30. Charles Yelverton O’Connor (1843-1902), engineer
Charles Yelverton “C.Y.” O’Connor was born in Gravelmount, County Meath, Ireland, as the potato famine was about to strike. His family moved to Waterford where he completed his schooling. He was then articled to a professional engineer.
Economic conditions in Ireland remained poor, prompting O’Connor to move to New Zealand in 1865. Over the next 16 years he supervised almost every sort of engineering project. He was marine engineer for New Zealand when the WA Premier, John Forrest, heard of this brilliant builder of harbours and railways. He offered O’Connor a job. O’Connor asked with what projects he would be involved. Forrest cabled back: “Railways, harbours, everything”.
It was an offer O’Connor couldn’t refuse. He arrived in 1891 with his family and was given his first job as Engineer-in-Chief of the Public Works Department – to build a new harbour at the mouth of the Swan. He argued successfully against earlier designs, and advocated blasting away the bar across the mouth of the Swan to create an inner harbour. Construction began in 1892 and the new Fremantle port was completed in 1897.
O’Connor received a Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George the same year. For five years he was also engineer-in-charge and acting general manager of the government railways. During his time the railways were extended, re-engineered, and became profitable.
O’Connor had already been thinking about how to get water 560 kilometres uphill to the eastern goldfields. His solution was “simple and elegant” but he was brutally criticised in parliament, and also particularly by The Sunday Times. The massive project was nearing completion when the engineer cracked. He rode his horse into the sea near Robb Jetty on 10 March 1902 and shot himself. He was survived by his wife, three daughters and four sons. His devoted Public Works Department staff paid for the imposing granite Celtic cross marking his grave.
By the end of 1902 the pipeline was completed as planned, for the estimated cost. On 24 January 1903, amid much celebration, John Forrest turned on the water at Coolgardie and Kalgoorlie, praising O’Connor: “The great builder of this work … to bring happiness and comfort to the people of the goldfields for all time'.
O’Connor’s pipeline was entered onto the National Heritage List in 2011.