Siobhan McHugh
The Snowy -The People behind the Power
The Snowy - Cover
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'A wonderful socio-historical document and an engrossing read...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.
Heinemann 1989
Harper Collins 1995
Harper Collins »»»

Artist Sidney Nolan at The Snowy launch, Dublin, 1989 Maverick Irish diplomat Con Howard, then Australian Ambassador to Ireland, Brian Burke (later imprisoned in Perth for financial misdemeanours), Siobhan McHugh and artist Sidney Nolan at the Irish launch of The Snowy, Dublin 1989.
Con Howard set Siobhan on the path to Australia. He convened an Irish-Australian History Conference in Kilkenny in 1983 to identify the Irish contribution to the nation before, as he said, 'the bloody Brits claim all the credit'. He co-opted Siobhan, then a radio producer with RTE, as Secretary-General. One of her tasks was to socialise with visiting Australians Con knew from his multifarious consular activities.
One day Siobhan was seated at lunch beside a pleasant elderly gent in a grey suit. As her stream of anecdotes ran out, he did not reciprocate but with traditional Irish hospitality, she tried valiantly to keep him entertained. She racked her brains to think what she'd heard his interests were. 'I believe you paint?', she asked. 'Yes', he said, with a slight smile. She rabbited on about the light in the West of Ireland and other things she knew little about. It was only when she saw his picture in the Conference brochure that she found out his name - Sidney Nolan.

The Letters Editor
Sydney Morning Herald
19 April 2006 ( published 25 April 2006)
It took 100,000 people twenty-five years to build the Snowy Mountains Scheme. I interviewed about 200 of them for a book about it ( 'The Snowy - The People Behind The Power') and every single one spoke of their pride at having been part of such a visionary project. Although it's recognised as an engineering wonder of the world, it was just as remarkable for its social engineering - most of the workers were migrants from 30 countries in Europe, who managed to put aside wartime enmities in order to carve out a new life here. The Snowy is a monument to multiculturalism, mateship and endurance. 121 men died for the dream, of turning the rivers back through the mountains, to irrigate the dry inland.
Yes. the planners failed to anticipate the environmental fall-out, but the men who braved blizzards, rockfalls, heart-stopping gradients and long months of isolation put their heart and soul into building it. 'We wanted to show we could make something for peace too', a former German soldier told me, before his death. A carpenter, his proudest moment was when he was asked to build the new township of Jindabyne. Those dams and power stations, and the underground tunnels where 53 young men died, were meant to benefit all Australians. The Snowy was never about profit; it was about proving what we could do as a nation. In 1990, my book won the NSW Premier's award for non-fiction, an indication of the esteem in which the Snowy was regarded. It is a travesty and a disgrace that a subsequent Premier should so demean the heroic efforts of those who built this epic scheme, by flogging it off to the highest bidder.
Siobhán McHugh