Eastern Goldfields Water Supply
In 1903, after more than five years of planning and construction,
22,700 cubic metres of water was pumped for the first time from Perth
to Kalgoorlie through 557km of steel pipeline. At the time, the
Coolgardie Water Supply Scheme represented one of the greatest
hydraulic engineering feats the world had ever seen. It required the
construction of a 21 million cubic metre storage weir at Mundaring in
the Darling Range, and a series of eight steam-powered pumping
stations, which forced water up to a vertical height of 393m. The
pipeline was the brainchild of Charles Yelverton O'Connor, a remarkable
engineer whose vision and initiative was largely responsible for the
triumphs of the Western Australian gold mining industry. He was also
noted for his involvement in a range of agricultural pursuits in the
remote wheat belt districts of central Western Australia.
Born in the Irish town of Gravelmount in Castletown, Charles
Yelverton O'Connor studied engineering at Dublin University before
migrating to New Zealand shortly after gold had been discovered there.
When O'Connor accepted an offer to become Western Australia's
Engineer-in-Chief in 1891, he arrived at a small colony with massive
engineering problems. His first task was to build an adequate harbour
for the state's capital, Perth - the most geographically isolated city
in the world. This he did with considerable success. But it wasn't
until Bayley and Ford's gold discovery at Coolgardie in 1892 that the
full spectrum of his engineering vision and prowess was called upon.
By 1893, gold rushes at Kalgoorlie and Coolgardie were in full
swing, and thousands of prospectors from all corners of the globe were
flocking to the fields to claim their fortune. Living conditions at the
gold fields were appalling. Miners were forced to live in hessian huts,
or in rudimentary structures that offered them only scant protection
from the searing heat. On top of this, diseases like scurvy, dysentery
and typhoid were a constant menace.
The biggest problem, however, was water, a rare commodity that was
becoming increasingly more precious than gold. Water was transported
500km each day by rail, a system which was slow, expensive and
unreliable. Hundreds of desperate prospectors had lost their lives
drinking stagnant water from the Coolgardie Gorge during periods of
drought. A new water initiative had to be developed.
In 1895, O'Connor was commissioned to produce a practical plan for
pumping water directly into the Coolgardie goldfields. For two years,
financial hold-ups delayed construction. During that time, O'Connor
continued to develop his plan. Having discarded short-term alternatives
such as deep boring and local surface storage, O'Connor embarked upon
an audacious plan to pipe water into the goldfields from a coastal
water supply. Not surprisingly, O'Connor's vision was widely ridiculed
by a vicious press and unsympathetic political opponents who considered
his ideas to be a flagrant waste of public funds.
Despite widespread public disapproval, work on O'Connor's pipeline
began in 1898, and by 1902, the Mundaring Reservoir was near
completion. From the beginning, however, O'Connor's project was
hamstrung by delays and difficulties, mainly because most of the
necessary engineering supplies had to be imported by sea from Europe
and the USA. Ultimately, the strain of unyielding public criticism
proved too much for O'Connor. He committed suicide at South Fremantle
on 10th March, 1902, after leaving detailed instructions for the
completion of his project in a final note. On16th January, 1903, less
than five years after the start of its construction, O'Connor's
pipeline was ready to supply water to the people of Kalgoorlie.
In the 90 years since his dramatic death, O'Connor's incredible
vision has been vindicated. Not only has his pipeline fulfilled the
water needs of a burgeoning mining community, it has been instrumental
in enabling the development of remote wheat belt regions and continues
to support rural populations today. The Scheme, O'Connor's greatest
work, was internationally acclaimed in its day and remains one of the
most ambitious successful engineering and infrastructure schemes of the
late nineteenth century. The Water Corporation and its predecessor, the
Public Works Department, have operated and maintained the pipeline over
its 100 year history.
Since 1903, the pumping capacity of the goldfields scheme has been
increased sixfold, and lateral pipelines now provide water to some 2.7
million hectares of agricultural land and country towns in schemes to
the north and south of the pipeline. The Mundaring Weir was raised by
10 metres in the 1950s, which trebled its capacity.
Many components of the scheme remain and are subject to heritage
classification. These include the pipe, 6 of the 8 pumping stations,
tanks, and much other infrastructure.