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The Golden Pipeline

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The Golden Pipeline

Distance: 327 km Approx. Travel Time: 4 hours

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"It is certainly the worst place I or anyone else ever saw. No place to send a ship of this size... Any man who would come or send a ship a second time is a damned ass."

Captain D.B. Shaw of the American barque Saranac.

The battering that their vessels received trying to offload stores on Long Jetty caused many shipping companies to refuse to berth in the Swan River Colony. The jetty that once extended a kilometre into the sea from Bathers Beach in Fremantle was exposed to the south - west winds. The shipping lines preferred Albany's natural harbour in the south. John Coode, the most distinguished harbour engineer of the nineteenth century, was commissioned to examine the feasibility of turning the mouth of the Swan River into a harbour. Coode ruled out building a port in the river mouth. He thought it would continually silt up. Lateral sand drift was the problem. The Great Southern towns of Brookton, Pingelly, Narrogin, Wagin, Katanning , and several others, owe their existence to Mr Coode. These towns came into being along the Great Southern Railway. The railway that was built largely because transporting goods up from the port in Albany was the next best alternative at the time.

Less than a decade later, a 49-year-old Irish born engineer from New Zealand, by the name of Charles Yelverton O'Connor took his measurements and satisfied himself that there would be no lateral sand drift in the riverbed.

Today, after more than a century of continuous use, Fremantle Harbour is perhaps CY O'Connor's most outstanding achievement.

The story of how the harbour was conceived helps explain why, three years later, despite facing considerable criticism in the parliament and from the press over his bold plan to deliver water from the Helena River to the Goldfields, O'Connor stuck to his guns. He trusted his calculations. He was used to proving people wrong.

The Goldfields Pipeline remains one of the world's incredible engineering feats. In 2009, the American Society of Civil Engineers named the pipeline an International Historic Civil Engineering Landmark. For the first part of this journey, we follow it inland on Great Eastern Highway.

The highway passes through Meckering where, in 1968, the pipeline was ruptured by one of the most significant earthquakes in Australia's history. To look at Meckering now, it is difficult to imagine the main street lined with two-story hotels and shops But in its peak, Meckering had over 100 buildings and a similar population to nearby Cunderdin . Apart from a few shops and some sheds, the town was reduced to rubble in less than a minute. The series of aftershocks in the following weeks, some of them of similar magnitude to the original quake, discouraged many from rebuilding. Others found it simpler to resettle in nearby towns. Meckering never grew back. Just to the north of the main street, a few hundred metres further along Great Eastern Highway, you can stroll through an avenue of trees that line the previous main street Sig ns marking the sites of former businesses along the walking trail tell the story of the day the town shook to the ground.

Construction of the pipeline took four years and cost the equivalent of the colony's entire budget for a year. The scheme was built when there were 30,000 people in the goldfields Now it guarantees a water supply for more than 100,000 people in an area that produces three-quarters of Australia's gold, half the nation's wheat plus $800 million of wool per year.

The genius in CY O'Connor's design lay in the use of eight different pump stations which each had reservoirs to store water. O'Connor reasoned that he was simply repeating, several times over, schemes that have been achieved before. He failed to see what all the fuss was about Melbourne engineer Mephan Ferguson had an additional stroke of brilliance. Welding was still in its infancy in those days, and traditionally pipes were riveted. Ferguson was inspired by the dovetail joints he saw in his office drawer and devised a method of joining the pipes without riveting. The locking bar pipe improved water flow and had less leaks. The Joints were sealed by caulking with molten lead. In 1901 James Couston, who was a friend of O'Connor's second in command, invented the caulking machine . The machine was expensive and, in its early trials, ineffective. The unpopularity of the machine, particularly among the workers it was intended to replace, fuelled the rumours of corruption that the opponents of the pipeline seized on.

As you reach Cunderdin you will notice a large wooden tower on the south side of the road. These towers were once dotted throughout the state during the steam rail era and supported large tanks for the water-hungry trains.

Most have been demolished, and their timber salvaged. Only a few remain standing. Further along the street behind the tower, you will find the No:3 Pump Station and the Cunderdin Museum. The museum houses one of the only mint - condition Worthington High Duty pumping engines in the world, along with displays and storyboards that tell the more than 100-year history of the pipeline.

