The WA Goldfields Pipeline

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I've linked in images from the Battye Library of Western Australia, as part of fair use ( note in any case I've not copied the image ). In many cases the images have copyright held by that Library, in others they are held by individuals, as noted. I've also included images from the National Trust of Western Australia - who originally gave permission for the article intended for paper publication, but I trust the permission also covers this article.

Australia had its grand engineering works. We know about the Snowy River Hydro Scheme, and Sydney's Harbour Bridge. But back around the turn of last century, a truly staggering project was completed in Western Australia - the completion of a 530 km pipeline stretching from near Perth to the Kalgoorlie goldfields.

Well known to Western Australians and those with an interest in Australia's industrial history, the amazing story is a hidden secret of Australia's past.

At the time it was the longest fresh water pipeline in the world. Nowadays, pipes are extruded in one piece and welded together. Back then pipes were not extruded; normally two crescent shaped metal plates were riveted together. Riveting meant that holes were drilled, flat tipped metal rods were inserted and the ends pounded or heated flat - a bit like a bolt without a nut.

For the Goldfields pipeline, the pipe was formed from two crescent shaped plates joined together, but rather than rivets these pipes used an innovative "locking bar"; the pipe sections were then joined together by pouring molten lead under a collar and sealing the ends with hemp fabric to hold the molten lead - in a sense, soldering !

During the great depression, for a time woodstave pipes were used to replace sections of the pipeline. Economics turned upside down during the great depression. In spite of widespread unemployment, it still made sense to mine gold as the world price was remained - but wooden pipes became more cost effective.

The pipeline was first mooted in 1896. Construction started in 1898, and it was completed in 1903. Around this time, from 1897 onwards, Herbert Hoover circulated around Kalgoorlie - before he became the 31st President of the United States.

There's always a body ... and there's always a project. A magnet for controversy and criticism. Controversy dogged the project from the start. Have any large projects ever been free of criticism ? The political challenges invariably seem as big, if not greater, than the technological challenges.

The need of the Kalgoorlie Goldfields for water was apparent to Western Australia's then Premier Forrest, who introduced a bill to raise a loan of 2.5 million pounds to finance the project. Rather than a gold rush sapping towns of population, in this case the Kalgoorlie goldfields were a source of wealth whose potential was held back by a lack of water.

Charles Yelverton O'Connor was the engineer behind the project. You might think that vicious journalism and character assassination was a recent phenomenon, bit it was surprisingly apparent 100 years ago. Human nature doesn't seem to have changed all that much in the intervening years. Some criticised the magnitude of the debt and the brazenness behind it. Some thought the scale of the engineering was too great and it would never work. Some claimed it would be impossible to push water up the great heights involved. I'm sure it was pushed up large distances in mines; in any case, the plan used eight steam powered pumping stations, taking a staged approach.

While Forrest was originally able to provide political defense against the attacks on O'Connor he later went into Federal politics and O'Connor was left to hold back the wolves himself. Tragically, he committed suicide before the project had been completed, by riding a horse into water and shooting himself. There's a story that he committed suicide after the project had been turned on but before water flowed at its destination - but this is one of the myths that the controversy attracted. He committed suicide in January. The project was completed in March - two months later.

In 2003 the WA National Trust completed its centenary celebrations of the Water Supply Scheme. Jon Breen, an engineer and industrial heritage enthusiast from Sydney attended; he told me it attracted a wide range of people you'd not normally expect to see under the same roof. Wilson "Iron Bark" Tuckey attended, the then Federal Member for the Western Australian seat of O'Connor, along with Nelson Lemmon who initiated the Snowy Mountains Scheme. Grandchildren of people who worked on the pipeline travelled from New Zealand to attend.

Part of the project involved set up a walking trail, the so called Kep track (from the Noongar word for water ) which follows for the most part the old railway path, and at times meets up with the original pipeline's route - covering 75km - from the former source of water, the Avon river, to the Helena river. You can find more information at the Kep track website, where you can download a brochure of the trail. The trail incorporated some existing museums ; the No. 1 pumping station and museum was upgraded.

A driving trail, the golden pipeline heritage trail, was also put together. Again, it does not cover the exact original path of the pipeline, but you can drive all the way to the pipeline's destination. There more information at the
golden pipeline website

References and Thanks :

Goldfields pipeline Wikipedia page, kep trail and golden pipeline
websites, ABC Rural

, Discussions with Jon Breen, Sydney and Diana Frylinck, WA National Trust

Thanks to the Budrikis Family in Dalkeith for being so hospitable during
visits to Perth.

Other photos

An index of some pipe photos is available>here

Steel Pipes awaiting delivery

Camels Pulling Pipes

Making Steel Pipes

Lowering Pipes

Other references, not originally consulted in the preparation of this article

This article was prepared about a year ago. I've since become involved with the Sydney Enginering Heritage Group.

Michael Clarke advises that the pipeline is also covered by "River of Steel - a history of the Western Australian Goldfields and Agricultural Water Supply 1903-2003" 86445 196 5.

He also notes that the pipeline has been designated as both an Engineering Heritage National Marker by Engineers Australia and an International Historic Civil Engineering Landmark by the American Society of Civil Engineers - see here