‘The Chief’ Down Under: The life and works of engineering hero CY O’Connor
07 May 2019
Aerial view of Fremantle harbour - first on the list that led to the transformation of Western Australia.
The aboriginal people of Australia have a story about the demise of Irish engineer Charles Y O’Connor. In the course of his construction of Fremantle harbour he ordered the destruction of a reef which was used by aboriginal men to cross the Swan River for ceremonies with their womenfolk. Angered by this destruction of their ceremonial route, they sang a mystical aboriginal song to drive him mad. Subsequently (the story goes), he rode himself and his horse off a cliff into the ocean and died.
The story has a grain of truth; more due to work pressures than magic songs and in moderately less dramatic fashion, Charles Yelverton O’Connor would end his life by riding his horse into the surf and shooting himself. The legacy of O’Connor’s demise is significant and will be discussed later but to concentrate on it would be a dis-service.
Born to a landed family just outside Navan in Co Meath, Charles Yelverton O’Connor entered this world as Ireland was in the throes of its greatest disaster – the famine.
His parents were horrified by the humanitarian crisis unfolding around them. In an effort to give some relief to the starving masses, they sold or mortgaged all they had to buy food, nearly paupering their selves in the process.
This selfless action resulted in the family being split up to save money and young Charles was sent to his aunt to live. A few years later, he was reunited with them in Waterford city where he continued his education.
Expertise in developing weirs and flood defences
Aged 17 he began his engineering career under railway engineer John C Smith, training to be a surveyor. Over five years he began to develop an expertise in developing weirs and flood defences which were required for the safe construction and use of the railway.
In 1864, aged 21, the lure of adventure in new lands beckoned; specifically New Zealand, which was going through a gold rush at the time and urgently required engineers to build infrastructure to the goldfields.
In New Zealand his reputation grew gradually. Starting out as an assistant engineer in the west of the province of Canterbury, he successfully completed roads, railways, docks and harbours projects in the most challenging of terrains.
He became known, not just as a brilliant engineer but also a great project manager and motivator of men. Now known affectionately as ‘CY’, he would rise to become under-secretary of public works. A lifelong career in New Zealand seemed to beckon as he married Susan Laetitia Ness and together they had eight children.
It was not to be, however; after 27 years of public service and deserving of the prestigious position of secretary of public works, he was overlooked and moved sideways to the position of chief marine engineer. Disillusionment coupled with an economic downturn, meant CY was looking elsewhere for new challenges and opportunities.
‘Railways, harbours, everything’
This was to manifest itself by way of an invitation by John Forrest, premier of the state of Western Australia in 1891. Tempted by the offer of a generous five-year contract, he inquired as to the nature of his responsibility. The response that returned made his mind up: “railways, harbours, everything” and New Zealand’s loss was Western Australia’s gain.
Arriving in Perth, the capital of Western Australia, he was officially made the state’s chief engineer and general manager of railways. He quickly developed a close working relationship with John Forrest and shared his vision for the emerging colony. It would be CY’s task to turn Forrest’s vision into a reality.
Western Australia is a vast state covering a third of Australia and at the time had a paltry population of about 50,000 people. With an untapped hoard of mineral resources, the fledgling state was ripe for expansion but it urgently required infrastructure and CY O’Connor was the man for the job.
First on the list was the transformation of Fremantle harbour at the entrance to the Swan River into the state’s main port. Merely 14km from Perth, it would replace Albany Port 400km away and would become the foundation stone of a vast infrastructure network that also included a significant railway expansion.
Then only a long timber jetty, others had concluded that the river mouth wasn’t suitable for a harbour of any substance. Shallow, rocky and prone to sand drifts, the river estuary flowed directly out into the swell and gales of the Indian Ocean with multiple navigation hazards en-route.
Even Forrest thought it impossible but CY wasn’t so convinced. He conducted meticulous research and calculations, consulted with local sailors and studied the local currents and winds. In the end he concluded that a large sheltered deepwater harbour could be created there.
Utilised process of dredging, blasting and land reclamation
With a single-mindedness he utilised a process of dredging, blasting and land reclamation as he changed the landscape to suit his needs. Starting in 1892, the harbour was completed five years later and Western Australia was open for business. A new era had begun for Western Australia and CY was honoured both in Australia and worldwide being made a Companion of St Michael and St George by the British crown.
