A project from the National Trust of WA
A self-guided drive trail between the Perth Hills and Western Australia’s Eastern Goldfields. Go with the Flow. Follow the water to discover more about the audacious goldfields water supply scheme and Engineer CY O’Connor.
“Future generations, I am quite certain will think of us and bless us for our far seeing patriotism, and it will be said of us, as Isaiah said of old, ‘They made a way in the wilderness, and rivers in the desert”
Water was a scarce and expensive commodity in the Eastern Goldfields.
As 1890s Gold Rush prospector Albert Gaston observed ‘you could borrow food and sometimes money, but never water’.
On the goldfields before the water supply scheme was built, and en route to them, granite outcrops saved the life of many a prospector. Perhaps a thirsty traveller was lucky enough to find a gnamma, a water-filled hollow in the impermeable rock.
Or, finding all the hollows empty he might have dug desperately in a damp patch at the base of such a rock, so water would fill the hollow in the sand. Prospector John Aspinall, for example writes about such natural soaks in his diary:
A soak is a depression in the granite filled in with sand, stones etc, so that when a hole is dug in the centre the water keeps draining in towards it. A good soak no matter how often it is dried out will ‘make’ again except in exceptionally dry weather. John Aspinall March 1895
The value of granite outcrops for water supply on the goldfields before the water supply scheme was built cannot be overstated. Wells and soaks were developed in land adjacent to many granite outcrops and runoff from rock catchments was harvested for supplies.
Soaks and shallow wells were often located adjacent to granite outcrops where, as Laing and Hauck write in their 1997 paper in the Journal of the Royal Society of Western Australia, soil and rock formations are conducive to sub-surface water collection.
Rocks with larger water yields involved the construction of walls, weirs or tanks. Such a rock catchment system uses gravity and the natural surface of the rock to divert rainwater to a central collection area
Early water supplies engineered by the government on the goldfields consisted of a storage reservoir or tank in clay subsoil adjacent to a granite outcrop and rock walls to channel runoff. Slabs of exfoliated granite rock, roughly shaped and cement-grouted were used for these collecting drains.
Granite does not contain any soluble saline materials and so the water harvested from outcrops was almost salt free and favoured by the railways. Many of these tanks were in fact constructed specifically for the railways and are often referred to nowadays as railway Dams.
The large granite outcrops that puncture the landscape provided water for the original inhabitants for thousands of years and the newcomers came to rely on them too. Sometimes under coercion, Aboriginal people showed the whereabouts of rockholes and soaks to explorers and gold prospectors.
Even when rockholes were empty, water might still be found. Runoff from rain accumulated in gritty soil at the base of rocks, creating a natural soak. As a bonus, plants sustained by this runoff provided feed for horses.
Hunt’s Track, dating to expeditions in the 1860s to find suitable grazing land, went from one granite outcrop to the next. Hunt’s convict work gangs improved the soaks, lining them with timber and rocks and building wells, as at Gnarlbine Rock near Coolgardie.
Gnarlbine is an excellent example of an outcrop that sustained prospectors following Hunt’s Track to the goldfields in the 1890s and even before then. Hunt noted in his journal finding remains of a pack saddle left there in 1863 by explorer Lefroy. Murchison Goldfield discoverer Giles McPherson’s life was saved by the water at Gnarlbine in 1888, while Bayley and Ford camped there before their Coolgardie finds in 1892.
War over water
In dry periods and times of great demand, soaks and wells were inadequate. In a letter to his wife engineer De Mole described how prospectors struggled to get water from “Siberia Soak”.
“The drain on this well during summer is enormous, and literally hundreds of animals, horses, camels, mules, and humans are congregated there, waiting their turn for the precious fluid which is often bailed with a pannikin into the well bucket by a man at bottom of the well, fights even have occurred by the poor wretches, whose mates perhaps were “doing a perish” in the distant bush waiting for the camels to return loaded from the soak.”
De Mole was not exaggerating how the need for water drove men to desperation. The area was the site of a disastrous rush in 1893. Neither gold nor water was found and 600 thirsty men and their animals decided to help themselves to water at the 35-Mile Soak at Moorowing Rock. The officer in charge resigned on the spot and his successor called for firearms to guard the water.
Caretakers lived on site to protect wells and tanks and collected fees because charging for water helped curb consumption. During particularly dry times the Goldfields Warden would decree only one team of horses carting goods could travel the route to and from the goldfields every 24 hours, to avoid large numbers of frantic animals and desperate men converging at the same site.
Water from a stone – wall
In March 1893 the government established a Water Supply Department and sent Superintendent of Water Supply Fred Renou into the field with instructions to investigate and report on the water supply on the road to Coolgardie.
Renou (hence Renou Street in Coolgardie) suggested harvesting water from rocks to an even greater extent, reporting back the only place to sink a dam was at the base of large granite rocks, using the rocks as watersheds. A low stonewall built around the rock would direct and conserve the catchment.
Contemporaneous accounts often mention these unique catchments. In My Fourth Tour in Western Australia published in London in 1897, Albert Calvert wrote ‘Along the road … rise immense hills of granite, shaped very much like a saucer turned down upon its edge… These cone-shaped rocks are natural catchment areas… The rocks were fenced round … dams were cut at the lowest level in the ground around them, and trenches were sunk in all directions leading to the reservoir’.
Goldfields residents would be familiar with dams such as these at Burra Rocks, for example, and know them as “railway dams”, although this was not always the case. Some were built expressly for the woodlines and others for the Eastern Railway that reached Southern Cross in 1894 and Coolgardie and Kalgoorlie in 1896.
They were built for railways purposes because steam engines of the time used copious amounts of water. Trains carting water, in times of “water famine” such as that experienced in the hot summer of 1895/96, used half the water they could carry from a deep pool in the Avon River near Northam, just getting to the Goldfields and back.
Not only did trains require vast quantities of water, they required mineral free water at that, to prevent scale in locomotives’ boilers. With the exception of runoff from rocks, virtually all water in the goldfields was saline. “Condensers” converted this saline water into fresh and in a future article we’ll look at their role prior to the pipeline.
Sketch by assistant field geologist S. Göczel that appeared in the first annual report of the Department of Mines, to June 1894. The top part shows three men on horseback and two packhorses approaching a well at the base of a large rock. The bottom part shows a cross-section of the well revealing it to be lined with stones and holding water. A horse is drinking from a trough alongside the well, very much like the one you can still see at Ularring on the Golden Quest trail.
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