Monday, 15 April 2013

Snowy River Hydro Electric Scheme


The Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Scheme was one of the largest engineering ever undertaken in the world.  It is the most complex, multi-purpose, multi-reservoir hydro scheme in the world with 80 kilometres of aqueducts, 140 kilometres of tunnels, 16 large dams and seven power stations, two of which are underground.  The project commenced under an Act of Federal Parliament in October 1949 with the goal of diverting the Murrumbidgee, Snowy and Tumut Rivers in south western NSW to provide irrigation water for the western side of the Great Dividing Range, and in the process generate hydro-electric power.

Romas Genys (left) Ron Cesna (right) with Italian
electrician (kneeling)
Brazaitis Kristina (2006) Lithuanian Papers No.20 2006 p41-46
In 1949 many migrants with engineering or construction skills and experience in working alpine conditions were targeted for the Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Scheme.
One hundred thousand people worked on the Scheme and 121 lost their lives in industrial accidents. Those workers were Australian-born, German, Greek, Irish, Italian, Norwegian, British, Polish and Yugoslav.  Most migrant workers on the Scheme arrived under assisted migration schemes.

Of the 100 000 workers, there were approximately 200 Lithuanians.  The Lithuanians were often employed as skilled tradesmen and in most cases as First Class miners.  Most worked for Snowy Mountains Hydro Electric Authority  (SMHEA) and were involved in the excavations of the Eucumbene tunnel, T2 Power station, the Headrace and Tailrace tunnels, the shaft and the access tunnel to the Power Station. (Brazaitis, 2006).  Many other Lithuanians were employed by the Norwegian firm, Selmer Engineering.
The work was hard and the conditions were tough.  Because ninety-eight per cent of the Scheme was underground, there was a lot of tunnelling, often through solid granite rock. Work in the tunnels was dirty, wet, noisy, smelly and dangerous.  Most worked as miners, dug tunnels, blasting rocks, laying pipes, others drove bulldozers and cooked in the company’s canteen.
Living conditions were also hard in the camps and towns built in the mountains to house the workers and their families.  Often these dwellings were not suited to the freezing conditions. They were cold and the water would freeze in the pipes. When the workers’ wives came to join them in the townships, these women had to work hard to overcome the hardships and establish communities in the strange new wilderness environment.  When work in one area was completed, the dwellings were dismantled and moved to another area, so very little remains of these towns today.

A working week was six days a week.  At any time of the day or night the mess halls were filled with noisy workers sitting at long wooden trestle-tables eating or relaxing after a shift.  Following initial problems between Polish and German workers at East Camp in Cooma, all nationalities were mixed in together and this erased nationalistic tensions.
The Lithuanian migrants who accepted work on the Snowy Mountain Scheme were both married and single men who had completed their two year compulsory work contract with the Australian government.   The high wages for unskilled manual labour attracted men. 

In 1952 a small group of Lithuanian workers met in the cafeteria of the Island Bend Camp.  The men had come from work camps located at Guthega, Addit, Surge Tank, Munyng and Island Bend of found the Guthega-Snowy Mountains Lithuanian Elderate (Seniūnija).  They elected Albertas  Alyta as their alderman.  The community formed a basketball team and several chess teams, collected money monthly to send to countrymen still living in refugee camps in Western Europe.  They wrote articles and essays to fill one complete edition of the national paper Mūsų Pastogė (Our Haven).  In 1953 they donated £21 to the Greek Earthquake appeal.

The workers stayed from a year onwards.  By 1955 the number of jobs was decreasing, and at that time the Lithuanian Elderate was dissolved.

Former Lithuanian miner Ronaldas Česna wrote a memoir about his time as a Snowy miner.  He also compiled a list of Lithuanians he knew had worked on the scheme.  His list contains over 200 hundred names, while officially there were 185 Lithuanians.
Ronaldas
worked for the Norwegian company Selmer Engineering Company, in the Surge tank Guthega tunnel camp in 1953.  It was a dangerous job in the Surge tank chamber shaft tunnels.  The tunnels were old and only the experienced miners could work them.  Ronaldas likens the Snowy Mountain to the ‘Wild West’ especially on the weekends after pay day.

Several Lithuanians were among those who created a world record tunnel excavation.  A medal was awarded for the record for hard-rock tunnel-drilling  on 16 March 1963.  The Australian company Thiess, drilled 165 metres in a six-day week in the Snowy-Geehi tunnel.  Lithuanian Romualdas Genys was amongst those awarded with a medal.

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.

Fourteen major contractors and consortiums were engaged on the project. These included French and US companies as well as Australian. Thiess Bros Pty Ltd, Australia, had the biggest contract.

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