Life and death on the Snowy

In 1958, two men called Arthur Costello arrived in the small Australian town of Jindabyne, on the fabled Snowy River

In 1958, two men called Arthur Costello arrived in the small Australian town of Jindabyne, on the fabled Snowy River. They were part of a 7,000-strong workforce building the biggest hydro-electric scheme the world had ever seen. The older Costello, from Portlaoise, ran the ubiquitous after-hours gambling, an activity which, along with his prowess as a boxer, earned him the title "King of Jindabyne". His nephew got work on nearby Adaminaby Dam, which would eventually hold nine times the volume of water in Sydney Harbour.

At 19, Costello was officially too young to drive the massive earthmoving equipment, but out for fun and fortune, he'd put his age up to get the job. Despite the rough terrain and the plant's notoriously unreliable electrical steering, the hard-boiled American boss made the men drive in top gear: time was money.

On March 18th, 1958, young Costello was observed to stop and examine his steering. An hour later, he was dead. His machine had run off an embankment and overturned, crushing him. He had been in Australia for only six weeks.

The Snowy Mountains Scheme finished in 1974, on schedule and within budget, but not without cost. Officially, 121 men died on the project, more in related incidents. Tomorrow, as the Irish contribution to the anniversary activities, a memorial will be unveiled in the Catholic Church in Cooma, New South Wales, to Arthur Costello and 14 other Irishmen who died on the Snowy. The ceremony will also celebrate the contributions made by so many Irish, from engineers to pick-'n'-shovel workers, diamond drillers to union leaders.


The Snowy anniversary has attracted interest around the world, but, as the Australian Governor-General, Sir William Deane, pointed out recently, "significant as its technical and economic benefits have been, the Snowy's greatest benefit to Australia has been a human one."

Between 1949 and 1974, in a living monument to multiculturalism, men and women from more than 40 countries literally moved mountains. Their achievements fostered a remarkable transition in Australian society, from the insecure Anglophile backwater of 50 years ago to the buoyant, polyglot Asian-Pacific nation of today.

It started in 1946 when a Norwegian engineer persuaded some trout-fishing friends to measure river levels in the Snowy Mountains roughly halfway between Sydney and Melbourne. With this data, Trygve Olsen proved that, if the snow-fed rivers of the Australian Alps were turned backwards through a series of tunnels, huge quantities of hydro-electric power could be produced. Better still, the water would now irrigate the drought-plagued inland of the earth's driest continent.

The ambitious scheme would drive 145 kilometres of tunnels, build 16 power stations, seven large dams and hundreds of kilometres of race-lines - much of it in remote and rugged wilderness where no white man had ever set foot, let alone built access roads.

With a population of only about eight million, Australia was desperately short of labour. The solution lay with the three million Displaced Persons (DPs) languishing in European refugee camps after the second World War.

In an unprecedented influx of non-English speaking immigrants, 170,000 DPs were selected for Australia. But they had to earn acceptance. With blithe disregard for their qualifications, Polish lawyers, Latvian doctors and Serbian engineers had to dig ditches and chop down trees for their first two years at the other end of the world. But, as Ivan Kobal, a Slovenian refugee who became a surveyor's assistant on the Snowy, recalls, "we were so wrapped up in the desire to get away, we were prepared to agree to anything."

The early refugees were soon joined by the thousands escaping the chaos and depression of post-war Italy, Malta and Greece. Even before they landed, there was consternation. The White Australia policy banned people of colour, but where to draw the line? One apparatchik found a simple solution. "Drop your dacks," he would instruct the applicant. Those with white buttocks got through, while those with an all-over tan were rejected.

On the Snowy, the nationalities clustered in different occupations. Good skiers such as the Czechs drifted into hydrography, measuring water levels in remote snow-covered terrain. Skilled Germans worked as surveyors, fitters and carpenters, while Poles, "Balts" and other eastern Europeans formed two-man flying camps doing early investigations in the bush.

Irish and Australians headed for the major construction sites, making roads, driving plant and running the hundred or so camps on the project. The Italians gravitated below ground, either because their masonry and concreting tradition drew them to the tunnels, or because, as the last group to arrive, they copped the dirtiest work.

