Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Scheme

The Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Scheme in New South Wales was nominated by the American Society of Engineers in 1967 as one of the engineering wonders of the world.

The scheme brought thousands of migrants to Australia.

For images of the Snowy, check our Flickr site.

Construction of the scheme officially started in 1949. It was completed 25 years later in 1974.

This involved construction of:

  • 7 power stations
  • 16 dams
  • a pumping station
  • 225km of tunnels, pipelines and aqueducts.

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National milestone

A growing population created a need to direct water inland for irrigation and to help during droughts.

By 1946 hydro-electricity production was also part of the plan.

The Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Power Act was passed on 7 July 1949.

This set up the Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Authority to manage the project.

The authority began on 1 August 1949 with New Zealand-born engineer William Hudson as commissioner.

The Governor-General of Australia, Sir William McKell, pressed a button to fire the first blast on 17 October 1949. This marked the official start of the scheme.

Achievements—a race against time

Commissioner Hudson needed quick results to silence the Snowy’s many doubters.

The first power from the Snowy flowed from Guthega power station on 21 February 1955.

Construction contracts were given to overseas and Australian companies.

American firm Kaiser-Walsh-Perini-Raymond (Kaiser) became a leader in engineering in Australia. The firm regularly broke tunnelling records and completed projects ahead of time.

In 1958 Thiess Brothers became the first Australian company to win a major contract on the Snowy. They built a quarter of the entire scheme.

In 1963, Thiess drilled 165 metres in a six-day week in the Snowy-Geehi tunnel.

Snowy scientists and engineers refined the technique of rockbolting where tension bolts are used to compress broken or jointed rock into a self-supporting arch structure.

This was a landmark achievement in civil engineering and mining.

The scheme also pioneered the compulsory use of seat belts in vehicles.

Facts about the Snowy

  • The scheme cost about $820 million.
  • It was completed on time and on budget.
  • Lake Eucumbene, the largest reservoir in the Snowy, has a capacity eight times that of Sydney Harbour.
  • Talbingo Dam has the highest wall—161.5 metres.
  • Khancoban Dam has the longest crest length—1066.8 metres—but the lowest height of 18.3 metres.

Another world

In 1949 Australia’s population was only 8 million. The nation needed:

  • engineers, technicians and tradesmen
  • machinery and equipment.

Around 100,000 people worked on the Snowy between 1949 and 1974.

The official death toll during construction was 121.

Migrants from more than 30 nations made up around 65 per cent of the scheme's workforce. They travelled across the world seeking work and a new life after World War II.

These 'New Australians' provided skills and manpower for the Snowy.

Life on the Snowy

Most workers were men. Many left wives and children back home to work on the Snowy.

They found themselves in an isolated and inhospitable place.

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 hazardous, high-pressure work.

Gerard van Wezel's story

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

He saw a newspaper advert 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 part of the community.

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

Romolo Fubelli's story

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

Romolo worked on the Snowy Scheme as a tunnel pump attendant with Thiess Brothers. This included driving a 14km 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 here. His story, however, is typical of many migrants.

The Snowy today

In June 2002 the Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Authority ceased to be a Commonwealth Government agency and became a corporation, Snowy Hydro Limited.

The New South Wales, Victorian and Commonwealth governments are shareholders.