O’Connor’s Pipe Dream
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.
A Commodity More Valuable than Gold
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.
The Price of O’Connor’s Success
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 March 10, 1902, after leaving detailed instructions for the completion of his project in a final note.
By January 16, 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.
By James Cowie
Water Corporation Education site - Charles Yelverton O’Connor
Walkabout Australian Travel Guide