On this day: Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Scheme

By Alex Wallace 7 November 2013
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One of the largest engineering feats in Australian history also encouraged early immigration.

ON 17 OCTOBER 1949, construction commenced on the Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Scheme, one of the largest engineering feats ever undertaken in Australia.

Situated among the Snowy Mountains in Kosciuszko National Park, New South Wales, the purpose of the Scheme was to solve two problems: inland areas were suffering from drought and in need of cultivation, and the nation’s electricity supply had to be increased to meet the needs of a growing population.

In terms of the project’s size, nothing on this scale had ever been attempted anywhere else in the world. Featuring seven power stations, 16 dams and 225km of tunnels, pipelines and aqueducts, the Scheme was so complex that it provided an opportunity for innovation and development that thrust Australia into the international spotlight.

Siobhan McHugh, journalist and author of the book The Snowy: The People behind the Power, says that the community response to the project at the time was overwhelmingly positive.

Australian feat of engineering

“Even people who would see their land [claimed] mostly welcomed it as being ‘for the greater good’, and part of important post-war development for the nation.

“‘Development’, in those days, was not a dirty word,” Siobhan told Australian Geographic. But Australia did not have the workforce required to complete the $820 million project.

“Without migrants, the Scheme could not have been built,” Siobhan says. Work opportunities in Europe were limited after the war, and as a result, many migrant workers made the arduous journey to Australia’s Snowy Mountain region to work on the Scheme.

The migrant workforce not only contributed manpower, but also expertise, Siobhan says. “The Scheme required specialist input: German surveyors with state-of-the-art knowledge; Czechoslovakians who could ski into wilderness areas and take hydrographical measurements; and Italians with their knowledge of mining and tunnelling.”

Migrants contribute to Snowy Mountain Scheme

With only two per cent of the Scheme visible above ground, much of the work was dirty and laborious. Tunnelling, which was highly physical as well as dangerous, comprised a significant proportion of the labour. Officially, 121 men were recorded to have died working on the project over its 25-year construction.

It is estimated that 65 per cent of the workforce on the project were migrants, many of whom remained in Australia after the project’s completion in 1974.

Siobhan says learning to live and work with each other in difficult conditions created a bond between the workers despite their different backgrounds.

“The Scheme became a means of overcoming antipathy to foreigners and migrants,” Siobhan says. “It was a feat of social engineering as well as a ground-breaking hydro-electric scheme.”