An historic account about the multinational workforce that built Australia's huge Snowy Mountain Hydro Electric scheme. The Snowy – The People Behind the Power is a compelling portrait of this epic postwar reconstruction project in Australia
Winner of the NSW Premier's Douglas Stewart Award for Non-Fiction, 1990 and the NSW State Literary Award for Non-fiction.
'A wonderful socio-historical document and an engrossing read... a fine achievement. It lives and breathes the Snowys and makes you feel as if you were there.'
- Sophie Masson, Sydney Morning Herald
The construction of the Snowy Mountains Hydro Electric Scheme between 1949 and 1974 still ranks as one of the world’s greatest engineering feats. For Australia, it marked a passage from the Old World to the New and became a monument to multiculturalism along the way. With over 300 photos and based on interviews with hundreds of those who were part of the Scheme, The Snowy is the definitive account of this unique project, which was, in the words of eminent historian Manning Clark, ‘an inspiration to all who dream dreams about Australia.’
The scheme involved the construction of 16 major dams, 7 power stations and 145 kilometres of tunnels, through which the waters of the Snowy River and its tributaries would be turned back towards the arid inland. But it was also a feat of social engineering – two-thirds of the 100,000 strong workforce were immigrants, newly arrived from over 40 countries in war-weary Europe. The Snowy gave them an opportunity to rebuild shattered lives and escape the devastation and animosities of war.
This microcosm of Europe was transplanted into the iconic wilderness of Australia’s High Country, home of the fabled Man from Snowy River. The Snowy would bring huge changes to the sleepy mountain communities – three towns would be inundated, grazing banned and a ski industry would emerge from the access provided by the scheme.
Early tensions surfaced between Australians and the ‘New Australians’ - less polite terms for the immigrants included wogs, dagos, garlic-munchers and reffos (refugees). The locals were mystified by their food, their manners and their origins. Some, like the Germans and Italians, had been fighting Australia in the Second World War only a few years before. Among the immigrants, there were other scores to settle. Poles and Czechs had suffered terribly at German hands, while Serbs and Croats maintained ancient hostilities in their new land.
Somehow racial differences were put aside, as the challenges of the construction welded the disparate workforce into a united team that set world records in tunnelling and earthmoving. At the time, the expected fatality rate in tunnelling was ‘a man a mile’. The Snowy did better than that, though 121 men died in the 25 years of construction. Even so, the fierce pace at which the work was driven meant that men died in accidents that could have been avoided. The inquests into the fatalities are thoroughly investigated here for the first time.
Despite or because of the isolation and the dangers, the Snowy Scheme was built in an environment of extraordinary social and industrial harmony, amidst a growing sense of national pride. Although some of the environmental costs had not been foreseen, and would later lead to campaigns to restore flow to the degraded Snowy River, the scheme was built in good faith to provide power and water to the emerging nation, at a time when ‘development’ was not a dirty word. When the Scheme started, Australia looked to the U.S.A for technical expertise and to Britain for approbation. By the time it ended in 1974, Australia was internationally recognised for its engineering know-how and had earned its own place on the world map.
The emotional attachment of Australians to the Snowy Scheme was clearly demonstrated in 2006 when a proposal to sell the scheme to domestic and/or foreign buyers had to be abandoned after widespread public opposition.
While much remains to be done to redress the environmental damage, the Snowy remains a remarkable feat of social and scientific engineering – a coming of age for Australia.
Harper Collins 1995
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