CY was possibly more honoured, however, by the title given to him by those that worked under him: ‘the chief’. Rigorous in his standards, CY was idolised by the people under him because they knew that while he expected the best, he would give his best for them in return by striving to improve their working conditions and pay.
The words of John Forrest perhaps say it best “..In this action of the engineer you see the character of the man; he was not afraid to take responsibility of this great work. I believe that in him we have an able and energetic, a brave and a self-reliant man…”
The second crucial part of this infrastructure network was the railway system which was in a dreadful state when CY took over. About 400 miles of track spanned the state, with the government owning less than half of it.
Losing £40,000 annually, the rail network was a mishmash of different track gauges, old and decrepit trains, steep gradients and slow service. Almost immediately CY began arranging for the train workshops to be moved to a more central location so trains could be dispatched faster along the network.
Unafraid to stand up for ordinary people
He also demanded better working conditions for his staff, highlighting that they were overworked, underpaid and endured unsafe conditions. He endorsed better education and training for them. Like his parents, CY wasn’t afraid to stand up for the ordinary people.
In 1892 and 1893, two consecutive gold rushes in the eastern interior of the state meant the train network needed to expand. The system couldn’t cope with the demands placed on it – a massive backlog of cargo was piling up at depots, waiting to be loaded on a train, and this increased by the ton daily.
CY ripped up the old lightweight track and relayed a heavier one along a less steep route through the Darling mountain range. This enabled newly purchased, heavier and more frequent trains, providing a vital lifeline to the fast expanding gold rush towns delivering people, supplies and, most importantly, water at an unprecedented level.
In five years CY trebled the railway network, made it profitable and built more lines to the southwest and north of the state capital. However, his most important work with the railways would be not realised until 10 years after his death, he commissioned the survey and planning of the Transcontinental Rail line which would connect Perth on the west coast to Sydney on the east coast of the continent. Both the new harbour and the new rail network would prove invaluable for O’Connor’s next challenge: a water pipeline.
Biggest issue by far was the lack of water
Even with the lifeline of the train, conditions in the various gold rush towns in the barren east were primitive at best. The biggest issue by far was the lack of water. Its scarcity was so bad, it became ironically more precious than gold and as expensive as whiskey with the rationed one gallon daily allowance costing about €20 in today’s money.
Water wasn’t available for the steam trains or washing – let alone the higher standard required for consumption – and diseases like typhus were rampant. In the 40 degrees celsius heat, it was estimated that 200,000 gallons were needed daily so as a stopgap measure, large water tanks were installed at various points. In what must have been an extraordinary sight, 25 million gallons of water were transported to these tanks using hundreds of camels.
There was only one man capable of tackling this crisis. Proceeding with his usual enthusiasm and attention to detail, CY came up with a workable plan. He would dam the Helena River along the western slope of the Darling mountain range, lift the water over the mountains via eight pumping stations and two small holding dams to pump five million gallons a day for 500km to the goldfields. By routing the pipeline overground and alongside his railway he would both reduce costs and provide a practical source for his steam trains.
Some politicians balked at the idea and used the newspapers they owned to attack the plan, saying it was a waste; the gold would be gone in a few years and the people would leave the towns. CY’s reputation, his due diligence in having other engineers’ peer-review his plans combined with the political cover of Premier Forrest meant, however, that the plan got approved. Work was started in 1896/8 and completed in 1903.
The amounts of resources used in the construction is staggering; for the reservoir weir alone, an estimated 8,500 tons of concrete was used as men poured it 24/7 for 30 months, creating a 100ft-high wall to store 4,655 million gallons of water.
Problem of how to minimise leaks along the pipeline
One of the biggest engineering problem was how to minimise leaks along the pipeline. The then used system of riveting pipes simply wasn’t suitable. CY wasn’t afraid to utilise cutting-edge technology and ordered 30ft pipes that used a recently invented ‘locking bar’ system.
A total of 60,000 pipes were built with 70,000 tons of steel and brought to the pipeline construction points via rail. When built, the pipeline was the longest fresh-water pipeline in the world. When it was tested it took two days to transfer water from one end of it to the other.
The pipe worked and soon the situation in the gold rush towns improved dramatically with the regular fresh water. It sustained the thirsty inhabitants, supplied water for industry including the mines and trains and also over time made land sustainable for farming, producing the ‘wheat belt’ between the coast and the gold fields.
The economic benefits were enormous and even today, more than 100 years later and now known as ‘the golden pipeline’, it is still in use supplying more than 100 towns, 5.6 million acres of farmland and an estimated 100,000 people.
