water for people, water for mining, water for farming
. Other construction
necessities of State.
All consumed his mind.
But Parliament did finally agree to relocate
the rail workshops to Midland Junction. Sir John Forrest asked of C.Y.
that he prepare a capital-borrowing list to service W.A. for the immediate
three-year future of Western Australia's railway system. The amount
calculated was one million pounds, including some 80,000 pounds for
Midland Junction. Parliament pondered.
Whilst the Perth to Geraldton
line was privately owned, W.A. now possessed a practical, functional
and expanding rail network despite the lack of good, well-located workshops
at Midland Junction. As well as the Yilgarn line, "the Chief" had overseen
construction of the Geraldton line out to Mullewa and planning out to
Cue. But again, C.Y. was not to see his much needed machinery work shops....
[It was not until 1904 that some 400 workmen
relocated from the Fremantle rail workshops out to Midland Junction.
In January 1906 another 600 men were relocated to the new maintenance
depot. By then some 1,500 miles of Government and private track existed
together with some 5700 freight wagons and 300 locomotives. In November
1905, the new Railways Engineer in Chief, Mr. James Thompson, reported
to Parliament that Midland Junction was fully operational at a total
construction cost of some $474,000 pounds. In effect, it had taken some
14 years for the railway maintenance concept of C.Y. O'Connor to be
delivered. And he, poor soul, was four years departed.]
But the developing Coolgardie and Kalgoorlie
gold fields were clamouring for water and railways. Various schemes
to provide water were tried. Deep bore drilling down to 3,000 feet produced
very poor supplies of highly saline water. Sparse timber was burnt to
fuel condensers that produced water being sold at 5 shillings a gallon.
And contributed to today's sparse vegetation! Camels were the only heavy
.Or you pushed your wheelbarrow
. Typhus had broken
out on the gold fields. Men, [women were a rarity] were virtually perishing.
Such was their predicament that the President
of the Chamber of Mines wrote to Premier Sir John Forrest that
at Kalgoorlie are already reduced to half a gallon of water daily and
this is only the beginning of summer. Coolgardie will within a month
be in still greater straits. I cannot too earnestly urge upon you the
necessity of immediate action unless the government wish to be accused
of criminal neglect."
Thus the summer of 1895
Out east on the goldfields public annoyance
increased at the lack of any practical action. What were the bloody
Politicians doing back in Perth??? By 1896 there were over 4,000 people
living at Coolgardie in most difficult conditions. Typhus was not uncommon.
Summer temperatures were an average 40 degrees Centigrade daily. Water
was selling for the same price as whisky. Could water be pumped to Coolgardie?
Where would the water come from? Where would it be trapped and stored?
Had the rail line arrived at Coolgardie yet? Fremantle harbour? Where
is there secure, reliable water?....
C.Y. turned his inquiring mind to the Darling
. What could be done with some of those rivers and ranges? His
engineers began studying options involving damming water in the Darling
Ranges and pumping it eastwards
. All told some 31 separate projects
. whittled down to three projects in different valleys.
Water for people, water for mining, water for farms, water for railway
engines, railways for freight, rail lines for development.
equation in an enormous land. How many millions of gallons should be
delivered daily to Coolgardie?
And Fremantle Harbour demanded his continuing
.He endured a doubting, critical and abusive Parliament and
public. The stresses were beginning to tell
. In 1897 C.Y. travelled
to England for a break and to conduct specific engineering discussions
with his peers, the world's leading mechanical engineers, concerning
his Coolgardie Water Supply Scheme. He had settled on an enormous dam
in the Darling Ranges [where annual rainfall is some 36 inches]
dam would supply water that would be pumped up 1,200 feet over the Darling
Ranges escarpment and 350 miles eastwards to the Eastern goldfields.
Did his English mentors feel his plans practical? Did sufficient pumping
power exist? 1 million gallons daily? 5 million gallons daily? Or, perhaps
10 million gallons daily? Which option would provide the most economic,
yet practical solution? Would current pipeline construction bear the
water pressures? Were his financial estimates achievable?.... If his
concept could be delivered, it would be an engineering marvel.
