( 1843 - 1902 )C.Y.O'Connor was one of Western Australia's greatest engineers, a man
ahead of his time and a man greatly misunderstood. His two greatest achievements as Engineer-in-Chief were
the Fremantle Harbour and the famous Goldfields Pipeline Scheme. C.Y.O'Connor was born Charles
Yelverton O'Connor in Castletown, County Meath, Ireland in January, 1843 on the eve of the Great Famine.
Following the decline of the railway boom in Ireland, a young O'Connor made a decision to travel to the
British colony of New Zealand, where engineers were highly sort after. On the 24th of December 1864, a 21
year old O'Connor boarded the ship 'Pegasus' bound for the land of the long white cloud.
New ZealandOn Arrival, O'Connor soon found work on a government survey team, working
in Ngakinapouri, a remote little town about 100kms from Auckland on the Waikato River. The work was far from
safe with the conditions harsh and the Maori's still at war with the Europeans. From there he headed to the
South Island and the province of Canterbury. In 1865 he was appointed Assistant Engineer and assigned to
constructing the road known as Arthur's Pass (7,457 feet above sea level) in New Zealand's Southern Alps. A
small plaque at the narrow Taipo River Bridge can be found, commemorating his work. At around the same time,
New Zealand was in the midst of a gold rush, with discoveries on the West Coast and then new discoveries on
the South Island. As a result, the government was under extreme pressure to make roads accessible from the
East to West. In fact the whole public works sector was under pressure to build roads, railways, bridges and
more harbours for the massive increase in population. O'Connor found himself busy in all of these areas as
District Engineer for various provinces. His roles included surveying the Hokitika to Christchurch Railway
and the Hokitika to Greymouth line, improving the harbours of Greymouth, Westport and Hokitika which were all
experiencing problems with silting and sifting sands and supervising the construction of structures known as
water races, which were built to transport much needed water to the mines. These water races were channels
(aqueducts) sometimes built high on wooden scaffolding which transported the water from high in the mountains
to the mines below. Sound familiar? In 1874 O'Connor met and married Susan Letitia Nessat at the Holy Trinity
Church in Avonside. The later years of O'Connors time in New Zealand were spent as the Under Secretary (desk
job). Very unhappy and disillusioned with his situation in New Zealand, O'Connor was desperately looking for
a way out. Meanwhile 6,438 km's (4000 miles) away, a new independent self-governing colony was being
Land Looking WestIn 1891 , John Forrest, who had recently been appointed the Western
Australia's first Premier, was on the look out for a chief-engineer to manage the extensive public works system,
Forrest had envisaged to lift the State into prosperity. Prepared to take out sizable overseas loans to fund his
vision, all Forrest needed was a clever and visionary man (like himself), to convert his dream into reality.
O'Connor heard of the position and after much correspondence with Forrest (over salary), eventually resigned from
his New Zealand position and accepted the role of Chief-Engineer of Western Australia. Interestingly the million
pound loan Forrest would raise in London was the largest loan raised in Australia at the time.
Fremantle HarbourIn 1892, C.Y. O'Connor (now Engineer-in-Chief) was appointed by John
Forrest to build the Fremantle Harbour to provide safe anchorage for large ships. Since the
late 1800's shipping had became an increasing problem in Fremantle as there was no harbour. Ships had to anchor offshore due to a rocky bar blocking the
mouth of the Swan River and many preferred to head to the safety of the sheltered harbour in Albany. From
Albany, smaller ships would be used to transport passengers and cargo to Perth. However, with Fremantle
becoming an important whaling centre, followed by the discovery of gold in the 1890's it became clear that
there was an urgent need for a harbour. The Fremantle Harbour was to become O'Connor's first major public
works project. He proposed that the limestone bar and sand shoals at the mouth of the Swan River be removed
by blasting, that two stone moles be built out into the ocean and finally the entrance be dredged to make it
deeper for ships to enter. The project also required land reclamation to allow for the construction
of quays and warehouses. O'Connor had many critics of his proposal, many believing it was too expensive and
impractical. But O'Connor was confident of the project, having supervised and solved many harbours problems
in New Zealand. The newspaper of the day was used as a means for politicians and critics of the project to
vent their disapproval. However despite all the criticism, in 1892 construction commenced and in May 1897 the
first ship, S.S Sultan, steered by Lady Forrest, steamed into the Fremantle Harbour and berthed at Victoria
Quay (named in honour of Queen Victoria). This would be the first of his controversial achievements.
