Historic Photographs of Early Hydroelectric Schemes at the Gara and Styx Rivers near Hillgrove, NSW

The New England region of northern New South Wales (NSW) has an interesting history of hydroelectric generation dating from the late 1880s. As I’ve noted in this overview of the earliest examples in colonial Australia, NSW’s first hydroelectric installation commenced operation at the Mount Sheba gold mine at Nundle in late 1889 (see the map below).1Sydney Morning Herald, 4 November 1889, p. 7; Australian Town and Country Journal, 8 February 1890, p. 24Sydney Mail, 24 May 1890, p. 1168.

The Gara River Plant (1894)

Five years later, the first substantial (industrial-scale) hydroelectric scheme in Australia began operation at the Gara River, located about half way between Armidale and Hillgrove.2Armidale Express, 14 September 1894, p. 4; Armidale Chronicle, 15 September 1894, p. 2. See also Denis Gojak, ‘Gara River; An Early Hydro-Electric Scheme in Northern New South Wales’, Australian Historical Archaeology, 6, 1988, pp. 3–11; Graham Wilson, ‘The Growth and Decline of Hillgrove: a history of a northern New South Wales mining town from 1880 to 1920, MA Thesis, University of Sydney, 1990, ch. 4. While the Mount Sheba and other pioneering hydroelectric lighting systems built in the 1880s only had very small outputs of 5–10 kW or so, the Gara River installation was intended to power industrial machinery at Hillgrove’s deep lead gold and antimony mines as well as town/domestic lighting and had a reported generation capacity of about 630 kW.3Armidale Chronicle, 15 September 1894, p. 2.

Designed primarily by Richard Threlfall, Professor of Physics at the University of Sydney, the Gara River plant was beset by cycles of drought and destructive floods and never really operated as intended. The original company soon failed and when new owners undertook an expensive rebuild in 1899–1900 they failed to rectify the need for a reliable water supply. In an apparent cost-cutting measure, the design and construction of a new timber cotter dam situated immediately upstream of the original concrete weir was entrusted to a radical NSW parliamentarian, Frank Cotton, who had no engineering qualifications (but had recently designed a low-cost weir at the Lachlan River at Forbes).4Sydney Telegraph, 14 April 1900, p. 12; Wilson, ‘The Growth and Decline of Hillgrove, p. 52. Cotton’s original weir at Forbes was completed in early 1899. See Evening News, 3 February 1889, p. 3. The new dam was badly damaged by flooding soon after completion, repaired, but effectively destroyed by further flooding in 1901.5Armidale Chronicle, 28 July 1900, p. 4; 4 September 1901, p. 5. However, in 1904 the mothballed plant was taken over by a local miner named John Pinto who utilised the original weir to provide power for electric lighting at Hillgrove until 1918–19.6Hillgrove Guardian, 3 December 1904, p. 2. The last explicit reference I’ve found to the Gara plant’s operation was reported in July 1918 (Armidale Chronicle, 20 July 1918, p. 6).

The Styx River Plant (1907)

Despite the travails of the Gara scheme, in 1907 the New Hillgrove Proprietary Mining Company built a similar plant on the Styx River, some 30 km east of Hillgrove.7Sydney Morning Herald, 12 December 1907, p. 11. The company persevered with hydroelectric technology in order to reduce operating costs (fuel for conventional steam-operated mining machinery was expensive to transport to Hillgrove’s mines—most of which were situated at the foot of the 500-metre gorge at Bakers Creek).8Sydney Morning Herald, 16 October 1906, p. 11. The Styx River power station reportedly had a capacity of 200 kW (and possibly 320 kW in final form).9Sydney Morning Herald, 12 December 1907, p. 11. Palmer and Tritton, Consulting Engineers, Report on Electrical Development in New South Wales, Sydney, 1937, p. 144. While its operations were also affected by flooding and drought, the plant successfully powered heavy mining machinery (crushing batteries, ore concentrators, air compressors and so forth).10Sydney Morning Herald, 10 February 1914, p. 12. However, by the latter years of the Great War Hillgrove’s mines (and population) were in severe decline and the Styx River plant was sold and removed in 1917–18.11Daily Examiner, 28 November 1917, p. 2; Sun, 12 July 1918, p. 5. For Hillgrove generally see R. S. Neale and others, ‘Life and Death in Hillgrove, 1870–1914’, Australian Economic History Review, 21, 1981, pp. 91–113; Wilson, ‘The Growth and Decline of Hillgrove‘. Soon after John Pinto wound up his operations at the Gara River, having repeatedly failed to convince the Armidale City Council to redevelop the site for its first municipal electrical power supply.12Wilson, ‘The Growth and Decline of Hillgrove’, pp. 58–59.

Notes on the Photos

Relatively little infrastructure of either scheme survives and both power station sites are very difficult to access by foot. Fortunately, a number of photographs of these historically significant hydroelectric installations are now held at the University of New England Archives and Regional Heritage Centre at Armidale (UNERA), and most of the surviving images are reproduced in the gallery. Few are dated but some of the Gara River images showing plant in disrepair would seem to date from the 1920s or 1930s (the fluming pictured in some images isn’t apparent in aerial photography of the area taken in 1943). While only a few fallen poles remain of the roughly two-kilometre flume line (re)built at the Gara River in 1899–1900, its approximate route is followed by the Threlfall Walking Track established by the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service at the Blue Hole Picnic Area. The original concrete weir built in 1894 also survives at Blue Hole. Unlike the Gara River images, nearly all the Styx River photographs were taken during or soon after the construction period (1907). A number of the images show some of the main design similarities between the installations—particularly the fluming utilised to transmit water in a regulated fashion from storage weirs to power stations.

The Styx River photographs also illustrate quite starkly the considerable engineering challenges and safety hazards posed by the natural environment. Remarkably, this plant was constructed in a manual fashion throughout much of 1907 by a team of just 12 miners working under the supervision of Moses O’Connor—a builder and mining foreman with no particular experience in hydroelectric engineering.13Armidale Express, 20 September 1944, p. 6. O’Connor (1868–1947) then was also a Hillgrove Councillor who had been obliged to decline nomination as Mayor in order to supervise the construction work at the Styx River; he retained an interest in civic affairs and during the Great Depression was elected Mayor of Armidale City Council on a number of occasions.14Uralla Times, 23 February 1907, p. 2; Armidale Express, 20 September 1944, p. 6. While the original and rebuilt flume lines at the Gara River tended to traverse comparatively gentle gullies prior to the final drop to the power station (via a metal penstock), one of the main challenges that O’Connor and his men faced at the Styx River was the construction of fluming which snaked precariously around vertical gorge cliff faces. Photographs taken in late 1907 also show how approximately 100 tons of power station equipment was lowered into the gorge by a manual cable winch.15 Wilson, ‘The Growth and Decline of Hillgrove, p. 56. Archaeological remains situated above the Gara River power station site suggest that a similar method was used there as well.

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