Their collected opinion was that 5 million gallons
daily looked most practical, achievable. The Commission of Engineers
endorsed his engineering plans without serious alteration and agreed
with his costings. On July 23rd, 1897 the Prince of Wales, acting on
behalf of Queen Victoria invested him with the insignia of the order
of Companion of St. Michael and St. George; principally in recognition
of his outstanding Fremantle Harbour construction project. He truly
deserved this recognition for his outstanding engineering skills. But
back home he suffered increasing public ridicule and vitriolic spite
for his visionary plans concerning water storage and pumping to Coolgardie
and Kalgoorlie. "Pump water up 1200 feet and out over the plains for
350 miles??? 5,000,000 gallons daily??? No wonder he was born in Ireland!
And best he return there," were the spirit of the jibes he endured.
Upon his return to Perth, Parliament set to work,
as did his critics
. Back in September 1896, under the guidance of Sir
John Forrest, Parliament had sanctioned the Chief's concept for the
construction of a storage reservoir, the 350-mile pipeline, the requisite
pumping stations and receiving tanks. Loan raisings in Great Britain
of some 2,500,000 pounds would be needed to construct the Coolgardie
Water Supply Scheme, as C.Y.'s concept became known
. Parliament endorsed
the concept but baulked at the borrowings
The first loans were sought in Great Britain,
but fell short
.But a decision to begin construction was made despite
the loan shortage
. It was a colossal project. The Helena River was
selected as the best catchment system with a retaining wall to be built
into two granite shoulders that came within 800 feet of one another
on the river floor. Some 800 acres of scrub had to be cleared by hand,
the river diverted, a rail line built down into the weir site to deliver
materials. The workers needed shelter and feeding.
The pumping station, associated pipeline and
control valves had to be planned and built
. Excavations for the weir
foundations began in April 1898 and continued for 18 months. A huge
granite boulder was encountered. It proved to be some 12,000 cubic yards
effectively "floating" in the watercourse. It had to be blasted away
as the men dug down into what proved to be fractured and fissured granite.
Down they dug some 90 feet into the streambed removing the fissured,
shattered granite before solid bedrock was found. Cement was poured
into remnant, fissured areas.
It was Christmas, 1899 before C.Y. was sufficiently
confident bedrock had been reached and the wall could be built. Can
you imagine a foundation 90 feet deep? Dug by hand, 24 hours a day.
Workers Comp? Long service leave? Sick leave? Stress leave? Danger Money?
. if you live 100 years later.
And so, during January 1900 began the non-stop
pour of the massive, rising, concrete wall we know today as MUNDARING
WEIR. 24 hours a day, seven days a week the concrete pour continued.
78,000 caskets of cement alone were used. [From photographs, I suspect
a casket contained about 5, perhaps 6 bags of today's cement.] The work
gangs lived on-site living in tents on the valley floor, working three
shifts. The weir wall was completed in June 1902. For thirty months
they poured concrete
. Behind the Mundaring Weir's 100-foot high wall
some 4,655 million gallons would be stored
[In 1951 the original height of C.Y.'s Mundaring Weir was raised another
32 feet, [which says something about his foundations!]
Some years later a further addition to the wall
was added. Today a mammoth 17,000 million gallons, three times his original
vision, are impounded behind his wall. Certainly, his original wall
has been lengthened, strengthened and elevated, but his is the solid
foundation that delivers prosperity today. When one visits today's Mundaring
Weir and sees the expanse of water, the trees, the roads, the homes,
the shops, the sheer grandeur of the project, it is difficult to conceive
the primitive conditions of those engineers and workmen who lived down
on the valley floor, some 150 feet below the weir walkway we enjoy today.
When my wife, Faye, and I walked across the top
of the Weir last August, the sheer scale of the project daunted us.
Sadly, there was little water stored due to the serious drought. We
could see, on the left, or northern, bank near the wall the little brick-landing
platform for boats to tie up to in the very early days. We visited the
pumping station and saw those massive pipes and pumping engine
did those men some 100 years ago dream up this plan, let alone build
it all? It is salutary too, to look eastwards up the watercourse and
think of the associated pipeline taking water up, over the Darling Ranges
and out over the plains to today's Goldfields 350 miles away. It is
a humbling experience to visit Mundaring Weir and ask oneself how we
might react today if confronted with C.Y.'s problems and his solutions.
