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1960-1963-Ord Stage 1

[Not to be confused with the Ord (ORIA) "Expansion" Stage I & 2 in the 21st century]

 A visual history to show the start of the Ord River Irrigation Area with the construction of the Ord River Diversion Dam, associated works and the new town of Kununurra, a project of National Development, overseen by the WA Government's Public Works Department with Commonwealth funding made available in 1959.

 The contractors for the Ord River Diversion Dam construction were a Danish firm, Christiani Nielsen & Clough, who had partnered with WA firm Clough Engineering, to contract as Christiani Nielsen & Clough (CN&C) and had just completed the Narrows Bridge in Perth when the Ord River Diversion Dam contracts were let. The Danes were expert with pre-stressed concrete beams and had built many bridges on the autobahns (freeways) in Germany. These pre-stressed concrete beams used for the Narrows Bridge, completed in 1959, were also employed for the roadway over the Ord River Diversion Dam and the Dunham River bridge in 1961-1962. 

Site works started during 1960 with the first concrete pours starting in 1961 and work continued over two dry seasons the new dam made its way across the mighty Ord River at the quartzite rock bar, known for millennia in Mirriuwung as Darram.  Recent research has found that before it was named Bandicoot Bar it had also been known as 'Button Falls,' almost certainly named during his classic journey with Donald Swan from the newly formed Ord River station to View Hill late in 1884.  They had pack-horses to get supplies for the station from one of its owners, WS Osmand, from his luxurious steam yacht, 'Cushie Doo,' that had anchored there at Coghlan's landing.

[Some references to this - In Search of Black Pat Durack's 1885-86 Store at View Hill, Cambridge Gulf.] 

[An extract below sets the scene - From a paper presented on the History of the Ord Project by Roy A Hamilton at a 1991 conference - '50 Years of Ord Irrigation - Reviews & Future Perspectives' - Roy was the Resident Engineer for the Public Works Department during the construction of the Ord River Diversion Dam.]

In Australia the talk was directed towards Northern development, with people and politicians looking to the great rivers of the Northern Territory, Western Australian [sic] and Queensland.

Our own State Department of Public Works was quietly moving along with designs for Ord development.

The Directors of the Department were Russell Dumas to Jan 1953, Jim Young to Feb 1962, John Parker to Dec 1969 and Don Munro to 1971 .

[Roy had "Victor Dumas" - Corrected AB 29 VII 2020]

It is a little known fact that the State put forward to the Commonwealth Government, proposals for construction of the Ord scheme firstly in 1949 and again in 1956 by the Labour Government of Premier Bert Hawke (Uncle of Prime Minister Bob Hawke) and John Tonkin Minister for Works. Unfortunately these applications failed to impress that Government.

In mid 1958 the Commonwealth Government made a grant of 2.5 million Pounds to Western Australia, for Northern development projects, and only a few months later, provided another similar amount. This gave the State 5 million pounds (10 million dollars) to work with. The funds were made available through the Western Australian Grant (Northern Development) Act 1958-59.

The State very quickly put forward three projects, the Ord River Scheme as a four stage project, the Napier Broome Bay survey, and the rebuild, in steel, of the three jetties, Wyndham, Derby and Broome. These Jetties were of old timber construction and because of the war years, badly in need of repair.

A State election and a change of Government in March 1959 Saw the Liberal Government of David Brand Premier, and Charles Court, Minister for the North West, take control and continue the good work of the Labour Government.

The Commonwealth Government approved the rebuild of the Wyndham jetty, and the Napier Broome Bay survey and then on August 26 1959 approved the Ord stage 1.

At that time (late 1959) I, with a team of some 300 people, was completing Wellington Dam construction, a large concrete dam on the Collie River. I was asked to take up the position of Resident Engineer, Ord River Irrigation Project, and quickly accepted.

1960 was a year of intense and exciting activity. Plans were prepared, specifications written, pretenderers called world wide, and selected, material gathered, surveys carried out a temporary camp established and all the other necessary things done that were needed for a major project in what was then a remote and isolated area lacking in communications, transport and the normally accepted conveniences of life.

Work on the rebuild of the Wyndham jetty started in this year 1960, with plans to work right through the "wet". It was also proposed that work on the dam would continue through the wet season, much to the consternation of many of the local people who said that it could not be done.

