Tuesday, 4 August 2015

C.Y.O'Connor Beach

Off South Beach
Being located on the water, Fremantle is a port after all, one of the things I like to do while house sitting in the area is to head down to C.Y.O'Connor Beach to explore the wrecks and memorial, and watch the setting sun.

My first venture down,several years ago now, had been purely accidental; arriving at South Beach an hour before sunset, I didn't feel like hanging around and so rode south, past the cattle slip lanes before climbing over the sand dues and onto the beach. There, about 50 metres off the coast, partially submerged in the waves, is a statue of a man on a horse. It is the memorial to C.Y.O'Connor who committed suicide off this beach in 1902.

O'Connor is one of this state's great engineers. He is responsible for the transformation of Fremantle Harbour into the commercial success it is today and for the pipeline that transported water from the Perth hills to Kalgoorlie to support the growing gold rush.

Both engineering feats are still going strong to this day, and yet at the time, they were ridiculed and faced increasing criticism and pessimism that they would ever be worth the Government's initial investment.

Prior to O'Connor's plans for Fremantle Harbour, Albany provided the only deep water harbour in the south of the state. As a result, many ships preferred to dock there and send their cargo north by train than brave the conditions at Fremantle.
Albany instead of Fremantle was the major stop on the mail route between Sydney and London and Albany was used for much of the state's industry.

The wreck of the Wyola (1912), run ashore in 1970 for dismantling and scrapping

The reason for this was that a limestone bar across the entrance of the Swan River prevented ships from seeking shelter there from the ocean winds and waves. Instead, ships were expected to moor alongside the mile long jetty that jutted out to sea, unprotected from the wind and the waves. In fact, damage from the boats bashing into the jetty seems to have been a regular occurrence, and increased sailors' preference for Albany.

Supposedly one of the timer barges used in the scrapping of the Wyola

In 1891 C.Y.O'Connor arrived in Fremantle and recommended building a harbour in the mouth of the Swan, a suggestion that had already been rejected by the government as impractical and in need of constant future dredging. Work began in 1892 removing the limestone bar, dredging the harbour and building two moles to further protect the new harbour.

Remains of Robb Jetty. Used for unloading cattle from the North West into the adjacent
 abattoirs that operated here from the 1890s - 1970s. The pilons extend 300ms out
 and are a great shallow dive location. 

By 1897 it must have been viewed as a success, for not only did ships successfully berth within the new harbour, but O'Connor was inducted as a Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George; somebody obviously thought his work was, if not brilliant, at least highly beneficial to the community.

Perhaps the only problem with the scheme is that he built the harbour from Jarrah wood which is one of the only local hardwoods not to contain natural oils that repel sea worms. As a result the underlying structure of what is now Victoria Quay is being devoured and will soon need to be replaced (if it hasn't already).

With the Fremantle Harbour project underway, O'Connor began work on his next; the Goldfields Pipeline. This carried water from Mundaring Weir 530 kms inland to Kalgoorlie through one long pipeline with pumping stations dotted along the line. This was commissioned in 1896 and completed in 1903.

Though O'Connor had already proved himself to be a talented engineer, able to design and impliment solutions to some of the major problems facing the young state of Western Australia, he still received huge levels of criticism from the local government and through the press, with many unable to believe that this scheme could be successful. The government had already authorised a loan for £2.5million and many were scared that the gold in Kalgoorlie would dry up before the pipeline had earned its keep.
*In fact it was the worry of this scheme being a financial loss for the state that played a part in postponing the creation of WA's first university.

One of the particularly harsh pieces of criticism levelled at O'Connor through the newspapers is reputed to be the one that drove him to suicide.

Someone I talked to at the beach mentioned a story that he'd committed suicide in response to turning on the pipeline and water not arriving in Kalgoorlie, leading him to believe that his engineering feat had failed. It was only after he had committed suicide that the water finally arrived, having taking two days to make the journey inland.

This isn't quite true. The pipeline wasn't even complete when O'Connor rode his horse off Robb Jetty at dawn on the morning of 10 March 1902 and shot himself.

Today, that beach is named after this tortured genius and a statue of a man on a horse stands, partially submerged in the Indian Ocean.

I wonder how many other engineering feats he would have undertaken if he had lived.

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