Pipeline technology was primitive though advancing.
There was serious concern that if riveted pipe were used that leaking
rivets alone would effectively consume most of the intended daily flow
contacted a Mr. Mephan Ferguson who had designed and patented a new
"locking bar" pipe system. A decision was made to use this new system.
Manufacturing sheds were built at Midland Junction where Mephan Ferguson
and a licensee, G and C. Hoskins, Pty, Ltd. began making the new locking
bar pipes in 30-foot lengths, [the longest that could be safely carried
on the rail wagons.]
Some 70,000 tons of sheet steel alone was used
to make the pipeline, which totalled over 60,000 individual lengths;
all the steel arrived via ships unloading at Fremantle where construction
of the Port facilities continued. The pipes, 30 inches in diameter,
were loaded onto rail wagons, some 8 lengths per flattop. The rail line,
now out to Coolgardie, delivered the pipe sections to the pipeline construction
crews nearby the rail line.... Caulking the joints every 30 feet proved
very difficult and time consuming. It was extremely difficult work in
most arduous conditions
. The cold, wet and windy environs of the Helena
water course, then out on the plains, freezing at night and roasting
through the day, but the men persisted
. A mechanical system was tried,
improved upon and adopted; slowly the pipeline took shape.
The construction of the eight massive steam driven
pumping engines and their associated infrastructure proceeded apace.
C.Y. personally oversaw the three great projects of Mundaring Weir,
the pumping stations and the pipeline. An interesting aside was that
C.Y.'s English advisers had recommended that high-pressure steam driven
pumps be used rather than low-pressure pumps. The cost would be similar
and the water would be more efficiently delivered, without affecting
the budgeted cost of 2,500,000 pounds
. Until the newly formed Commonwealth
Government chipped in by increasing the customs duty that must be paid
by W.A. to the Commonwealth for these better engines and pumps
changes, nothing's new!!!!]
Despite his team overcoming the engineering difficulties,
Parliament began doubting the practicality of the Scheme
went within a few votes of ceasing all work on the project
. But O'Connor's
engineering reputation held him in better light elsewhere. Early in
April 1901, at the specific request of Sir John Forrest, he began detailed
studies for a proposed railway line to connect Kalgoorlie with Pt. Augusta.
By October that same year his senior railways engineer, Mr. John Muir,
delivered him the plans of the railway line we know as "The Transcontinental."
And what was his professional opinion of the proposed development of
South Australia's own Outer Harbour to service Adelaide? Early in 1902
he travelled to Adelaide to investigate
But back home criticism, unfounded and unjust,
in Parliament, the press and in public, was mounting against him. He
felt forced to return to Perth from Adelaide to defend himself and his
men against these attacks
. Meanwhile, pumping stations and sections
of the pipeline were being readied for water pressure testing. The most
difficult section, up out of the Helena River, neared completion
On the 8th March 1902 some seven miles of another
most difficult section of the entire 350 miles was successfully tested;
though later that day a leak was discovered near Chidlow's Well. It
was quickly sealed. It became apparent that by the end of March, water
would be flowing into the reservoir constructed at Cunderdin eighty
or so miles east from Mundaring Weir...
[One of the four original sites where a large, earthen tank had been
built to provide water for "the Yilgarn" back in 1894. Cunderdin lies
about one fifth of the way out to Coolgardie, perhaps 100 miles west
of Southern Cross, or "the Yilgarn."]
But, poor Charles Yelverton O'Connor had been
stressed beyond his limit
. He could no longer sleep at night. Early
Monday morning, 10th March 1902, C.Y. sat at his desk and wrote a last
. "The position has become impossible. Anxious important work to
do and three commissions of enquiry to attend to. We may not have done
as well as possible in the past but we will necessarily be too hampered
to do well in the future. I feel that my brain is suffering and I am
in great fear of what effect all this worry may have upon me - I have
lost control of my thoughts. The Coolgardie scheme is all right and
I could finish it if I got a chance and protection from misrepresentation
but there's no hope for that now and its better that it should be given
to some entirely new man to do who will be untrammelled by some prior
responsibility 10/3/02 Put the wing walls to Helena Weir at once."
