Building a Pipeline

Article | Updated 4 years ago

Courtesy State Library of Western Australia 001284D
Laying pipes across the Darling Ranges, c.1902

By 1895 it was clear that the problem of supplying water to the growing population on the goldfields required a radical solution. It took the brilliant mind of Engineer-in-Chief, Charles Yelverton O’Connor, to come up with the solution; however, his proposal was met with disdain from many.

It was the height of madness to mortgage our future by imposing the debt of two and a half million pounds upon our small community for the one particular work.

G T Simpson, MLA, 26 July 1898

No government could be justified in pledging the credit of the country to provide the mines with water. The principle was wrong and unjust …

F Wilson, MLA, 26 July 1898

Following initial investigations, designs, and costings, O'Connor proposed pumping water more than 500 kilometres from Mundaring, on the Helena River outside Perth, to the goldfields. Many thought the idea was madness, not least because it involved lifting water 390 metres over the Darling Escarpment. Furthermore, the cost of constructing the pipeline would be equal to the colony’s entire annual budget.

However, O’Connor’s credentials and the political skills and determination of Premier Sir John Forrest laid the basis for success. Work began in 1898, and the Goldfields Water Supply Scheme was officially opened on 22 January 1903 at Coolgardie. Two days later it was opened at Mount Charlotte in Kalgoorlie.


An Engineering Marvel

The choice of Mephan Ferguson’s radical new locking bar pipes for the goldfields pipeline was brave and innovative.

Most steel pipes at the time were riveted. Ferguson's revolutionary locking bar system improved water flow, as it obviated the need for rivet holes and rivets, which, respectively, were sites of potential leaks and slowed the flow of water within the pipe. The pipes were joined through a process called ‘caulking,’ which formed a waterproof seal. A ring of steel was fitted around the ends of the pipes, which left a 6 mm clearance. The gap was filled with rope, and molten lead was then poured into the joint and hammered into place as it cooled.

In 1901 a caulking machine was invented by James Couston. The pipes had not been trialed on a large scale, and more than 60,000 pipes, each 762 mm and 8.5 metres in length, were required. The Scheme was divided into eight sections, each of which had its own steam pump station, which enabled the water to be moved with greater efficiency.

Construction of Mt Charlotte Reservoir, Kalgoorlie, c.1898

Construction of Mt Charlotte Reservoir, Kalgoorlie, c.1898
Image courtesy State Library of Western Australia 012110D

Men laying pipes across the Darling Ranges, c.1902

Laying pipes across the Darling Ranges, c.1902
Image courtesy State Library of Western Australia 001284D

Men preparing lead jointing for pipe, c.1900s

Preparing lead jointing for pipe, c.1900s
Image courtesy State Library of Western Australia 3359B/16

Men using an electric caulking machine, c1902

Electric caulking machine, c1902
Image courtesty Battye Library

Charles Yelverton O'Connor

Irish born Charles Yelverton O’Connor had acquired 25 years of engineering experience in New Zealand when he was asked by Western Australian Premier, Sir John Forrest, to become the State’s Engineer-in-Chief. O'Connor was to have a huge impact on Western Australia, being responsible for a range of key infrastructure projects, including the construction of a safe harbour for Fremantle and railways for the expanding colony. O’Connor’s work on the pipeline from Mundaring to Coolgardie and Kalgoorlie was vital to the continued success of the goldfields.

Battles Won . . . and Lost

Not only had they obtained the victory over the opponents of the scheme, but they had won a greater fight and a greater battle – they had conquered the great forces of Nature.

Sir John Forrest at the opening of the Scheme at Mundaring, 22 January 1903

Sir John and Lady Forrest at the official turning on of the water at Mount Charl

‘Au fait accompli’, 1903 -Sir John and Lady Forrest at the official turning on of the water at Mount Charlotte, Kalgoorlie 24 January 1903.
Image courtesty Battye Library

Great pomp and ceremony heralded the arrival of water and the opening of the Scheme. Clean, fresh water could now be easily obtained in some of Australia's harshest country. However, this victory came at a great cost. The stress of the bold project was too much for O’Connor, who, after enduring endless criticism, took his life on 10 March 1902, before the Scheme was completed. In 2009, the American Society of Civil Engineers named the pipeline an International Historic Civil Engineering Landmark. The pipeline continues to operate today, and is listed on the National Heritage List.