Even with the best precautions, tunnelling was dangerous work. "The going (fatality) rate then was a man a mile," says Colonel Purcill, a safety inspector on the Snowy. Rockfall, accidental detonations and the danger of heavy rolling stock in a confined space were ever-present threats. But the combination of an immigrant workforce, ruthless overseers and a universal obsession with speed exacerbated the risks.

"Unless it was critical, nobody interfered with production. That was criminal!," recalls Tom Doherty, from Donegal, who rose to be a tunnel supervisor, or "walker". Miners' wages were directly linked to how much rock they excavated. On a good run, they could earn three times what other Snowy workers got. Their employers also got a handsome bonus if the job was ahead of time.

To fuel the miners' machismo, contractors recorded each shift's progress on a huge blackboard at the tunnel entrance. To increase the competition, they exploited ethnic rivalries, pitting a team of southern Italians against a supposedly superior group of northern Italians, or Serbs against Croats. "That blackboard was like someone standing behind us with a whip going, `We have to beat them'," recalls German miner Herb Schmidtke.

The combination of carrot and stick worked. In December 1954, when work started on the Eucumbene-Tumut tunnel, the miners were excavating the standard 21 metres a week. Less than six months later, they got nearly six times that, creating the first of many world records for hard-rock drilling in the process. Tom Doherty, a shift boss, still proudly displays a medal recording his feat.

Doherty, who went on to work on the Sydney Harbour tunnel, survived 15 years of Snowy tunnelling without an accident. Although 56 men died underground, the Snowy claimed less than the anticipated man a mile: 0.6 of a man, to be precise - considerably less than the 3.0 men a mile lost on the Saint Bernard Tunnel in Switzerland.

The casualty rate could have been lower, if the men had taken more care and had more training. Despite the risk that they might contain traces of unexploded gelignite, old drill-holes were deliberately re-used by some miners to get a head-start - and they died as a result. The men were fatalistic about the dangers, which seemed far outweighed by the rewards. Six months in the Snowy could earn you enough to buy a house or rescue your family from poverty in Europe.

"Any dangerous labouring job that men do, you've got to be a bit reckless, a bit daring," says Ulick O'Boyle, a Dubliner who worked on Snowy dams and tunnels. "They're not shiny-arses - they're of the elite. The same sort of people in the army would probably be in the commandos."

Australians simply refused to do the riskier work, such as concrete-lining. It was whispered that men had been buried alive in concrete in the Snowy tunnels. Perhaps the rumour derived from a horrific accident in a dam shaft at Island Bend in December 1963.

Although the signal to pour had been given, no concrete came through to the men below. Unaware that some old set concrete had plugged the pipe and caused a huge build-up, the foreman eventually poked it. The resulting avalanche of tonnes of liquid concrete knocked the men to the bottom of the shaft, where they were pinned in the setting concrete by debris.

Rescuer Karl Pahl was acutely aware that the concrete would set within two hours. "We tried everything," he recalls. "We tried to stop it from setting by pouring sugar on it. We thought of amputating one bloke's legs to get him out, but we couldn't get him out." Two Yugoslavs and a Spaniard were killed in the incident.

The danger they shared created strong bonds which gradually overcame racial prejudice. Their isolation in the mountains increased the sense of camaraderie. Apart from a few stabbing incidents between Poles and Germans early on, and the odd punch-up in the bar, there was no sustained hostility between groups on the scheme - with the notable exception of the Serbs and Croats.

Outnumbered two to one by immigrants, Australians simply had to accept and adapt to the newcomers' ways. Although their suspicion of the "garlic-munchers" waned, for a time they remained wary of the Germans, whom they had after all been fighting only a few years before. Once, word went round that the Germans had marched into Cooma en masse, bought guns and taken to the hills. The nervous local constable filed a full security alert, only to find the enemy, fed up with the endless mutton stews in the canteen, was hunting rabbits to enliven their diet.

