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He met up with some of the last remaining workers of the scheme, particularly Germans and Austrians who today are well into their late 80s and 90s. They told him of the many hardships and dangers they endured, but also of the friendships they made with their fellow workers from many nations.
It was particularly moving and important to learn how working on this huge nation-building engineering project helped them overcome all animosities towards their old war-time enemies. For this, and for providing them with a new home, these pioneers will always be grateful to Australia.
Wolfgang also visited the Hydro Snowy Museum in Cooma, where he learned about the technical achievements in building the dams and tunnels, which harvested the gentle streams and raging torrents from the Snowy Mountains, producing energy and releasing precious water for farmers in the dry West of the state.
He incorporated these insights into his radio feature, which was further illustrated with archival sound bytes from fascinating historic movietone news reels.
It is important to note that all people interviewed are still immensely proud of their participation in this iconic infrastructure project which changed the face of the nation, and ushered in the industrialisation of modern, multicultural Australia.
Listen to the story in English
Listen to the story in German
Montage of grabs from original news reports:
Sound of loud explosion, then voice of reporter:
On October the 17th, 1949, the unthinkable began, when the first blast of the Snowy Mountains Scheme shook the town of Adaminaby, population 200.
That’s the start of the project to give New South Wales and Victoria vast supplies of power and water. The scheme was described by Prime Minister Ben Chifley as “the greatest single project in our history”.
Voice of Ben Chifley:
“The 200-million-pounds Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Scheme will mean 20 million pounds in production for Australia each year.”
The giant network of dams, tunnels, aqueducts and power stations would straddle an area roughly the size of Switzerland, and, along with the Eiffel Tower and the Panama Canal, it would become one of the engineering wonders of the world. Sound of another blast.
End of Montage
With these emphatic words, a Movietone News reporter at the time described the first blasting of rock to start the Snowy Mountains Scheme. However, his excitement was justified, because the Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Scheme remains today the largest infrastructure project ever undertaken in Australia, with a scope and ambition that bordered on the revolutionary.
That view is shared by Volker Hillig, one of the many German migrants who worked on the scheme:
“People had been dreaming of a scheme like this since the end of the 19th century, because it’s only about 100 kilometres from the Snowy Mountains to the coast, and what happened was that all the water from the melting snow disappeared into the sea while there was a bitter drought on the other side of the mountains. The main purpose of the Snowy Mountains Scheme was to divert the water inland to the dry areas and to build power stations to generate electricity. But diverting the water inland, that was really the aim.”
Post-war Australia had the political will, as well as the money, to build the Snowy Mountains Scheme, but, with a population of only 8 million people, it lacked the manpower to turn it into reality.
The Government started a campaign to attract skilled workers from Europe, and many Germans who couldn’t get jobs at home jumped at this opportunity to escape to a new life on the other side of the world.
Among them was Arthur Baumhammer from Berlin, now 97 years old:
“Skilled workers were needed urgently. Many electricity generators on the Scheme came from ex-German U-boats which had never taken to sea. But in Australia, nobody could read the instruction manuals or knew how to start them up. So German diesel mechanics were in high demand.”
Many of the new arrivals gained their first impressions of life in Australia in former military camps like Bonegilla, east of Wodonga, in Victoria.
There, Gerda Schoenheid had the job of selecting suitable workers for the Snowy Mountains Scheme.
“I worked in the records section of the camp’s administration. I was responsible for registering everybody who lived in the camp, and there were many nationalities. Many people came from German-speaking countries and that’s probably the reason why I got the job. There were also many Dutch and Hungarians and many Italians.”
Question: “Did you only pick the big and strong ones for the Snowy Mountains Scheme?”
“That was the idea, but there were also other jobs which didn’t require so much physical strength. I think everybody who wanted to work on the Scheme got a job, he just had to prove himself. But I don’t think anybody was ever sacked.”
The work on the Scheme was popular, but the loneliness of a job in the mountains created boredom. Something important was missing, says Gerda Schoenheid:
“Many of the young workers were single, and so the order went out to attract young women from Europe to Australia, because the local girls didn’t want to get involved with the foreigners, and particularly their parents were against any relationships between their daughters and the migrant boys. A friend of mine came to Australia that way and wound up marrying a Polish fellow, and they are still happy together.
The men who worked on the Scheme were quite a good catch. They earned good money, and many could later buy a house. The work was hard and often dangerous, but, if you could toughen it out, the rewards were good.” (Laughs)
Volker Hillig was also single when he started working on the Scheme in 1959 and stayed much longer than he had planned:
“We were three friends planning to drive around Australia in a car. We wanted to earn some money for the trip and signed up with the Snowy Mountains Scheme. I got stuck there. It was a great project and a great experience.”
It was also a great result that was produced in the 25 years it took to complete the Scheme. In the heat of Australian summers and the biting cold of Alpine winters, more than 100-thousand workers built 16 dams, drilled 12 tunnels, constructed 7 electricity plants and rolled out one thousand and six hundred kilometres of bitumen road. The work was, at times, brutally hard, says Arthur Baumhammer, who worked on the Scheme with his parents.
