Charles Y. O'Connor - Bringer of Water

b 1843 Ireland, d 1902 Perth

Peter Smith suggests the story of the engineer-in-chief for Western Australia, Charles O'Connor. He spent most of his career in New Zealand, only coming to Australia in 1891. He oversaw the construction of the harbor at Fremantle and improved the building and operating of the government railways. He's remembered, though, for the design of a vast system called the Coolgardie Water Supply Scheme. This brought (and still brings) water almost 600 km from the hills east of Perth to the city, its farms, and its mines. A monument was just unveiled to him this year:

Memorial bust of O'Connor

It was erected on the centenary of his death by a now-grateful public.

That wasn't the way he was perceived then, though. This was a huge project and was hugely expensive. It involved pumping tens of thousands of cubic meters of water a day up 340 m from a reservoir near Perth and then 600 km east and down to the farms and gold mining fields near Coolgardie. There were only a hundred thousand people in the entire province at the time, and this was a multi-million dollar effort.

So the whole scheme was ridiculed in the Perth press, and he came in for a great deal of personal attack. It was too much for him, and he took his life shortly before the project was finished by riding his horse into the ocean at Fremantle and shooting himself. Even in his suicide note he gave instructions on the next tasks of the project.

Links

Biographical entry in Bright Sparcs, a register of Australian technicals.

Fuller description and pictures from a class project at a local primary school.

(c) John Redford, June-2002

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