O'CONNOR, Charles Yelverton (1843-1902)

O'CONNOR, Charles Yelverton (1843-1902)
was born at Gravelmount, Meath, Ireland, on 11 January 1843. Educated at the Waterford endowed school, he was apprenticed in 1859 to J. Chaloner Smith and obtained experience of railway engineering until 1865. He then went to New Zealand, became assistant engineer for the province of Canterbury in 1866, and after holding other positions, inspecting engineer for the whole of the middle island. In 1883 he became under-secretary of public works and in 1890 was appointed marine engineer for the whole of the colony. He had had much experience in harbour and dock construction when in April 1891 he resigned his position to become engineer-in-chief for Western Australia. His first problem was the question of a harbour for Perth. The Fremantle site as it then was did not seem promising, and Sir John Coode, an English engineer, had reported against it because of the danger of sand-drift. Coode, however, when he made his report was not fully aware of what could be done by suction dredging, and though various alternatives had been suggestecl, O'Connor was confident that by building two moles, blasting out the bar of rock at the mouth of the river, and using recent types of dredges, a satisfactory harbour could be made. Sir John Forrest (q.v.) was at first opposed to this plan but was eventually converted, and in March 1892 funds were provided for a start to be made. It was a great undertaking for a colony of so small a population, but in a little more than five years the harbour was declared open. There was still much dredging to be done but in August 1899 the mail-boat Ormuz was able to unload its mails at Fremantle, which now became the port of call for all the important steamers trading to Western Australia. Twenty-five years later the battle-cruiser Hood of 42,000 tons, was able to tie up at the wharf.
Important as this work was O'Connor had other duties. He was engineer-in-chief of the railways, and new lines had to be built. The number of miles of railway was trebled in the first five years he was in office, and in addition he had largely rebuilt the original lines by substituting a heavier type of rail. By 1897 the railway had been extended to Kalgoorlie and a new problem arose. The rainfall on the goldfields was low and there was much evaporation. Water was brought by rail to Coolgardie and sold at the rate of over £3 a thousand gallons, and the position was even worse at Kalgoorlie. More boring was suggested, but O'Connor felt that would be merely a palliative, and that a scheme must be evolved which would give plentiful water to the cities in the goldfields. On the western side of the Darling ranges there was a good rainfall from which an enormous amount of water flowed to the sea. Someone, it may have been H. W. Venn, then director of public works, suggested that the water might be impounded and that pumping stations could be erected to pump the water to the level of the higher ground at Coolgardie. O'Connor worked out a scheme which allowed for the pumping of 5,000,000 gallons a day a distance of over 350 miles through 30 inch steel pipes. He was supported by Venn and the leading engineers of the service, though it was realized that there was a danger of leakage at the joints of the pipes. Forrest although cautious at first at last became convinced that the scheme was workable, and in July 1896 he brought a bill before parliament to raise a loan of £2,500,000 with which to carry out the plan. There was much opposition in parliament but nevertheless the bill was passed on 3 September. Then the storm broke out again outside parliament, the main objection being that the goldfields might not last, and that the colony would be saddled with a huge debt. O'Connor in the meantime went quietly on his way making careful surveys, and securing the best outside advice concerning details. In 1897 he visited London and conferred with a committee of English experts. It was decided that there should be eight pumping stations, that the pipeline should follow the railway line, and that it should be laid on the surface so that leaks could be easily found and repaired. A dam was constructed about 28 miles from Perth, and while this was being done the steel pipes were being made and steadily laid. But there was a good deal of criticism. A Perth firm invented a machine for caulking the joints, and offered to finish the work for £30,000 less than the government estimate. When O'Connor recommended that the offer should be accepted the attacks broke out afresh it being claimed that if a private company was willing to do the work for a lower price the government must be wasting money. O'Connor had nothing to fear, he was thoroughly capable and was able to produce facts and figures in rebuttal of any criticism. He, however, had had much anxiety which led to sleepless nights and much mental strain. When the criticism took the form of impugning his honesty, his resistance broke down. On the morning of 10 March 1902 he went for a ride on the beach near Fremantle and shot himself. He left a letter in which he said: "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 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." His last thought was for the good of his great work. This was handed over to C. S. R. Palmer who had been O'Connor's engineer-in-chief, and who carried out the scheme of his former chief with energy and success. On 22 December 1902 the water reached Coolgardie. On 25 January 1903 Sir John Forrest with the temperature 106 in the shade turned on the water at Coolgardie, and at five o'clock of the same afternoon he turned on the water which began to flow steadily into a great reservoir at Kalgoorlie.
The scheme cost about 9 per cent more than O'Connor had expected, but much of the extra cost was due to circumstances outside his control. Abundance of water was provided for the goldfield towns at a cost of three shillings and sixpence a thousand gallons, little more than a twentieth of what had been paid in the past. In addition much water has been supplied to the people on the land along the route, and much of the increase in wheat-growing was made possible by the scheme. Thirty years later the original loan of £2,500,000 had been paid off out of revenue, and the scheme still continues to provide the interest and a sinking fund on account of additional spending since the completion of the original scheme. Few government services in Australia have been so completely successful. O'Connor left a widow and seven children. He was made a C.M.G. in 1897, and a statue in commemoration of his great work in Australia is at Fremantle.
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 and CLXII, p. 50; Statistical Register of Western Australia, part VII, p. 12; Burke's Peerage, etc., 1901.

Dictionary of Australian Biography by PERCIVAL SERLE. . 1949.

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  • Charles O’Connor (Ingenieur) — Charles O’Connor Charles Yelverton O’Connor (* 11. Januar 1843[1] in Gravelmount, Castletown, County Meath in Irland; † 10. März 1902 am Robbs Jetty in Western Australia), war ein irischer Ingenieur, eine „legendäre Figur des f …   Deutsch Wikipedia

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