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“Centuries hence the most enduring monumental records of man in the 19th and 20th centuries will be his engineering achievements.”
For O’Connor, the Fremantle Harbour Works, the two lighthouses (Rottnest and Leeuwin), some portion of the railway system, the Mundaring Weir and the Goldfields water scheme will be regarded as achievement of great merit.
Born in Gravelmouth (Ireland), in 1843, Charles Yelverton O’Connor was first apprenticed to J.C. Smith M.I.C.E, a civil engineer to the Waterford and Limerick railways. He served on Irish railways until 1865, after which he moved to New Zealand and worked as an assistant engineer on the construction of the coach road from Christchurch through the Otira Gorge to Hokitika on the West Coast.
From 1865, he was an assistant engineer to the Province of Canterbury and later became a district engineer for the Westland. After working under secretary for Public Works for seven years, he was then appointed as Marine Engineer for the whole of the domination.
In April 1891, O’Connor became Engineer in Chief and Acting Manager of Railways for Western Australia. After some time he was relieved of the responsibility of Railways to devote himself to a number of engineering enterprises.
His first scheme was published in 1891 for the construction of the Fremantle Harbour Works. Although he met some criticism and opposition from Sir John Cook(consultant) and others, he convinced the Government of the correctness of his views. In March 1892, the first stone was taken from the Rocky Bay Quarries and used to form the ‘Moles’. It took six years to complete, and on May 4 1897, the “Sultan” steamed in across the bar. Then in March, 1898 the “Gera” entered the Harbour and tied up at Victoria Quay.
Sir John Forrest’s confidence on his Chief Engineer is worthy of noting. He saw the absolute necessity of rushing ahead with the Goldfields Water Scheme and lost no time in sanctioning a loan of two and a half million dollars to cover the cost. The population of the State was around 100,000 at that time.
Plans were drawn for the construction of a storage reservoir at Mundaring Weir, 340 feet above sea level on the Helena River, with a wall 750 feet in length, rising about 100 feet above the bed at a site 340 feet above sea level. O’Connor stated that, under his plan, he would pump five million gallons of water to the Goldfields and Kalgoorlie, using eight pumping stations and 30” steel pipes. The wall of the weir was to be 750 feet in length and the dam was to hold 4650 million gallons. It has since been extended to 17,000 million gallons. Planning had been in hand for some time before the actual work commenced in 1898. John K. Ewere wrote:
“For four years the pipeline moved slowly eastwards, like a great black snake. Gangs of hard working men toiled through scorching sun of summer or the cold days of winter, digging trenches and pits, unloading the handling pipes and caulking joints. There was no great comfort in the rough camps which were soon again on the move as the miles were put behind the gangs.”
In 1897, O’Connor received the C.M.G and was commissioned to visit London in connection with his great scheme and to confer with their engineers on the construction of the Outer Harbour Scheme. However, here in Australia, criticism was plentiful and just months before completion, unable to cope with the widespread verbal attacks, O’Connor rode into the surf and tragically took his own life.
The pipes (and the water) reached to Southern Cross, then to Coolgardie and finally to the Charlotte Reservoir at Kalgoorlie. Here, the scheme was opened by Sir John Forrest on January 24 1903, in a 106 degree heat wave, before a large, excited crowd, including many important visitors from the eastern states.
The original planning called for five million gallons per day. This figure has been maintained over most years, and on many occasions in recent years, has been exceeded. The great demands of the new enterprises at Kambalda and Norseman have been met and the whole scheme and system has grown to become an engineering epic, still expanding.
It is believed that, to date, at least 100,000 million gallons of water has been pumped from Mundaring and used in the mines and towns at Southern Cross, Bullfinch, Coolgardie, Spargoville, Norseman and even out to Kanowna or Ora Banda. The greatest amount was of course used by the Golden Mile mines throughout 70 years of operation.
A statue on the north mole of the harbour - Fremantle, a bust at the Weir site, and the O’Connor Museum at Mundaring Weir remind us of his great work. The pipe line is almost never out of sight when travelling by rail to Kalgoorlie from Perth, and the two million gallon tank at Mount Charlotte dominates the scene at the Goldfields end.