The pipeline would be CY’s greatest achievement but it did not go smoothly, however. An organised and concerted campaign of criticism against the pipeline was orchestrated by politicians, rival vested interests and the press against CY and the Western Australian premier, John Forrest. They used delays in this project as their weapon, defaming both men. Forrest; a seasoned politician, ignored it and was soon promoted to a prestigious position within the Australian government well away from Perth politics.
Rabid politician-owned press attacked his character
The criticism and libellous accusations of corruption struck CY more personally, however, and with Forrest now out of the scene, they only increased. Sensing blood, a now rabid politician-owned press attacked his character, questioning his ability, ridiculing him, calling for him to resign and return to Ireland. They even suggested the dam he built would collapse and drown Perth.
One newspaper wrote “… 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… This crocodile imposter has been backed up in all his reckless extravagant juggling with public funds…”
In response, politicians set up numerous committees inquiring into every aspect of the pipeline, from its tendering process to how the pipes were being connected. The Western Australian government under a new premier was cowed, refusing to stand up to these powerful and rich bullies. Instead it set up a Royal Commission of inquiry in 1892 fuelling the fire that something was amiss. It would eventually exonerate him from any wrongdoing but by then it was too late.
Tortured with neuralgia, insomnia, nervous exhaustion and depression
CY’s mental health was suffering badly, he was tortured with neuralgia, insomnia, nervous exhaustion and subsequently, depression. On March 10, 1902, he couldn’t take the strain any more, he went for his regular ride on a beach near Fremantle, rode into the surf and shot himself. One of Australia’s and Ireland’s greatest engineers was dead.
He had left a letter in which he wrote: “I feel that my brain is suffering, and I am in great fear of what effect all this worry will have upon me. I have lost control of my thoughts. The Coolgardie (pipeine) scheme is all right, and I could finish it if I got the chance and protection from misrepresentation; but there is no hope for that now, and it is better that it should be given to some entirely new man to do, who will be untrammelled by prior responsibilities. 10/3/02. Put the wing wall to Helena weir at once.”
When he died, his will was granted probate as he had assets of less than £200 (the Australian dollar only came into being in 1966 when it replaced the Australian pound). Ten months later the pipeline would be finally completed, coming in only £100,000 over budget. O’Connor was buried under a large Celtic Cross headstone.
CY had never forgotten his roots, his daughter Kate is reported as saying, “he was devoted to Ireland and carried Ireland with him everywhere and he was acutely sensitive to the unhappy state of Ireland and the distress of many of his countrymen”.
Tragic death shocked the nation
The tragic death of O’Connor shocked the nation, people struggled to understand how a man who appeared to have it all would end his life. The newspapers and politicians were conspicuously silent on the matter.
In 1911, his colleagues raised funds to commission a statue by Pietro Porcelli which was placed outside the Fremantle Port Building. Over time his story would be immortalised and his legend grew. As could probably be expected, streets, suburbs, buildings, heritage trails, lakes and colleges were named after him but, in addition, he also become a source of inspiration for artists.
Songwriter Bernard Carney has written and performed ‘The Eyes of the Engineer’ in his honour. Artist Robert Juniper has painted his image and his works. ‘The Drowner’ by Robert Drew is an award-winning novel that gives a fictionalised account of O’Connor and his construction of the pipeline. A movie based on this book is also in development.
His story truly entered legendary status when the beach where O’Connor ended his life was renamed in his memory and a poignant 2m bronze sculpture by Tony Jones was erected there in 1999. The sculpture is positioned 20m offshore and portrays O’Connor on his horse in the surf looking back at Fremantle harbour.
Straight away his sculpture struck a strong chord with people. It has been voted as one of Western Australia’s most significant artworks and annually his descendants remember CY’s legacy by swimming out to it and floating flowers.
Today CY is remembered as a great engineer, a humanitarian and as symbol of remembrance. In a mere 10 years CY transformed Western Australia and today, more than 100 years later, the people of that state still remember him as their local hero.
1.) The Chief CY O’Connor (1978) Tauman, Mereb, University of Western Australia Press
2.) CY O’Connor: his life and legacy. (2001) Evans, A.G., University of Western Australia Press.
3.) CYO’Connor The Man for the Time, Cyril Ayris, Perth 1996
4.) The Engineer, 18 April 1902; J. K Ewers, The Story of the Pipe-Line; Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers, vols. CLXXXIV, p. 157