Then, as was his wont, he saddled his horse and
departed for his usual morning ride, perhaps to inspect the continuing
construction works at Fremantle Harbour. At 7-30 A.M., a young boy discovered
a riderless horse
. a little further southwards from Fremantle, near
Robb's Jetty, a body was discovered in the shallows with a pistol lying
nearby. Thus passed this amazing engineer.
He did nothing through his life but deliver cheerfulness
and happiness to his family and friends whilst his engineering marvels
continue to stand as memorials to his brilliant mind and courageous
spirit. Two days later C.Y. was buried in the new cemetery at Palmyra,
overlooking his magnificent harbour
.His Will was granted probate, indicating
his total assets at less than 200 pounds. This fact itself destroyed
some of the malignant rumours that had recently circulated.
A month later, water from Mundaring Weir began
filling Cunderdin Reservoir
.By December water was flowing into the
reservoir constructed at Mt. Charlotte near Coolgardie. On the 24th
January 1903 Sir John Forrest turned a silver valve head that sent water
flowing down towards Coolgardie and on towards Kalgoorlie. There were
huge celebrations with much congratulations all round. Gone were the
doubting Thomases and vindictive critics. The system functioned perfectly
and continued for some 66 years before the steam driven Worthington
engines and pumps were replaced with more modern electrically powered
More than seven years had passed since Sir John
had accepted C.Y.'s plans and estimates of some 2,500,000 pounds to
construct the project. The actual, delivered construction cost proved
to be 2,660,000 pounds, the increase due chiefly to the newly imposed
Federal Customs Duty. Initial consumption at the Goldfields proved to
be some 1,260,000 gallons daily. Increasing areas of farmlands were
watered along the way together with the towns
. Branch mains began to
be built from the pipeline to service more farmlands.
By 1947 over 800
miles of branch lines were laid watering over 1,000,000 acres of dry,
waterless, yet fertile farmland. By 1971 some 4,000 miles of additional
pipelines had been laid, over 100 towns were connected and some 5.6
million farmland acres watered.
Today, some 9 million gallons daily flow through
the concept delivered by C.Y. How then is this remarkable man remembered?
In 1911 a magnificent statue to the memory of C.Y. O'Connor was erected
in Fremantle. We can see him gazing out over his Harbour to the distant
Indian Ocean. Within the foyer of Parliament House, Perth, there are
various tributes to C.Y. together with some small sections of the Mephan
Ferguson locking pipe design. The W.A. Tourism Commission possesses
some most interesting brochures that take one on an exploratory tour
of the Goldfields Pipe Line. One can start at the Mundaring Weir; visit
the C.Y. O'Connor Museum where the No.1 Worthington steam pump remains
in polished perfection. Travel up the Darling escarpment eastwards out
to Kalgoorlie, following those early tank sites, Cunderdin, Kellerberrin,
Merredin and Parkers Road that barely served Southern Cross in 1895.
Perhaps this little tribute may encourage our
generation to think of this man. We see his works at Fremantle, his
great Mundaring Weir. Or those towns out towards the goldfields where
there is a pipeline running past. Then there are the Midland Junction
workshops and the Transcontinental Rail line, together with much of
W.A.'s infrastructure rail. Truly, New Zealand paid a heavy price for
permitting this genius to leave her lands back in 1891.
Some 20 years ago I was fortunate enough to
seek the services of a merino sheep classer who had come to Eyre Peninsula
to retire with his wife, Hazel. For many years he had been stud master
at East Bungaree during the heyday of the Collinsville merino ram era
and was one of Australia's premier merino wool experts. His name was
"Funny," I thought, "I've heard of a bloke with initials
like that." Little did I then know I was talking to the grandson of
Charles Murtagh Yelverton O'Connor and his wife Hazel, continue to live
at Greenpatch in their lovely stone and timber home, "Waterford," set
amongst Australian bushland.
