60 years of the Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Scheme

Black-and-white photograph of the Tumut Pond Dam wall, 1960.
Constructing Tumut Pond Dam, 1960 (NAA: A1200, L36209)

The Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Scheme, in New South Wales is recognised as an engineering and construction marvel which brought thousands of migrants to Australia.

In 2009 the National Archives launched the display Power for the People in Canberra to mark the 60th anniversary of the commencement of the Scheme. A sample of documents and photographs from the exhibition are showcased here. Click on an image to view the enlargement.

The Scheme took 25 years to build. When it was completed in 1974 seven power stations, 16 dams and 225 kilometres of tunnels, pipelines and aqueducts had been constructed.

To find out more about the Snowy's mighty history, visit the display in Canberra, check the fascinating facts in Did you know? or view a selection of images on our Flickr site. 

National milestone

Since the late 19th century, expanding settlement had created a need to direct water inland for irrigation and to alleviate droughts. By 1946 hydro-electricity production was also part of the plan.

The Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Power Act, passed on 7 July 1949, established the Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Authority to manage the project. The authority began operations on 1 August 1949 with New Zealand-born engineer William Hudson as commissioner.

The Governor-General of Australia, Sir William McKell, pressed the button to fire the first blast, officially starting the scheme on 17 October 1949.

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    William Hudson appointed commissioner, 1949
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    Official opening of the Snowy Scheme, 1949
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    Inspection team at Jindabyne Dam, 1951

Race against time

Commissioner Hudson realised quick results were needed to silence the Snowy’s many doubters. The first power from the Snowy flowed from Guthega power station in February 1955.

Throughout the project, construction contracts were awarded to overseas and Australian companies. The American firm Kaiser-Walsh-Perini-Raymond (Kaiser) revolutionised engineering practice in Australia. It consistently broke tunnelling records and completed projects ahead of schedule.

In 1958 Thiess Brothers became the first Australian company to win a major contract on the Snowy. By the time construction was completed in 1974, Thiess had built a quarter of the entire scheme.

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    The two developments in the Scheme, linked by Lake Eucumbene, c. 1960
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    Guthega power station generated the first Snowy electricity, 1955
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    Tunnelling world records were frequently set, 1960

Another world

In 1949 Australia’s population was only eight million people. The nation needed engineers, technicians and tradesmen, as well as machinery and equipment.

An estimated 100,000 people worked on the Snowy between 1949 and 1974. Migrants, representing over 30 nationalities, made up approximately 65 per cent of the workforce. They had travelled across the world seeking work and a new life after the turmoil of World War II.

These migrants, known as New Australians, provided the skills and manpower to build the Snowy.

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    The Festival of the Snows street parade, 1958
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    Erecting concreting formwork in a tunnel, 1964
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    Worker safety was a major concern, 1960

Gerard van Wezel's story

Gerard van Wezel met his future wife Marretje in Geelong, both having migrated from the Netherlands in 1952.

He responded to a newspaper advertisement for technical officers on the Snowy Scheme, and started work there in January 1958. Gerard and Marretje married in 1959, raised three children in Cooma and became active members of the community.

Gerard retired after 14 years with the Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Authority and 12 years with the Snowy Mountains Engineering Corporation.

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    The van Wezel's engagement photo
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    Gerard van Wezel works on a Festival of the Snows float, 1958
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    Program for a concert by Marretje van Wezel's students, 1969

Romolo Fubelli's story

Romolo Fubelli was just 19 when he arrived in Australia from Rome, Italy in August 1952, leaving behind his parents and 10 siblings.

Romolo worked on the Snowy Scheme as a tunnel pump attendant with Thiess Brothers, the first Australian company to win a major contract – which included driving a 14-kilometre tunnel between the Tooma River and the Tumut Pond reservoir. His workmates elected him as an Australian Workers’ Union representative.

Romolo’s records in the Archives end at this point. His story, however, is typical of the many migrants who found work on the Snowy.

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    Romolo Fubelli's migration card, 1953
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    Fubelli pump assistant showcase item

Life on the Snowy

Most workers were men, many having left wives and children back home to come to work on the Snowy.

They found themselves in one of the most isolated and inhospitable places in Australia. Living conditions were primitive. Most ‘wages’ workers lived in barracks with only basic amenities. The work was physically demanding, dirty and often dangerous. Tunnel drilling in particular was relentless, hazardous, high-pressure work.

Copyright National Archives of Australia 2014