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‘A plan for the whole nation’

1949: Chifley government begins Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Scheme

National Archives of Australia A12111, 1/1960/16/55
1900 2000

Use the following additional activities and discussion questions to encourage students (in small groups or as a whole class) to think more deeply about this defining moment.

Questions for discussion

1. Take a look at the Defining Moments: Snowy Mountains Hydro live-sketch animation as told by historian David Hunt.

Defining Moments: Snowy Mountains Hydro live-sketch animation

 

(a) Does the animation support what you’ve found out about the Snowy Mountains Hydro Scheme in this summary?

(b) Was there any extra information that you found interesting? If so, what was it?

(c) In the video David Hunt says that the Snowy, ‘was the biggest big thing that Australians have ever built’. Why did he say this about the Snowy Mountains Hydro Scheme, and do you agree with him?

2. The Snowy Mountains Hydro Scheme is now seen as a successful example of multiculturalism. Why do you think people of different nationalities could work together in relative harmony so soon after the Second World War?

3. In 2018 the Australian Government proposed ‘Snowy 2.0’. Do you think this is a good idea? What would you need to find out and consider before you could answer the question in an informed way?

4. Do you agree with the National Museum of Australia that the Snowy Mountains Hydro Scheme is a defining moment in Australian history? Explain your answer.

Image activities

1. Look carefully at all the images for this defining moment. Tell this story in pictures by placing them in whatever order you think works best. Write a short caption under each image.

2. Which three images do you think are the most important for telling this story? Why?

3. If you could pick only one image to represent this story, which one would you choose? Why?

Finding out more

1. What else would you like to know about this defining moment? Write a list of questions and then share these with your classmates. As a group create a final list of three questions and conduct some research to find the answers.

<p>Light box showing a map of the Snowy Mountains Hydro Scheme and the areas it would irrigate</p>
Snowy Hydro Limited

In a snapshot

The Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Scheme was built between 1949 and 1972. It is Australia’s largest hydroelectricity scheme. More than 100,000 people worked on it, including migrants of more than 30 nationalities. Over the life of the project the workers built seven power stations, 16 dams, 80 kilometres of pipes, 145 kilometres of tunnels and 1600 kilometres of roads and railway tracks. The Snowy is still an important source of power and irrigation water today.

Light box showing a map of the Snowy Mountains Hydro Scheme and the areas it would irrigate

Findout icon Can you find out?

1. What was the aim of the Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Scheme?

2. What is hydroelectricity?

3. Who built the Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Scheme, and why was this a big achievement?

Where was Australia’s first hydroelectric plant?

After the Second World War Australia needed to develop a better, more consistent power supply. Federal and state governments were under pressure to find new electricity supplies.

Coal‑fired steam turbines had supplied most of Australia’s power since at least 1894. But in 1916 a hydroelectric power plant was opened at Waddamana in central Tasmania. Power was generated at the Waddamana plant and moved to Hobart through a 100‑kilometer high‑voltage transmission line. This showed that power could be moved to where it was needed. Hydroelectricity was now a possible alternative to coal power in some places.

What was the Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Scheme?

Australia started the Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Scheme in 1949. It was a plan to take water that fell on the eastern side of the Snowy Mountains over to the western side. When the water ran down the western side it would create electricity. The water would then flow into the Murrumbidgee River and be used to irrigate (water) crops. It would then join the Murray River and flow to the sea.

Research task

 

Use Google maps to find the location of the Snowy Mountains. Which states and territories benefit from the Snowy Hydro-Electric Scheme?

Google maps

‘The Snowy Mountains plan is the greatest single project in our history. It is a plan for the whole nation, belonging to no one State nor to any group or section.’

Prime Minister Ben Chifley, May 1949
Swiss and German immigrants at work on the Snowy Mountains Hydro Scheme.

Who worked on the Snowy project?

This big job needed many workers. There were not enough Australians to take on this new work, so the Australian Government offered jobs to Europeans who had been displaced by the Second World War. They would come, build the project, and stay to become new Australian citizens.

People who might have been enemies during the Second World War now worked together on a big, new project. Migrants had to learn the ways of Australians, and Australians had to learn the ways of the migrants — Australians adopted many of the new foods and cultures that the migrants brought. Work on the Snowy was the start of a new life for thousands of ‘new Australians’.

‘You are no longer Czechs or Germans, you are men of the Snowy.’

William Hudson, Chief Engineer, 17 October 1949
<p>Guthega Power Station</p>

National Archives Australia; A1200, L17799

<p>Guthega Power Station</p>

What were the benefits and challenges of the Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Scheme?

The Snowy was one of the most complex engineering projects in the world. Between 1949 and 1974 the workers built seven power stations, 16 dams, 80 kilometres of aqueducts, 145 kilometres of tunnels and 1600 kilometres of roads and train tracks. Only two per cent of the Scheme’s works can be seen above ground.

Research task

 

Do some research to find out why the Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Scheme was an Australian Government project, not a state government one.

Lightbox showing the elevations of dams and generators in the Snowy Mountains Scheme.

The Scheme reached its designed output of electricity in 1974, and provides essential water for agriculture and other purposes. Local towns and villages have grown, attracting new businesses, residents and tourists. But some critics have argued that by rerouting entire river systems and denying the Snowy River its natural flow rate the Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Scheme also led to environmental damage.

The Snowy is still generating power today, producing 32 per cent of all renewable energy for Australia’s east coast mainland electricty grid. In 2018 the Liberal–National Party Coalition Government announced plans to build ‘Snowy 2.0’.

 

Read a longer version of this Defining Moment on the National Museum of Australia’s website.

Findout icon What did you learn?

1. What was the aim of the Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Scheme?

2. What is hydroelectricity?

3. Who built the Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Scheme, and why was this a big achievement?