C.Y. O'Connor

( 1843 - 1902 )

C.Y.O'Connor, Fremantle, Western AustraliaC.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 Zealand

C Y O Connor, Western AustraliaOn 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 established.

Land Looking West

In 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 Harbour

C Y Oconnor, Fremantle Harbour, western AustraliaIn 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. C Y Oconnor, Fremantle Harbour, Western AustraliaThe 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.


C Y O Connor, Paddy Hannan, Western AustraliaIn 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 towns.

Goldfields Pipeline Scheme

C Y O Connor, Mundaring Weir, Western AustraliaOnce 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. Cy O Connor, Goldfields pipeline, Coolgardie, Western AustraliaOnce 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 Much

c y oconnor, memorial sculpture, Fremantle, Western AustraliaDespite 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 Us

c y oconnor, pietro porcelli statue, Fremantle, Western AustraliaIn 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'Connor

When 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 O'Connor.

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