The pipeline was commissioned in 1896 and was completed in 1903. It was established to deliver water to communities that had rapidly grown in Western Australia 's "Eastern Goldfields ", such as Coolgardie and Kalgoorlie . During the early 1890s, thousands of settlers had swarmed into the barren and dry desert centre of Western Australia in search of gold, but existing infrastructure for the supply of water was non-existent and an urgent need arose.
The scheme enabled the benefits of the gold discovery to be realised and brought immense wealth into the previously struggling economy. Abundant water became available at a cost of three shillings and sixpence per thousand gallons, compared to water which had been carted by rail to Coolgardie previously at the rate of over A£3 per thousand gallons. The position was even worse at Kalgoorlie.
On 16 July 1896, the Premier of Western Australia, Sir John Forrest introduced to Western Australian Parliament a bill to authorise the raising of a loan of £2.5 million to construct the scheme: the pipeline would cart five million gallons (23,000 m³) of water per day to the Goldfields from a dam on the Helena River near Mundaring Weir in Perth, a distance of about 550km.
The scheme was devised by C. Y. O'Connor who oversaw its design and most of the construction project. Although supported by Premier Forrest, O'Connor had to deal with widespread criticism and derision from members of the Western Australian Parliament as well as the local press based on a belief that scope of the engineering task was too great and that it would never work. There was also a concern that the gold discoveries would soon dry up and the state would be left with a significant debt to repay but little or no commerce to support it.
O'Connor committed suicide in March 1902 less than 12 months before the final commissioning of the pipeline. Lady Forrest officially started the pumping machinery at Pumping Station number one on the 22 January, and on 24 January 1903 water flowed into the Mt Charlotte Reservoir at Kalgoorlie. O'Connors' engineer-in-chief, C. S. R. Palmer took over the project after his death, seeing it through to its successful completion. The government conducted an inquiry into the scheme and found no basis for the press accusations of corruption or misdemeanours on the part of O'Connor.
The pipes were manufactured locally from flat steel sheets imported from Germany and the United States that were pressed into upper and lower halves that were then welded together to form a finished pipe. (No technology was available in those days that allowed for the manufacture of a pipe of this size - 76cm in diameter) Mephan Ferguson was awarded the first manufacturing contract and built a fabrication plant at Falkirk (now known as the Perth suburb of Maylands ) to produce half of the 60,000 pipes required. Hoskins Engineering established a factory near Midland Junction (now known simply as Midland ) to produce the other half. When built, the pipeline was the longest fresh-water pipeline in the world.
This is a section of the original pipe. The lines along its length are the joints of the upper and lower halves. A lot of the pipe has been replaced and is now being placed underground to keep the water cool. This had also been done originally, but too many invisible leaks forced the pipe to be placed above ground for better control of leakage.
The pipeline ran alongside the route of the earlier route of the Eastern Railway and the Eastern Goldfields Railway for parts of its route, so that the railway service and the pipeline had an interdependence through the sparsely populated wilderness. The scheme required significant infrastructure in power generation to support the pumping stations. Communities oriented to its management grew up along the route. The pipeline continues to operate today, supplying water to over 100,000 people in over 33,000 households as well as mines, farms and other enterprises.