C.Y. O'Connor - tragic, brilliant, misunderstood, genius.

Golden Pipeline Trail Kangaroo Paw, Golden Pipeline Trail

The Golden Pipeline Trail is in part the story of great Irish born Aussie Engineer Charles Yelverton O'Connor (1843 - 1902 ) who died tragically by his own hand at 59 and so it should begin in Fremantle which is the place where much of his greatest work took place and where he killed himself. 

He was a greatly misunderstood and often under-estimated genius and was sadly in some ways, well ahead of his time.

His two greatest achievements were the Fremantle Harbour and the famous Goldfields Pipeline Scheme.

Charles Yelverton O'Connor was born in Castletown, County Meath, Ireland in January, 1843 on the eve of the Great Famine. Following the decline of the railway boom in Ireland, a 21 year old he decided to travel to Australasia and eventually to Perth via New Zealand to take up a position of as the Western Australian Governments Engineer-in-Chief in 1891.

John Forrest, (later Sir John Forrest) who had recently been appointed the new State of Western Australia's first Premier, was on the look out for a chief-engineer to manage the extensive public works system required to lift the State into prosperity. Prepared to take out sizable overseas loans to fund his vision, Forrest was looking for a clever and visionary man to convert his dream into reality.

The million pound loan (a fortune in those days) Forrest would raise in London for the Fremantle Harbour project was the largest loan raised in Australia at the time.   Fremantle needed a safe anchorage for large ships which previously had to anchor offshore as there was a rocky bar blocking the mouth of the Swan River.  Many ship owners preferred to head to the safety of the sheltered harbour in Albany and then the cargo was transhipped in smaller vessels to Perth.

That was of course slow and expensive and with Fremantle becoming (of all things) an important whaling centre and with the discovery of gold in WA the 1890's it became clear that there was an urgent need for a harbour. 

The Fremantle Harbour was to become O'Connor's first major public works project and there were many critics of his proposal - it was called too expensive and impractical.  But in May 1897 the first ship, S.S Sultan, steered by Lady Forrest, steamed into the Fremantle Harbour and berthed at Victoria Quay (named in honour of Queen Victoria). This would be the first of his controversial achievements.

In 1892 two Aurthur Bayley and William Ford, discovered gold near Coolgardie and returned to Southern Cross to record their claim of 554 ounces (16.8kg).  With the present price of gold at more than Aus $1150 per ounce that amount of gold would be worth more than $600,000 now and was a pretty good strike in those days.

The discovery of gold created a mass movement of people from around Australia and the world to the Western Australian goldfields and at the peak of the gold rush the population of Coolgardie boomed to 15,000. In 1894 Paddy Hannan and his mates discovered another goldfield in Kalgoorlie and the gold rush was on in earnest.

It soon became clear that the area did not have the necessary supply of fresh water to cope with the many people and livestock invading the desert towns so C.Y.O'Connor proposed that a reservoir be built in the hills of Perth (now called Mundaring Weir) and that water be pumped some 530kms inland via a pipe, to Coolgardie & Kalgoorlie.

Many thought he was mad but Premier John Forrest backed his man and on the 16th of July 1896 he introduced a bill to authorise the raising of a 2.5 million pound loan to construct the scheme.

The pipeline was intended to pump five million gallons of water per day to the eastern goldfields using eight pumping stations located along the route, to a tank on Mt Charlotte in Kalgoorlie.

Once in Kalgoorlie the water would then be reticulated to various locations in the goldfields.  The newspapers had a field day critising the project and eventually the strain got too much for him to bear.   Despite the urban myth which claims C.Y.O'Connor took his life only moments before the first drop of water came out of the pipeline in Coolgardie, it was in fact nearly a year before the completition of the pipeline when on the 10th of March,1902, he mounted his horse and headed to an isolated beach just south of Fremantle.

Having taken years of critism from the press, polititians and peers, O'Connor, with gun in hand, rode into the Indian Ocean and shot himself.    It seems ironic that he chose to end his life in the water, as his great achievements were all about resolving water problems.

Today if you venture down to the south beach and look out to sea you will find a lonely statue of him on his horse standing just beyond the breaking waves a few metres from shore. 

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 In 1912 another statue of C.Y. O'Connor was commissioned. Pietro Porcelli's monument to C.Y.O'Connor, towers nearly 12 feet high, overlooking the Fremantle Harbour which O'Connor so proudly designed and constructed.   At the time our Chief Chris Pye's grandfather was according to his familys records the Secretary of the Fremantle Chamber of Commerce that arranged for the statue to be erected so he has a small link with this piece of the story.

It seems fitting that Porcelli chose to depict him in a thinking stance with his finger to his chin (a plan concealed in his other hand). Following the unveiling of the statue in 1912, Sir John Forrest was quoted as saying it was a "thinking in Bronze".

The base of the plinth has four sides, each bearing a copper plaque depicting his greatest achievements ;the Mundaring Weir, the Goldfields Pipeline Scheme, Fremantle harbour and the Swan River Tunnel through the Darling Range.  The C.Y. O'Connor Trail is an interesting walking trail around Fremantle and for more information see the website at:


To add further to the mystery some people say that according to Bibbulmum legend, O'Connor took his life because he had been cursed by traditional Aboriginals.

In a ceremony, known as being "sung" to death, members of several clans, who were the traditional owners of the area and were angry at the removal of the limestone bar which was blown up to create the modern Fremantle Harbour, are rumoured to have chanted a song that sent negative energy to him.  Not everyone sees engineering progress as positive!

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