EurekaIn 1892 two gold prospectors Arthur Bayley and his mate, William Ford,
discovered gold near Coolgardie. They returned to Southern Cross to record their claim of 554 ounces
(16.8kg). The discovery of gold created a mass movement of people from around Australia to the Western
Australian goldfields. At the peak of the gold rush the population of Coolgardie boomed to 15,000. In 1894,
on hearing of Bailey's good luck, Paddy Hannan and his mates discovered another goldfield in Kalgoorlie . It became clear that the area located in such dry and harsh environment did not
have a substantial supply of fresh water to cope with the many people and livestock invading the desert
Goldfields Pipeline SchemeOnce again it was left to C.Y.O'Connor to solve the water crisis. His
solution was to build a reservoir in the hills of Perth (Mundaring Weir) and then pump water some 530kms
inland via a pipe, to Coolgardie & Kalgoorlie. You can imagine the looks on the people's faces when he
announced this plan! As you can imagine many thought he was mad. However Premier John Forrest back his man
and on the 16th of July 1896 he introduced a bill to authorise the raising of a 2.5 million pound loan to
construct the scheme. The pipeline was intended to pump five million gallons of water per day to the eastern
goldfields using eight pumping stations located along the route, to a tank on Mt Charlotte in Kalgoorlie.
Once in Kalgoorlie the water would then be reticulated to various
locations in the goldfields. The newspapers had a field day criticising the project, yet O'Connor remained
confident. In 1898, he travelled to Adelaide to view a new design of pipelines developed and patented by
Mephan Ferguson . These seamless pipes had low frictional resistance to water and lacked leaks.
On O'Connor's recommendations, Mephan Ferguson was awarded the contract to supply half of the seamless pipes
for the project. In 1899 the Falkirk Foundry was built on the corner of Whatley Crescent and Macedonian
Avenue, Maylands (now a housing development). The other half of the contract went to Hoskins Company
who already had a foundry at Midland Junction. The Maylands Railway station was built close to the Falkirk foundry for easy transport of the pipes
and material. Construction of the Mundaring Weir began in 1898 and was completed in 1903.
All Too MuchDespite the urban myth which claims C.Y.O'Connor took his life
minutes before the first drop of water came out of the pipeline in Coolgardie, it was in fact nearly a year
before the completion of the pipeline. On the 10th of March,1902, he mounted his horse and headed to an
isolated beach just south of Fremantle. Having taken years of criticism from the press, politicians and
peers, O'Connor, with gun in hand, rode into the cold Indian Ocean and shot himself. It seems ironic that he
chose to end his life in water, as it was his amazing ability to solve water issues which made him so
revered. Today if you venture down to the beach and look out to sea you will find a lonely statue standing
just beyond the breaking waves a few metres from shore.
Looking Over UsIn 1912 a statue of C.Y. O'Connor was commissioned. Pietro Porcelli's monument to C.Y.O'Connor, towers nearly 12 feet high, overlooking the
Fremantle Harbour which O'Connor so proudly designed and constructed. It seems fitting that Porcelli chose to
depict him in a thinking stance with his finger to his chin (a plan concealed in his other hand). Following
the unveiling of the statue in 1912, Sir John Forrest was quoted as saying it was a "thinking in Bronze".
If you wonder over to the patch of green and look at the base of the plinth each side bears a
copper plaque depicting his greatest achievements ;the Mundaring Weir, the Goldfields Pipeline Scheme, Fremantle
harbour and the Swan River Tunnel through the Darling Range.
Things You May Not Know About C.Y. O'ConnorWhen C.Y.O'Connor came to Perth as Chief Engineer
his office was located above the arch of Barrack's Arch.
One of O'Connor's infant sons died in a tragic accident in New Zealand when a pot of scolding water
fell from the stove.
The lake created by Mundaring Weir in the hills near Perth, Western Australia is known as Lake