On this day: Goldfields pipeline opens

By Natalie Muller 7 November 2013
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In Jan 1903, a pipeline bringing water from Perth to Western Australia’s parched goldfields began to flow.

CHEERS ERUPTED AS water arrived in Western Australia’s arid goldfields on the afternoon of 24 January 1903. But the celebrations weren’t to welcome rain.

In 45-degree heat, former WA premier Sir John Forrest opened the valve, sending water gushing into Mount Charlotte Reservoir in the outback town of Kalgoorlie.

The 566km pipeline pumping water from Perth’s foothills to the desert had taken five years to complete, and would later become known as one of Australia’s greatest feats of engineering.

At the opening ceremony, Sir John paid tribute to C.Y. O’Connor, the visionary engineer behind the goldfields water supply scheme: “the great builder of this work” that aimed “to bring happiness and comfort to the people of the goldfields for all time.”

During construction, O’Connor had been the target of a barrage of criticism over costs, and he committed suicide less than a year before his ambitious project was completed.

The discovery of gold

“Some critics predicted that by the time the water got [to the goldfields] it would be the year 2000,” says Diana Frylinck, WA historian with the National Trust. “The newspapers at the time were very scathing.”

But over a century later, the pipeline still provides water to mines, wheat farms, and around 100,000 people living between Perth and the goldfields.

The plan to build a freshwater pipeline to the desert was proposed after the discovery of gold at Coolgardie and Kalgoorlie in the early 1890s. Thousands of people flocked to the outback, but the lack of water created problems for the fledgling gold towns.

“On these goldfields, the saying arose that water is more precious than gold,” says Diana. “There are stories of people going off on rushes and literally crawling back on their hands and knees because they hadn’t had enough water. And people did die of thirst.”

C.Y. O’Connor’s plan was to use a steel pipeline and eight steam-powered pump stations to get the water uphill from Perth’s Mundaring Weir, over the escarpment, and on to Kalgoorlie.

A “scheme of madness”

“In parliament and in the press it was described as a scheme of madness,” says Diana. “They said,  ‘You can’t pump water so far and you can’t lift it so high,’ because that had never been achieved before.”

WA’s government pushed ahead, secured a £2.5 million loan from London, and construction on the pipeline began in 1898. Five years on, the transformation was incredible, says Diana. “After the pipeline was open, flowers and gardens were developed in the goldfields. Little children had grown up previously without knowing any flowers.”

In 2009 the goldfields water supply scheme was recognised as an international historic civil engineering landmark by the American Society of Civil Engineers. Other structures to have been recognised include the Golden Gate Bridge and Panama Canal. The pipeline was added to the National Heritage List in 2011.