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It should never be forgotten that one man brought water to the West Australian arid Goldfields and ships into Fremantle Harbour. One man ensured that the railways could unite a vast country like Australia. 

That man was not only a remarkable human being and a pioneer, but also a truly outstanding Civil Engineer. He is a true Australian hero.

Charles Yelverton (C Y) O'Connor (1843-1902) was an Irish civil engineer who received early training and experience in railway and water supply projects. He migrated to New Zealand aged 21 where he gained experience in the design and construction of water supply, harbour facilities, railway tracks, roads, and bridges. This work gained him an international reputation and led to his election in 1880 as a Member the Institution of Civil Engineers, London (MICE).

In April 1891, Sir John Forrest, premier of Western Australia, appointed O'Connor as the Engineer-in-Chief of the Public Works Department of WA, which encompassed all Government civil engineering projects in the State. He was also appointed General Manager of Railways. O’Connor then relocated to WA with his wife and eight children.


O’Connor’s contributions to the State were threefold: Port Facilities, Railways and Water Supply:

Fremantle Harbour

At the time of O’Connor’s appointment, Fremantle Harbour at the mouth of the Swan River consisted of a timber jetty only. There was a limestone bar and sand shoal across the mouth of the estuary which would have to be removed to make the harbour accessible to shipping, and the harbour would have to be dredged to a greater depth to permit entry of large ships. The consensus was that the removal of the bar would make the mouth and harbour silt up by longshore drift, which would require constant dredging.

As depicted in the diagram below, longshore drift is the movement of sand along the edge of the coastline caused by the combination of waves and winds at an angle to the coast.

Longshore Drift


O’Connor disagreed, and prepared a design which would require blasting and removal of the limestone bar, dredging of the harbour and construction of two stone moles extending into the ocean to prevent longshore drift. The limestone bar was drilled and blasted from a pontoon using vertical pipes for drilling and placement of explosive. The shattered rock was removed, and the harbour bottom deepened by a huge bucket dredge. The North Mole and the South Mole were constructed by placing huge rocks into the ocean, which were quarried from the Darling Range overlooking Perth and Fremantle. In a flash of brilliance, O’Connor designed the harbour so that ships were moored parallel to the shore, and not to traditional finger wharves protruding at 90 degrees to the shoreline.  This permitted mooring of ever-increasing longer ships. The harbour was completed in 1897 and is still fully functional today with no need for dredging.


Dredge Design North Mole 1896 - 1901

north mole construction ca 1896

North Mole Construction 1896

Fremantle Harbour 1901

North and South Moles 1901


In addition to cruise ships moored on the South Quay, the container berth on the North Quay handles all of the container traffic for WA.  I was employed as the Project Engineer on the construction of the original container berth in the mid-1960s.

Extension of Railways

O’Connor was responsible for extension of the existing narrow gauge railway from Perth to Northam, on to Kalgoorlie in the period 1894-1897. The work was mainly contracted out, using early steam powered earthmoving equipment. When the earthen formations were ready, rail track was laid progressively by means of material provided by locomotives moving progressively up the newly constructed line. Crushed igneous rock as ballast was spread on the formation, sleepers were placed manually on alignments set by surveyors, short sections of rail where then affixed to the sleepers by dog spikes manually hammered into the sleepers, which fixed the rails to the sleepers. The rails were bolted together with fish plates.

The extension of the rail line to Kalgoorlie opened up the Eastern Goldfields.


In the late 1960s, the old 3 feet 6 inches narrow gauge line was abandoned and replaced by a new standard gauge line of 4 feet 8.5 inches on a new route to comport with the standard gauge line from the Eastern States, which terminated in Kalgoorlie, thus doing away with the need to change trains at Kalgoorlie. I was the Project Engineer on the tracklaying of the new standard gauge line from Koolyanobbing to Kalgoorlie. The work was much more mechanised and simpler with much less manual labour required.

I have a few memories to share. I and the staff lived in Kalgoorlie, while the employees lived in accommodation which moved progressively along the line. There was a mess manned by Chinese cooks.  On weekends the men from the camps, many of whom were recent European immigrants, would go into Kalgoorlie as the camp moved nearer. The Kalgoorlie police would not allow the Chinese cooks into town, even though I have been unable to discover any supportive legislation. Many of the workers would head for the local brothels, only to come down with VD the following week, necessitating a visit to the hospital. It was so common that it was referred to as the poison. In the 1960s there was an old pro known as Granny, reputed to have been known by that nom de plume way back in the 1930s.

Kalgoorlie Brothels 1968

Kalgoorlie Brothels 1968


Eastern Goldfields Pipeline

The discovery of gold in the Coolgardie/Kalgoorlie region in the 1890s attracted thousands of settlers necessitating not only a railway line from Perth, but also a ready supply of clean water. The Eastern Goldfields are dry and largely waterless, with not a blade of grass to be seen. The principal water supply was from irregular rain stored in rainwater tanks, water condensers and water trains.

O’Connor devised a scheme which consisted of constructing the Mundaring Weir in the Darling Range overlooking Perth, and from there to pump water to the Eastern Goldfields through a steel pipeline, 30 inches in diameter and 330 miles long. There were to be eight pumping stations along the route, to lift the water over the Darling Range and to deliver it to the Eastern Goldfields. The pipeline was constructed adjacent to the old narrow gauge railway line to facilitate transport of men and materials.

Work commenced in 1898 and was completed in 1903, being the longest water supply pipeline in the world.


map and long section


Pipelaying across darling Range 1900

Pipe Laying across darling Range 1900


A magnificent achievement by C Y O’Connor who was made a Companion of the Distinguished Order of Saint Michael and Saint George (CMG) in 1897.


Driven to Death

O’Connor was the victim of unjustified and defamatory attacks by Members of the West Australian Parliament and by the West Australian Sunday Times newspaper, purely for political or personal reasons.


The Sunday Times also falsely accused O’Connor of being corrupt in the use of public funds in constructing the pipeline and referred to him as being a crocodile imposter engaging in reckless extravagant juggling with public funds, in all his nefarious machinations behind the scenes AND apart from any distinct charge of corruption, this man has exhibited such gross blundering or something worse, in his management of great public works it is no exaggeration to say that he has robbed the taxpayer of this state of many millions of money.

The movement of O’Connor’s supporter, the West Australian Premier Sir John Forrest to Canberra as Federal Minister for Defence, left him vulnerable to attack from Forrest’s political opponents. On 10 March 1902, with the water still ten months away from arriving in Kalgoorlie and a Parliamentary enquiry initiated into the Eastern Goldfields Pipeline, an overworked ill and depressed O’Connor rode his horse into the ocean at Robbs Jetty Fremantle and shot himself. 


A still surviving monument to his memory was erected in 1911, at the spot in the ocean where driven to despair, he tragically took his own life. In addition, there is a statue of the great man facing Fremantle Harbour, erected also in 1911.

C Y O96Connor 57186 60580


When I was a child living in the Eastern Goldfields, our family would travel by steam train to Perth for an annual holiday by the beach at Fremantle. The rails, unlike the present day welded lengths of 70 feet, were only 15 feet long, thus causing a continuous clickety clack to put you to sleep at night. It was great to awaken in the morning approaching Northam to see green fields flanked by the pipeline once more.

The great Czech composer Antonin Dvorak, a train lover, wrote Humoresque on the starched cuff of his shirt while travelling on a train, to mimic the beat of the train wheels passing over the joints.




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