For many years Charles was a steward of the Pt.
Lincoln Racing Club. "Waterford," Ireland? Murtagh?
Horses? A most
gentle, quiet, yet forceful personality, an erect stance with direct,
blue eyed gaze, typical bushman's resilience and integrity
. there is
no doubt the origins of today's C.M.Y. O'Connor can be traced straight
to his Grandfather.
To Charles, from whom I have borrowed the works
of Merab Tauman, [who wrote the book, "THE CHIEF, C.Y. O'CONNOR",] and
lent me various other personal articles I am deeply grateful. Charles
also lent me the little biography, "C.Y. O'Connor" by Alexandra Hasluck.
It is one of the Great Australians series.
Merab Tauman's book is a fascinating journal
with much archival detail and photographs.... It is an essential source
for people desiring to know more of Mr. Charles Yelverton O'Connor.
Perhaps the University of Western Australia Press might consider a reprint
to honour this giant of Western Australian development? The book is
a magnificent read, essential for those who desire knowledge of our
past. Sadly, it has not been possible to trace, and seek permission
to use the written and photographic material within the book.
There are, no doubt, small errors in my brief
telling of the saga of this man. They are mine alone. I would have the
world in which we live recognize the achievements of an outstanding
engineer. All credit belongs to Merab Tauman and Alexandra Hasluck,
together with C.M.Y.'s cuttings, not me, for the archival and photographic
What was C.Y.'s greatest achievement? The fact
that he delivered this mass of infrastructure, Fremantle harbour, W.A.
Railways and the Goldfields Water Supply Scheme, each of which depended
upon the other, during a period of financial and political instability,
on borrowed money, on schedule; and that the various projects proved
profitable is little short of miraculous. What would a 1900 Australian
pound buy today? It seems a multiple of approximately 120 should be
used to convert to a current Australian dollar. Thus; Fremantle Harbour
cost some $96,000,000 The Goldfields Water Supply Scheme cost $319,200,000;
The completed Midland Junction Railway Workshops cost $57,000,000 A
gallon of water cost up to 5 shillings at the height of summer on the
Goldfields; that is the equivalent of $30 today
it was dearer than whiskey
in those days! There are roughly 5 litres to a gallon.
Thus; they were
paying $6 per litre. And we think water dear at $1-00 for 1,000 litres!
And C.Y.'s Estate? It was valued for probate
It is important for us today to keep the population base
in mind when considering servicing the financial debts as well as actually
building the infrastructure. The total population of W.A. during this
saga approached some 60,000 people. Each of the three major projects,
Fremantle Harbour, the W.A. railway infrastructure and the Goldfields
Water Supply Scheme are remarkable in their own right. But this man
delivered the lot in just under11 years. What other, comparable projects
have been completed?
By way of example: We recall he was responsible
for the survey and planning of the Transcontinental Rail line. Yet the
Line did not begin construction until 1912, 10 years after his premature
death, when King O'Malley had delivered the Commonwealth Bank. It was
the cheap Commonwealth Bank of Australia credit created by Governor
Sir Denison Miller, that made the Transcontinental financially possible
to construct. By comparison, consider the 100 years that have passed
yet still the line to Darwin is not complete
. And offshore, private
Banks are making a financial killing.
Just imagine what a modern C.Y. O'Connor could
deliver our Nation given no political pressure and National banking
. Water from the Kimberly's to Perth? Perhaps Adelaide? Gas pipelines
across our Nation? Remember, C.Y. costed each and every project he undertook.
Each project had to be financially profitable; independent of any synergy
delivered by association with other State infrastructure. Time has vindicated
his engineering and financial judgement decade after decade.
REST IN PEACE, MR. O'CONNOR.
The above article may be used provided recognition
is given the University of W.A. Press, the original publishers of C.Y.
O'CONNOR. Should any body choose to use the article commercially, I
ask that any profit be donated to the C.Y. O'CONNOR MEMORIAL MUSEUM
at Mundaring Weir.