A section of the original railway line that delivered coal to the boilers is still there, along with the 30-metre-high brick chimney. There is a rail carriage that will take you back to the passenger train era. Through the rest of the grounds of the museum, there is an extensive farm machinery collection from all eras of agriculture, perfectly preserved buggies from the horse-drawn era, an interactive earthquake house that will shake you like it's October 1968 and some military hardware on display . There is probably no better place in the Wheatbelt to appreciate how life has unfolded in the Wheatbelt.

From Cunderdin our trail heads south into country that owes much of its existence to the Go ld fields Water Supply Schem e. On the way out of town on the Cunderdin Ouairading Road, look out for Watts Road on your right and the signs directing you the scenic lookout at Cunderdin Hill. In the great expanse of the Wheatbelt, you don't have to get very high to see a long way. Then, 16 kilometres along Cunderdin Ouairading Road, we reach Goldfields Road. This is the remnant of the original track that explorer Charles Hunt forged in 1864, connecting 23 wells from York to Coolgardie. Before heading west on this road, we take a short diversion to the easternmost point of today's journey which is Youndegin - the original settlement of the area.

Why the early settler, E.J. Clarkson, was speared to death by the Ballardong people, we'll never know. But in response to his death, a police outpost was built that still stands to this day. As well as serving as the local constable, Alfred Eaton made the most of the steady stream of thirsty gold miners travelling past his station by building a pub - the Youndegin Arms. Once the railway came through and stole all his passing foot traffic, Alfred Eaton closed the pub, quit the police service, and became the district's first farmer.

Then we do an 'about - face' and head west on Goldfields Road, crossing the Cunderdin Quairading Road, continuing to the Carter Doodenanning Road where we turn south. You will pass the remnants of the town of Doodenanning on the right, where the locals still have a sports club. The remains of the village can be seen scattered among the trees near the golf course here; yet another of the ghost towns that are dotted through this region Carter Doodenanning Road changes its name here to the Doodenanning Mawson Road. But what's in a name? It's the same road.

Driving further south, we meet the York Quairading Road near the railway siding of Mawson, then take the Mawson Road south to Beverley. As the road to Beverley gradually swings west, you'll notice that we are leaving the flat country. We encounter the gently rolling hills and granite outcrops, leading us down into the Avon River Valley. Beverley was originally set aside for a town in 1831, not long after the establishment of York. It wasn't until the arrival of the Great Southern Railway in 1886 though that the town grew.

Beverley is an ideal place to stretch the leg s before embarking on the last section of our Journey. It has quirky public art, interesting Federation and Art Deco architecture, a faithfully preserved railway station and the Dead Finish Museum, which was originally built as a hotel in 18 72. The Dead Finish now houses an extensive collection of memorabilia that tells the story of the area from the beginning of the settlement. Beverley also has a strong aviation history, and some of this is on display in the Cornerstone Building which also houses the towns Community Resource Centre. If it's the weekend, head Just south of town on Lukin Street and look for the sig n for the aerodrome on your right just as it becomes Bremner Road. This is the home of the Beverley Soaring Society, one of the biggest glider clubs in Australia. Gliders taking off, soaring around the valley, and landing, can all be seen from here.

In the museum at No:1 Pump Station, you can read more of the controversy that swirled around this ambitious undertaking that many thought a waste of public funds and doomed to failure. The pressure on its Chief Engineer was immense. He took no issue with the many questions raised about the viability of the project. He trusted his calculations, and he knew the project would work. The accusations of corruption, however, caused him much distress.

On 8th March 1902 pump stat ions, number one and two passed the most difficult test of the project. They successfully carried water over the steepest incline on the pipeline. O'Connor knew his project would succeed. On the morning of 10th March 190 2, he rode alone, south along Fremantle Beach to Robb Jetty. There he rode his horse into the sea and used his revolver to end his life.

O'Connor left a note: "I feel that my brain is suffering and I am in great fear of what effect all this worry may have upon me - I have lost control of my thoughts. The Coolgardie Scheme is alright, and I could finish it if I got a chance and protection from misrepresentation, but there is no hope of that now, and it is better that it should be given to some entirely new man to do who will be untrammelled by prior responsibility" His final comments were an instruction. "Put the wing walls to Helena Weir at once," he wrote.

Now it's time to head back along Great Eastern Highway to Northam and The Farmers Home. In one day you have witnessed one of the biggest undertakings in Western Australian history and a feat of engineering that created much of the Western Australia we know today.