Off-duty, bridges were also being built. "How could you possibly marry a man who wears suede shoes?", wailed one horrified parent whose daughter took up with a Czech. The Europeans, with their flash manners and exotic airs, took the Australian girls by storm.

"They were everything the dull, staid country boys weren't," remembers local woman Faye Popowski, who married a Yugoslav. "They were exciting, they had money, they dressed in the best clothes, bought you the best champagne - they were fun!"

Although the professional staff were sometimes accompanied by their families, thousands of single men lived in isolated construction camps. On pay night, their sexual needs were met by convoys of prostitutes smuggled in from Sydney. One entrepreneur, who went on to become a multi-millionaire, operated a portable brothel from a converted ambulance.

Some "respectable" women freelanced on the scheme, reducing their mortgage with a hardworking weekend in a Snowy camp. One woman, apprehended by the police, had accumulated £156 in eight hours. At two pounds a time, that represented 10 men an hour.

After work, the men's main recreation was drinking and gambling, on a prodigious scale. Up to three months' wages were won and lost on the flip of a coin, in the venerable Aussie game of two-up.

"Your salary was pretty good, but your game could be worth more," laughs Sean Gordon, one of many Irishmen who ran "The Game". The gambling supremos were model citizens, donating money to churches and hospitals and sponsoring sporting events. They also supported the family of a worker killed or injured.

Jim Courtenay, from Galway, was on his way to dispense such largesse when his car ran into a flooded river and he was drowned. His funeral was the biggest ever seen in Cooma.

The Irish fitted in easily on the Snowy. Neutral during the war, they served as a useful buffer among the immigrants. Everyone celebrated St Patrick's Day. It may have started as a diplomatic move. Some ethnic festivities could get out of control, as when a bunch of enthusiastic Germans tried to celebrate Hitler's birthday.

For Australians, the Irish were the nearest thing to their own: the famous Man From Snowy River himself was said to have been based on an Irish horseman called Jack Riley.

But the horsemen's days were numbered. To prevent soil erosion and siltation of the dams, horses were banned from the high country. Progress brought hardship to other locals.

Besides being swamped with hordes of foreigners, three small towns were literally inundated, submerged by dams. Timber homes were hoisted onto low-loaders and shifted to new sites. Not all cherished possessions were portable. One woman begged the removalists to take her laundry floor: years before, she told them, she had vowed not to cut her hair until her fiancΘ came back safe from the war. After their marriage, he had cemented the tresses into their new laundry.

ALTHOUGH the scheme was unusually environmentally aware for its time, it has had unforeseen deleterious effects. At 1 per cent of its original flow, the once-mighty Snowy River is now a mere trickle and inland, at the heart of the foodbowl the scheme created, a combination of tree-felling and mismanaged irrigation has caused a severe salinity problem.

Despite these drawbacks, the Snowy fired the public imagination as no other national project had. By the 1970s, as the scheme drew to a close, Australia was no longer the cringing, post-colonial outpost of the early 1950s. Australian engineers, who had sought American expertise to start the project, were in demand around the world for their technical and engineering prowess.

At home, schoolchildren listened with awe to the facts and figures while their parents went on guided tours and returned to spread the gospel to family and friends. Snowy workers - "wogs" and all - were acclaimed as heroes. In this spirit of pride and celebration, the new Labour government abolished the decades-old White Australia policy. From now on, the Immigration Minister declared, Australia would espouse "multiculturalism".

Ulick O'Boyle, who wrote 50 popular songs about the epoch, describes working there as "travelling the world without leaving home". Tomorrow, as thousands of former workers travel back across the world to reunite on the shores of Lake Jindabyne, the Snowy Mountains will echo again to his rousing ballad, The Cooma Cavaliers, which sums up the spirit and camaraderie of that diverse crew.

It's dark in that tunnel and work she is rough

By the time it hits payday we've all had enough

So we rush into Cooma to have us one spree

Four Italians, three Germans, two Yugoslavs

and me

And before we get inside our order rings out,

Four vinos, three schnappses, two slivovitz,

one stout!

The Snowy - The People Behind The Power, by Siobhan McHugh is published by HarperCollins. Her email address is