Culture and heritage

Heritage of NSW

Snowy Mountains Scheme

50 years ago construction began on one of Australia's finest engineering feats - the Snowy Mountains Scheme. The then Prime Minister, Ben Chifley, called it "the greatest single project in our history". The ambitious plan set out to channel the waters of the Snowy and Tumut rivers westward under the Great Dividing Range to irrigate the dry inland. The Snowy Mountains Scheme is a major engineering achievement of the 20th century.

After more than 60 years of discussion and argument about utilizing the water resources of the Snowy Mountains, the Commonwealth Parliament passed the Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Power Act in 1949. The aim of the 'Snowy Scheme' was to divert the waters of the Snowy and Tumut rivers, via tunnels through the Great Dividing Range, to the Murray and Murrumbidgee rivers to irrigate the inland plains. In their passage the waters would generate electricity to feed into the NSW, ACT and Victorian systems.

A total of 12 tunnels covering 140 kilometres in length, 16 dams, 7 power stations, 1 pumping station, 49 camps and townships and 1,600 kilometres of roads and tracks were built. The largest of the dams is Eucumbene, built in 1956-58. The township of Adaminaby was moved to allow the waters of the new lake to flood the site. The longest tunnel, the Eucumbene-Snowy, burrows for 23 kilometres beneath the mountain range. Tumut 3 is the largest power station with a capacity of 1.5 million kilowatts. Construction work on the scheme was completed in 1974.

The scheme brought together a workforce of more than 30 nationalities and has been seen as a monument to multicultural Australia. The work required thousands of skilled and unskilled workers, most of whom were brought from war-ravaged Europe. Over the 35 years of construction, the workforce of 100,000 included migrants from countries such as Norway, Germany, Britain, Czechoslovakia, the Baltic States, Hungary, Italy and Malta as well as other Commonwealth countries such as South Africa, New Zealand and Pakistan.

Tumut 3 Power Station, the Scheme's largest power station. Photograph courtesy of the Snowy Mountains Hydro-electric Authority.

Tumut 3 Power Station, the Scheme's largest power station. Photograph courtesy of the Snowy Mountains Hydro-electric Authority.

Migrants like Josef Tezik learnt how to speak English on the Scheme at classes like this one in Cooma 1951. Photograph courtesy of the Snowy Mountains Hydro-electric Authority.

Migrants like Josef Tezik learnt how to speak English on the Scheme at classes like this one in Cooma 1951. Photograph courtesy of the Snowy Mountains Hydro-electric Authority.

The Snowy Mountains Scheme altered the countryside to such a vast degree that it formed its own landscape. The impact of the huge construction project on the Alpine environment was managed in various ways. The NSW Soil Conservation Service persuaded the Authority to implement erosion control measures and rehabilitation of construction sites. Banks, roadsides and scars were sprayed with grass seed, and willows and poplars were widely planted to prevent land slippage

The Snowy Scheme was an engineering feat of huge proportions. However, it was more than an impressive technological achievement. After World War II it was a chance for Australia to prove it was a self assured nation in its own right, no longer dominated by Britain. It was an opportunity to construct something after nearly two decades of destructive depression and war.

Like many other 20th century places, the heritage significance of the Snowy Mountains Scheme is only just being recognised. The richness of its heritage values are becoming apparent as we begin the process of assessing our recent past.

The scheme is important because of its history as a post WWII engineering initiative at a national level; for its technological significance as the largest engineering system developed in Australia; and for its dramatic altered landscapes. The dams, tunnels, camp sites and altered townships also have social value, particularly for their association with a large migrant workforce. Evidence of the construction phases and of items that existed before may be found on archaeological sites within the scheme.

Extending into four rural shires and the Kosciuszko National Park, the Snowy Mountains Scheme raises complex listing issues. Peter Reynders, Strategic Planning Manager of the Snowy River Shire Council says that council is looking at how it can work together with other shires and government agencies to identify heritage items and promote the effective protection of the significance of the entire system.

"With the 50th anniversary approaching it is a timely opportunity to think about the heritage of the Snowy Mountains Scheme so that it is given the right recognition for the right reasons. The Scheme is important to the whole of Australia and by working together with federal, state and local stakeholders, we can look at it as a whole, not just at the section that lies within our shire."

A recent heritage study of the Snowy River Area undertaken by Tropman & Tropman Architects for the Snowy River Shire Council described the Scheme as "a rare example of an engineering scheme that has vastly altered the landscape of the region and economy and land usage". The study recommended that a full register of heritage items and sites be undertaken.

Page last updated: 22 April 2014