Weir in the Hills
The Shire of Mundaring’s logo incorporates the wall across the Helena River, an indication of the significance of the decision to build a dam on it 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, the second at the site itself.
The reasons for the choice of this particular site for the storage reservoir, for water destined for the arid goldfields nearly 600 km away, were summarized 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 orderly camp
The encampment below the dam site took on the proportions and appearance of a town, with thoroughfares through the shops and dwellings. Boarding houses, a billiard saloon and ‘Hart’s Hall’ for dances and concerts were amongst the facilities enjoyed by the 300 men camped there. The dam site got a school before the townsite thanks to the number of children living in the slab huts or rough shacks of timber frames covered with whitewashed hessian.
Keeping it clean
A sanitary inspector was appointed to ensure the health of the camp and a sanitary contract let to deal with the waste. Sly grog shops supplied workers with alcohol until a hotel was built on the closest freehold land to the site. The damsite had a police presence before the townsite did, the officers at the camp having to keep order. Most charges were for fighting or obscene language. One man got six months hard labour for language that could be heard a mile away, so foul a girl and baby had to leave his presence.
One door closes
Once the dam built to store water for the Eastern Goldfields was completed, men moved on in search of work and the shopkeepers followed suit. But two settlements of engineers, greasers and stokers were established – one close to the weir to maintain No 1 Pumping Station, and another 2.5 km up the hill to operate the second of the eight pumping stations, built to deliver water uphill to the goldfields.
Work in the forest
On weekends woodcutters came in to swell the settlement. They supplied the steam powered pumping stations with tonnes of wood to fire their boilers and camped in the surrounding bush during the week. A programme of reforestation of the dam’s catchment area began in 1922 and resulted in forestry workers moving into a settlement near the weir. The last of their homes were removed recently to make way for a water treatment plant.
One reason the 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 started almost as soon as the dam was completed with special Sunday excursion trains. Sundays are still the busiest days at the weir, only nowadays people drive up in their cars.
State Registered Places, Mundaring Weir:
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, past what used to be a community hall, is an indication that many more used to live there. They were there mainly for the water supply or to work for the forestry department. There were so many in the settlements they could field a cricket team against one another.
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, 1960s. MHHS Collection.