On this day: Lake Burley Griffin begins to fill

By Natsumi Penberthy 7 November 2013
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In 1963, 50 years after the construction of Canberra began, its central lake received its first drops of water.

In 1963, 50 years after the construction of Canberra began, its central lake received its first drops of water.

AT 10:30AM ON 20 September 1963 Gordon Freeth, then the minister for the interior, officially closed the valves on Canberra’s new Scrivener Dam. Despite drought and concerns over snags and soil in the lake, water spurted down into the empty bed of Lake Burley Griffin, filling it for the first time.

For locals crowding the top of the dam it was a long-awaited milestone, finally taking place more than 50 years after building began on their planned city.

Two-thousand people, including diplomats, members of Parliament and 500 schoolchildren, jostled for a spot to see water gush from the 33m-high and 319m-long dam wall.

A capital design

It was a big step for the city, although not without its hiccups. Then Prime Minister Sir Robert Menzies was supposed to turn the valves off, however he had a fever and was replaced by Gordon Freeth at the last minute. The lake and dam had also been the subject of questions about its health prospects and flood resistance.

Nonetheless, the event stirred emotions. The next day the The Canberra Times wrote: “The fulfilment of the lakes must be regarded as something far more important than the mere provision of facilities for aquatic sports for the residents of the national capital.

“Although the lakes have been artificially created, they represent as essential a feature in the creation of the national capital as do well-planned streets and gardens and monumentally conceived architecture.”


Work on Scrivener Dam had begun in September 1960 and moved faster than expected due to a stretch of dry days caused by the drought. However, the drought also meant that for seven months after the lake had begun to fill, it featured just a few pools of stagnant water and an army of mosquitoes.

Prospects looked grim for an Australian rowing championship scheduled for April 1964, and equally so for planned yachting and rowing club events and a water speed-record attempt.

The Canberra dream is realised

However, in April 1964 the drought broke and the lake filled in a few days, finally giving Canberra’s central area its intended character. After half a century, Canberra would finally shrug off a reputation as two villages separated by a floodplain.

The Scrivener Dam was named after Charles Robert Scrivener (1855-1923), the surveyor who recommended the site for Canberra in 1909 and also had a huge input into the lake’s design.

American architect Walter Burley Griffin had origionally designed Canberra’s layout with three connected lakes, but Scrivener recommended that it be the final single lake created by a dam. 

Controlled by five hydraulically-operated fish-belly flap gates, the Scrivener Dam’s German-designed gates were chosen specially to allow the precise control of water levels required to keep the lake clean. It was also designed for the possibility of a one-in-5000 year flood. All five of its gates have only been opened for this type of flooding once, in 1976.

Text by Natsumi Penberthy