“I was only 16 years old. They took me because they were desperate for workers. In Jindabyne, I was pouring concrete. There were lots of accidents. I got trapped for 4 hours in wet cement squashed against steel reinforcements. Everybody who worked in the tunnels got his hearing damaged because of the air pressure from the underground rock-blasting. I’m totally deaf on my left ear.”
Cooma, the biggest town in the Snowy Mountains, is home to a museum dedicated to the Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Scheme. Next to it is a monument to those who lost their lives working on the project. I stopped there during my visit to Cooma:
“There is a large metal plate on this monument with a construction scene. It shows a crane that’s lifting a piece of pipeline from a truck, next to it another truck loaded with a massive electricity generator. There is a bulldozer in the background, a high-voltage power line, and there is the wall of a dam with huge tubes running down into a valley where the electricity is generated. The inscription on the plate says:
On the left and right border of the plate are engraved 120 of those who died on the project, beginning with the German name Ackermann and ending with Wagner. Altogether, quite a number of workers from Germany, Austria and Switzerland died working on the Snowy Mountains Scheme, but their sacrifice has not been forgotten.
This breezy tune played by the Australian Air Force Band is the anthem of the workers on the Snowy Mountains Scheme. The Snowy River Roll united people who, only a few years earlier, had been sworn war-time enemies. As age-old animosities melted away in the daily grind, a new reality emerged. Australia’s multiculturalism was born on the Snowy Mountains Scheme and spread across the nation as more migrants made their home in Australia in the following years.
Wolfgang Zahlauer, who, together with his wife Heidi, runs a cozy restaurant just outside of Cooma, says people from many nations came together as one on the Scheme.
“There were Germans and Austrians and Czechs and Poles and Yugoslavs and Irishmen and Australians. They were all there, and it was all peaceful. I never had any trouble. You had to be a bit careful in the pub, because the Croats didn’t like to be called Yugoslavs and sometimes there were noisy arguments over this, but I didn’t see any fistfights or such. Most of the time, we worked 10- to 12-hour shifts for up to 7 days in a row, so there was not much time left to play up.”
Wolfgang Zahlauer was fixing the many bulldozers on the project which literally moved mountains. He said one had to work hard for the money.
“These were no sugar-coated jobs. It was pretty rough, but nobody did mind. I would say that a project like the Snowy Mountains Scheme could not be built today under the same conditions and certainly not that cheaply.”
Cheap or not, wages had to be paid on time, and that was Volker Hillig’s job.
“We flew from Cooma to some of the remote building sites. There, we hopped into a car and drove to wherever the workers were, and they presented their pay slips, and we gave then cash. It was not like today, when you get your pay into your bank account.
“I traveled around with about 100-thousand pounds in my pockets, equivalent to about 200-thousand dollars. I had a driver, and another car followed us, and I had a revolver for my protection – just like a cowboy in the movies. I was never robbed, because it’s too difficult to get out of the mountains. There are only two roads to make your get-away. Nevertheless, I was pretty popular with my colleagues. Everybody likes to see the man with the money.”
The Snowy Mountains Scheme has fundamentally changed life, economy and the environment in this part of the Australian Alps.
I’m standing here on the dam wall of Lake Jindabyne. The water of the lake covers farms and towns, including the old Jindabyne, which was little more than a hamlet where woodcutters, gold-diggers and their families lived.
Fifty years ago, the new Jindabyne emerged. It has now three-thousand and five-hundred inhabitants and is visited by many tourists in winter and in summer.
Not far from the dam wall was the home of Gerlinde Kluger in the old Jindabyne.
“The Jindabyne of my youth had only 300 inhabitants who lived along the river. When we came here, many Europeans lived in Jindabyne – Bulgarians, Ukrainians, Italians and Germans. It was a very pretty township. We lived only a short distance from the river, and, in summer, when we got back from school, we jumped straight into the cool water. It was just wonderful! We lived in the last house where the dam wall was constructed. We would have preferred to stay where we lived. All the trees in old Jindabyne got cut down, piled up and set alight. My mother said it was like burning her heart.”
The Snowy Mountains Scheme shaped the life of Gerlinde Kluger and thousands of others involved in the project. It also changed Australia.
The giant project ushered in the modern industrial age and helped grow Australia’s economy. The Snowy Mountains Scheme provided work for many desperate young people from war-torn Europe and thus eased dangerous social tensions on the Old Continent. In the process, Australia emerged as an optimistic, young and multicultural nation, envied by the rest of the world.
But there was a price to pay. The dams, tunnels, roads and power stations changed the natural environment of The Snowy Mountains forever. Wolfgang Zahlauer says any government trying to launch a similar project today would encounter much stiffer opposition. But at the same time, he warns against strangling progress at all cost:
“When I revisit the area of the Scheme after all these many years, then I can see that nature has managed to reclaim much of what was damaged during the construction phase. It looks almost normal again. I’m proud of my part in the Scheme. It was good for the spirit, good for making friends. I had a good time there.”