Welding pipes on the historic Goldfields pipeline
Welding pipes on the historic Goldfields pipeline: image courtesy of the National Trust of Western Australia

The story of water in the Goldfields is full of intrigue, drama and engineering tenacity. The National Trust of Western Australia has done an incredible job telling this story in detail as part of the Golden Pipeline Heritage Trail.

This is the short version.

For the prospecting communities living in the Goldfields in the late 1800s, sourcing fresh water was an immediate problem. Gold was plentiful, but rainfall was unreliable, underground water supplies were often saline and hard to access, and transporting water over vast distances was extremely difficult.

Prospecting communities relied on condensers, rudimentary desalination machines fuelled by burning timber, which converted water from local salt lakes into drinking water. The region also relied on water carted in by camels.

In this arid region, water was not only essential for survival, but also in the gold mining process.

Prospectors used water to separate gold from other matter. The invention of dry blowing, a method that used wind rather than water to separate gold from dirt, relieved this pressure. But water was still a necessity in the region.

With water as precious as gold and more expensive than whiskey, a radical solution for sourcing it was needed.

Enter Charles Yelverton O’Connor, the colony’s chief engineer. His recommended solution was simple: find a freshwater source and pump the water to the Goldfields. The only problem was that the proposed source was a dam on the Helena River, over 550km away in Perth.

To achieve this ambitious vision, CY O’Connor would have to build the longest pipeline in the world. The pipeline would need to stretch between Perth to Coolgardie and later to the Kalgoorlie-Boulder region, and would require a pumping system that could lift the water the equivalent of 400 metres in height, including a sudden rise over the Darling Ranges.

To some, the project was a laughable pipe dream, and a costly strain on the state – a Scheme of Madness.

The Sunday Times famously opposed C.Y O’Connor and the pipeline in a very personal and public way. The paper featured articles calling the project a “huge joke” and “a fanciful project by a conceited engineer”.

Despite public cynicism and geographical challenges, the pipeline, which we now know as the Golden Pipeline, opened in 1903. CY O’Connor achieved what many had believed impossible—the ability to pump water from Mundaring Weir in Perth to the Goldfields hundreds of kilometres away.

In addition to providing water for gold mining, the pipeline enabled the development and growth of many towns and farmlands throughout the Wheatbelt, which still thrive today.

The Golden Pipeline is still in operation today under Water Corporation. As in O’Connor’s time, water today is delivered via a world class scheme. However, since the pipeline was completed in 1903, water supplies across WA have had to adapt due to climate change.

Mundaring Weir receives less rainfall than it once did, so where the Golden Pipeline once only transported water that flowed into the dam, it now supplies towns along its route with a combination of rainwater, desalinated seawater and groundwater that is stored in the reservoir.

We’ve partnered with the WA Museum Boola Bardip  to bring the story of our state’s water history and future to life through interaction exhibitions. View a piece of the Golden Pipeline, learn about how climate change is affecting our water, and find out what we can do today to make a difference for future generations.