Snowy Mountains Hydro Scheme Is Now Heritage Listed

Around 100,000 people worked on the scheme between 1949 and 1974.

13/10/2016 3:32 PM AEDT | Updated 15/10/2016 6:50 AM AEDT
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Workers return after a day's work in June 1957 on the snowy mountains.

The construction of the Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric scheme, between 1949 and 1974, remains one of our most incredible structural feats: many refer to it as a masterpiece.

More than 100,000 people worked on the Snowy Hydro, which is now officially declared a national heritage place. It continues to churn out clean and safe energy for the national grid. It covers 225 kilometres of tunnels, pipelines and aqueducts across the mountains in south east New South Wales.

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Snowy Hydro Scheme

A great majority of the workers were migrants from more than 30 nations. This created something of a cultural melting pot in New South Wales. Many of them were refugees escaping war-ravaged countries to live a comparably peaceful life working on the project that resulted in a massive 16 dams, a pumping station and seven power stations.

Not all Australians welcomed the new workers. A 1955 Gallop poll showed 45 per cent thought there were 'too many migrants coming in.' But Australia's population was only 9 million back then and Prime Minister Ben Chifley and his team believed opening our borders to refugees would make a better, stronger Australia.

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Snowy mountain scheme workers bracing themselves for a blast.

Author Brad Collis has written in his recently published book Snowy, The Making of Modern Australia:

"The construction of the Snowy Scheme changed Australia from a country that was agricultural and British to a country that was industrial and multi-cultural ... The Snowy was unique in bringing together people of every creed and culture and calling them all Australian. The lesson of the Snowy is that when the dispossessed are given the chance to rebuild their lives, they enrich and advance their host society."

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Snowy Hydro Scheme workers endured incredibly tough conditions.

How the scheme works:

The Snowy Hydro collects water from melting snow and rain in the Snowy Mountains. Instead of flowing into the Snowy River, it was diverted through tunnels in the mountains and stored in dams. The water is then used by the power stations to create electricity.

Water flows to the Murray and Murrumbidgee Rivers, critical for the irrigation of farms, household use and for people across New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia.

Deaths of Workers

More than 120 men died during the construction of the scheme. Ninety-eight per cent of the work was underground and dangerous; the work often involved grueling tunneling through solid granite rock.

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Prime Minister Robert Menzies opens Guthega Power Station, part of the Snowy River scheme

Living Conditions

Life in the camps and nearby towns was not easy; accommodation was built into the mountains. The cabins were not built to withstand the freezing conditions of winter and it was so cold there were times when water would freeze in the pipes. Many workers were joined by wives who often struggled to make sense of their new wild surroundings and create a sense of home.

There are only sparse remains of what was once the workers' accommodation today because as they finished one section of the project, their cabins were dismantled and taken to a new area. Most of the workers decided to remain in Australia once the scheme was completed, many of them Europeans who knew that work was hard to come by back home, mostly due to the devastation of World War II.

The Legacy of the Scheme

The Snowy Hydro Scheme was incredibly complex and nothing like it had ever been attempted anywhere in the world. Engineers had the challenge of developing methods that were not only new to Australia but were 'world firsts.' Although there were 120 tragic deaths, new standards in occupational health and safety had been set up, as well as safer construction methods.

The Scheme also saw the development of the world's first transistorised computer, known as 'Snowcom'. Used from 1960 to 1967, the Snowcom made a great difference to the smooth running of the project.

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Work on the Snowy was often dangerous and 120 men lost their lives during the 25 year period of construction.

The Snowy Hydro Scheme now sits alongside the Sydney Opera House, the Great Barrier Reef and Bondi Beach as the 107th place on the National Heritage List. Many would say this official recognition of the magnificent construction was a long time coming.

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