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Duck Reach: Hydroelectric Wonder of Tasmania

If you were told exactly where the true pioneers of sustainable hydroelectric power first worked their engineering magic, you might be surprised. By Jeremy Torr.

Tasmania, 20 November 2016. In the mid-late 1800s, Tasmania, the island off the south of Australia previously used as a convict settlement, was booming. It had established itself as a major agricultural and mining territory. Its landowners, investors and multitudes of ex-convicts were churning out significant quantities of wood, lead, beef, wool, tin, copper, silver and gold as well as manufactured goods to be shipped off to the United Kingdom for the benefit of Queen Victoria’s Empire.

But this burst of activity was hindered to a degree by the availability of reliable power. There was coal and wood – and of course steam - but there were also lots of hills and valleys to cart the raw fuels over. And coal gas, as supplied to a few of the bigger towns and cities, was a bit of a stinker – both during production, and also to light and extinguish safely.

So in the late 1890s an enterprising engineer from the northern city of Launceston, C. St. John David, decided to investigate using the region’s gushing rivers to generate electricity as a power source. Just two years after starting work in 1893 on a staggeringly ambitious plan to pipe water through a massive rock ridge to run a set of turbines, Launceston became the first city in the world to own its own hydroelectric power station, and the first city in the southern hemisphere to have electric street lights.

A glimpse of the Duck Reach Power Station, an engineering marvel way ahead of its time. (Pic courtesy: Jeremy Torr)Today, Duck Reach Power Station still sits between the craggy walls of Cataract Gorge by the side of the South Esk river, a testament to the quality of engineering that built it. And to the foresight of the Launceston Municipal Council that funded it; Duck Reach went on to generate power until well after Queen Victoria had departed, and only stopped its turbines in 1955.

The power station fulfilled its promise of driving industrial development in Launceston across industries like milling, engineering and merchandising, and also generated enough power to light over 1,000 houses across the city. But it cost several lives in the making. Over the two years it took to drive an 1.8 metre diameter water tunnel through the solid volcanic rock and build the turbine house on an almost inaccessible ledge on the side of the gorge, several deaths occurred. Workers were killed by dynamite blasts and tunnel collapses, as well as sideslips down the face of the gorge. It was perilous work.

When it was officially opened on 11th December 1895, the local newspaper described the effect from the city’s new electric street lights as “a radiance that cast a lurid brilliancy over the city” compared to the “sickly glimmer” of the existing gas lamps.

The Flying Fox or the 'aerial tramway' was used to transport building material across the 107 meter wide gorge. (Pic courtesy: Duck Reach, Government of Tasmania)

Duck Reach Power Station Now

Today the power station building still sits on its ledge on the wall of the gorge, accessible over the river by a narrow suspension bridge from Corin Street. Inside is a display showing the amazing engineering that laid the engineering foundations for today’s massive hydroelectric schemes. In a nearby building lie the remains of a flying fox winch, hammered into the rockface. It was the only way the builders could heave all the heavy machinery, equipment and building materials across the gorge to the site. Across the gorge, the ruins of the Chief Engineer’s house watch over the now-quiet generator house

Visitors can take a walk around the shell of the power station, with its fascinating audio-visual history of the building and more recent history showing how it survived a catastrophic flood in 1929. The original supply pipes from the mouth of the rock tunnel still weave down the face of the gorge, wrought iron still tough and solid after over 120 years. Only one generator and turbine are left in the building, but all the original waterways still exist. It is an amazing – and inspiring place.

The steep gorge and boulder-laden landscape of Duck Reach. (Pic courtesy: Jeremy Torr)

Nature Appeals

Across the other side of the gorge, wallabies and carnivorous quolls slip between the gum trees and ti-tree bushes. Eagles circle overhead, massive and ancient rock outcrops crack and shimmer in the heat of the sun, and the river slips and gurgles around the thousands of boulders littering the floor of the gorge. It is like being on another planet – and a world away from the tourist-laden First Basin,  carpark, chairlift and food stalls only a couple of kilometres down the gorge from Duck Reach.

If you visit Launceston, do take a walk to Duck Reach. And marvel at the skill and tenacity that built the world’s first publicly owned hydro power station – and proved that the world could do without polluting and smelly power generation on a city-wide scale. 

For more info visit: http://duckreach.com.au

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