Hundreds to a handful . .
Today only a handful of people live permanently at Mundaring Weir itself, but the name of the road leading to the hotel, Weir Village Road, passes what used to be a community hall, evidence that many more people had once lived there. They were mainly employed by the water supply authority. Forestry workers lived nearby in the Portagabra settlement. There were so many living in the settlements they could easily field a cricket team against one another.
Image: Mundaring Weir 1970s.
Weir in the Hills
The logo for the Shire of Mundaring incorporates the wall across the Helena River, an indication of the significance of the decision to build a dam there to supply water to the goldfields. Two encampments sprung up as a result—one at the junction of the rail spur line to the dam site and the Eastern Railway that would become the townsite of Mundaring, and the second at the dam site itself.
The reason for choosing this particular site for the storage reservoir for water destined for the arid goldfields nearly 600 km away, were summarised by Thomas Hodgson:
Report from T.C. Hodgson (later to become engineer in charge of construction) recommending what was to be the final site:
"On the Helena I have had several sites surveyed, and I can with safety recommend one situated about five miles South-West of Sawyer’s Valley Railway Station. The site is almost an ideal one. The foundations at the dam site are bed rock; the valley at that point very narrow, and sides precipitous.
A concrete dam might be made 100 ft. high, and its length on top would only be 650 ft. The advantages, however, do not cease there. The river bed is comparatively flat; and the sheet of water backed up by such a dam would extend for about seven miles. The quantity of water impounded would be 4,619 million gallons, and the net amount available annually, after allowing 20 ft. in depth at the dam site for silt, and seven feet from top water level for evaporation and soakage, would be 3,330 million gallons. The level of the river bed there is about 320 ft. above the sea, and the distance from Coolgardie, following generally along the railway line, is about 330 miles.
The watershed is such that there can be no reasonable doubt about the reservoir being filled annually. The drainage area is 350,000 acres, most of it hilly and rocky; and the Helena and Darkin Rivers traverse its greatest length.
Assuming a rainfall of 20 in. per annum over this area, the reservoir would be filled every year if only 3 per cent. of the rainfall found its way into it.
The quality of the water is excellent; there is practically no settlement in the catchment area, and consequently no danger of pollution."
An organised camp
The encampment below the dam site took on the proportions and appearance of a town, with thoroughfares between the shops and dwellings. Many of the workmen lived in tents. Others, who had brought their wives and children with them, erected slab huts, or rougher shacks of whitewashed hessian over bush timber frames. Boarding houses, a billiard saloon, and ‘Hart’s Hall’ for dances and concerts were among the facilities enjoyed by the residents. The need for a school soon became evident, and with donated land and a classroom built, the school opened on 7th November 1898 with an enrolment of 48 pupils.
Keeping it clean
A sanitary inspector was appointed to ensure the health of the camp, and a sanitary contract was let to deal with the waste generated at the camp. Sly grog shops supplied workers with alcohol until a hotel was built on the closest freehold land to the site. The dam site had a police presence before the Mundaring townsite did, with officers at the camp detailed to keep order. Most charges brought were for fighting or obscene language. One man even received a sentence of six months hard labour for foul language that could be heard a mile away.
One door closes
Once the dam was completed, the men moved on in search of new job prospects, and the shopkeepers soon followed suit. Two new settlements of engineers, engine-drivers, greasers, and stokers were established: one close to the weir to maintain the No. 1 Pumping Station; and the other higher up and 2.5 km to the north-east to operate the second of the eight pumping stations built to deliver water uphill to the goldfields.
Work in the forest
A large number of woodcutters, who camped in the surrounding bush, supplied the steam-powered pumping stations with the wood used to fire the boilers. Up until around 1913, two saw mills also operated in the forest to the south of the weir. In 1922, a program of reforestation of the dam’s catchment area began, which resulted in forestry workers returning to a settlement near the weir. The last of their homes were removed in 2011 to make way for a water treatment plant.
One reason this site was selected for the goldfields water supply storage reservoir was its sparse permanent population. Several old vineyard and orchard properties within the catchment area have been resumed over the years. Now, people come up to the much reduced settlement for a day trip. The tourist trade to the weir began almost as soon as the dam was completed, with special Sunday excursion trains put on to bring visitors. Sundays are still the busiest days at the weir, only nowadays people drive up in their cars.
State Registered Places, Mundaring Weir:
Above: Police tent and police officers, Mundaring Weir, c. 1900. MHHS Collection.
Above: Raising of the Dam Wall at Mundaring Weir, 1950. MHHS Collection
Dorothy Burne in front of the Mundaring Weir Hotel, 1970s. MHHS Collection.