Uncle Tom's Tale


My father’s side of the family like to travel, as ‘Jack’s Story’ (on this site) indicates. Also, they emigrate a lot….

This is a tale told by my Uncle Tom Griffiths, who went out to Australia in the early 50s. Despite the demands of the Snowy Mountain scheme, he stuck with it for 31 years until he retired!  Jack, his twin, lives in New Zealand. My two uncles are now 91.

I was working in Queensland in 1955 when I saw an ad. for Civil Engineering Inspectors on the Snowy Mountain hydroelectric scheme. This project wasn’t all that well-known at the time, but the job itself sounded interesting. I’d get trained and given a house near the site. I had had some experience in contract supervision and was about to get married, this seemed an ideal prospect.

I got the job, and went on a course at the Cooma Scientific Services laboratories. The course included field trips and on our first trip to the mountains, we paid a visit to the Tumut One underground power station, just getting under way. The access tunnel had already been excavated. As we walked the 1400 feet into the tunnel we were assailed by an increasing volume of noise – drilling and excavating equipment was raising clouds of foul smelling, dusty air which reeked of gelignite residue. The tunnel was illuminated by scanty low-powered lighting. And the water! Water was dripping everywhere. It turned out that half a million gallons of water were pumped out daily! The ambience of this delightful tunnel was not improved by the Tournapul loaders roaring past every few minutes, belching diesel exhaust as they took rock for disposal. As we left the place, gasping for breath, our group was of the unanimous opinion that we would rather quit than work in that particular place.

Of course, at the end of the training, where was I assigned? You guessed it – Tumut One! I didn’t follow up on my vow to quit, but it was with great reluctance that I started work on the site. Fortunately, during the early part of construction, work was in the open, so as the project moved on, I was able to acclimatise myself gradually to the conditions, rather than be flung in at the deep end straight away.

Access to the power station site was by ‘The Creelman’s Track’ – a very steep fisherman’s trail down to the Tumut River. Its hairpin bends forced long wheelbase Landrovers to back and fill to get around. Passing places were few and in winter one had to drive down without touching the brakes to avoid coming to grief on the slippery ice.

The contract had been let to a number of French companies managed by a principal, so each company had a section of the main contract to look after. A bigger bunch of backbiters would be hard to find: they went to any length to denigrate the efforts of their colleagues, who were their commercial rivals in their own country. As overall supervisors, we were not too well liked either but individually we got on well. Their own supervisors would criticise the work of staff supplied by other companies, jeer at their efforts and relate personal histories of an uncomplimentary nature: ‘Oh! Monsieur so-and-so, when he had to go for a job interview with the Company President, in Paris, he sent his very pretty wife instead. He got the job.’ But we had some good friends among the French, and my wife and I attended the social evenings in their camp when we could. They were lavish in their hospitality, and beside plying us with exotic grog, taught us the Pasa Doble and other Latin dances

There was much squabbling about construction methods, specifications and safety matters, resulting at one stage in people losing consciousness because of the foul air. The contract requirements were based on American methods, and the French supervisors did not regard America as having any authority in construction practise. ‘We have been building dams, etc. for thousands of years,’ they said, ‘America has only had them for about three hundred.’

When we prepared to pour the first structural concrete, Gallic stubbornness reared its ugly head. The specification required that rock surfaces should be cleaned with an air/water jet, a device any competent mechanic could knock up in five minutes. No! That was too easy. Because they did not have the equipment provided, they decided simply to hose down the rock surface with water alone. This was not accepted so they tried the same thing again, which of course was also rejected. After a hold-up of three days, the group of men turned up with nail brushes and buckets and began scrubbing the rock, followed by the French ambassador and a bevy of news photographers. ‘Look what the Snowy Mountain people are making us do!’ Was the message probably hitting the headlines in France. Shortly after, someone kindly found some suitable equipment for them and the job was done properly.

Ventilation was a constant problem underground. The completed lift shaft was used to exhaust air from below. A huge fan, about eight feet in diameter, drew air up 1200 feet to the surface. It was so powerful you couldn’t stand up. Unfortunately, when the outside temperature at the surface was low, cold air sank down the shaft and effectively blocked the exhaust air coming up, despite the fan. Some bright spark thought it would be better to suck fresh air down the shaft and blow it through the access tunnel into the construction area by reversing the fan. This was a great idea, unless you were aware that miners working in the shafts had been using the tunnel as an open toilet. Until they sorted it out, the atmosphere was filled with the stench and the air-borne detritus of the miner’s exertions, blasted by that powerful fan.

We worked three shifts, six days a week. On Sunday, we had PR escort duties, so we had little opportunity to get the back-to-work blues, as we got up to start our shift at 5am.  In winter we cleaned ice from the vehicle windscreen. If there had been fresh snow we would dig the Landrover out by hand, then would have to lie down in the snow to put snow chains on. There was one consolation: at work we would be WARM. The temperature underground was 64F all year round.

The highlight of the week was getting the Sydney Morning Herald on the Saturday with the chance of applying for another bloody job and getting out of there!


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