How the Snowy Hydro Scheme helped build multicultural Australia


Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced on Wednesday an expansion of the Snowy Hydro Scheme would begin in two weeks' time - more than 40 years after tens of thousands of migrants travelled to Australia to build the huge network of dams.

The project was Australia's biggest public works scheme and the majority of workers were migrants who travelled to Australia after World War II.

More than 100,000 people from over 30 countries travelled to the mountains in southeastern NSW to work on the Snowy scheme between 1949 and 1974, with up to 7,000 workers on the site at any one time.

Among the Australian-born workers were German, Greek, Irish, Italian, and Yugoslav migrants.

German migrant Arthur Baumhammer told SBS World News in 2015 that skilled workers were in demand.

“Many electricity generators on the scheme came from ex-German U-boats which had never taken to sea,” Baumhammer said.

“But in Australia, nobody could read the instruction manuals or knew how to start them up. So German diesel mechanics were in high demand.”

Work began in 1949, when the Federal Parliament passed an act ordering the construction of a network of dams, tunnels and power stations.

The scale of the project was without precedent in Australia and saw a number of pioneering engineering techniques tested in the mountains.

But conditions inside the tunnels were damp, dirty and dangerous - ultimately claiming 121 lives.

Snowy Hydro story told through song
Snowy Hydro story told through song

Arthur Baumhammer was 16-years-old when he started work on the scheme with his parents.

“There were lots of accidents. I got trapped for four hours in wet cement squashed against steel reinforcements,” he told SBS in 2015.

“Everybody who worked in the tunnels got his hearing damaged because of the air pressure from the underground rock-blasting.”

Living conditions in the towns and camps that popped up around the project were not much better.

Biting cold winters and scorching summers made life inside the often-poorly equipped dwellings tough for wives and families who followed their husbands to the other side of the world.

But the new communities served as incubators for modern multicultural Australia. Post-war migrants from Europe were suddenly thrown together.

“I had a Russian neighbour, Serbian neighbor, Spanish neighbour and suddenly in Australia we were all friends. In Europe, we were all enemies,” Girda Wisnowski, who migrated to Australia with her husband, told SBS World News.

Malcolm Turnbull
Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull during a Snowy Hydro 2.0 briefing in Cooma.


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