From settlement to 1960 Kimberley economy was based on cattle (cattle and sheep in West Kimberley ). The local practice was to virtually close down all activities during the wet season, and that was well understandable as it was impossible to work cattle in the intense heat and it was impossible to travel on the unformed earth roads in the country areas.

The station people took in 3 to 4 months supplies and closed the gate, or went south for a holiday. This meant that town merchants and business houses lost a good proportion of their customers and so they reduced activities or holidayed in the south.

The December trip of the State Ships pride of fleet Koolinda, was always well booked with Kimberley people going south. In fact Government had a policy of providing north west women and children with half price fares so that they could get some relief from the heat and lower living standards.

The control and management of the Ord project was set up under a Ministerial committee of the Minister for the North West (Charles Court), the Minister for Works (Gerry Wild) and the Minister for Agriculture (Crawford Nalder). The Departmental committee, The Ord Project Committee was Deputy Director of Works John Parker, Director of Agriculture Tom Dunne and Commissioner of Main Roads Digby Leach.

When Tom Dunne retired Noel Fitzpatrick became director and took his position on the committee.

Bob Nunn, Officer in Charge of the North West Branch, Department of Agriculture, was also a great driving force until his retirement.

In the first half of 1960 a number of contracts were let. (The values have been converted to Dollars).

The Diversion Dam              Christiani & Nielsen        $5,152,000.
Radial Steel Gates               Vickers Hoskins              $1,526,000.
Office Housing etc                Geraldton Building Co    $   514.000.
Crane & Stoplogs                J&E Ledger                     $   288,000.
Power Station Equipment    Hawker Siddeley            $   234,000.
Pumping Equipment            Harland Engineering       $   202,000.
Radial Gate Electrical          F.R Mayfield                    $   124,000.

The establishment of the town started late in 1959 Public Works Dept moved its survey camp from Bandicoot Bar to the site now occupied by the State Government Building in Messmate Way. (Locally known as the Chook House)

The State proposed that the town be called Cununurra, after the name applied to the black clay in the farm lands (Cununurra clay). Cununurra is reported to be the aboriginal word for 'big waters'. The Nomenclature Committee would not approve, but finally accepted the same word spelled with a K.

By late 1960 the first two houses were completed in Cajuput Street by builder Bill Worsteling, father-in-law of Frank Camer-pesci, who, with wife Rita, established the first Hotel/motel, in the town, the Hotel Kununurra.

Work on the dam foundations started with drilling and blasting on Oct 20 1960. At the same time housing, town roads, water supply, power supply and camp facilities were being constructed.

In this same month of October, Public Works Department was constructing a gravel airstrip with a day labour team. The normal air service at that time was from Perth through Wyndham and on to Darwin. With the Start of work at Kununurra MacRobertson Miller Airlines provided a small 10 seat Dove aircraft to run a feeder service to the Ivanhoe airstrip adjacent to Ivanhoe Station. It would fly into Kununurra when that new strip was completed.

Ray Brindley, the resident Wyndham based pilot, was a very enterprising person with time on his hands. He established a local band to play at the town dances, he took up boot repairing and any other job offering. He became known as Bank-Note Brindley.

When Brindley heard that the Minister for Works Gerry Wild MLC and Project Engineer Don Munro was due in Kununurra, he asked that work could be pushed ahead on the airstrip so that the first landing could be made with these VIP's.

Additional plant was provided and although far from finished, it was agreed that a landing could be made. And so, on that hot, windy and dusty afternoon, with a few local people and officials out in their finery, Captain Bank-Note Brindley and the Ministerial party arrived, a few speeches were made and the official tour began. That night MMA put on the first formal function to be held in Kununurra.

[Further evidence of this, which may even survive on film, as follows. – AB 28 VI 2010]
Ord River Project [moving images] : program number NCW559, minister for works [Gerald?] Wild returns to Perth after inspecting Kimberley area including Ord River project - Wild flew in first aircraft to touch down at new Kununurra airstrip. Date of transmission 05 December 1960. 1 of 1 film reels, 00 min 42 sec : positive image; 16mm, b&w, mute
Series number    K1129     Control symbol    CAN1110B.6     Contents date range    5 Dec 1960 - 5 Dec 1960

The ORIA Pilot Farm

Recognising the need for larger scale farming experience the Kimberley Research Station Policy Committee recommended in April 1959, that Government engage some organisation for- this work. A Sydney company owned by Mr Peter Farley had previously taken up the Camballin project under an agreement with Government known as "The Northern Developments Pty Ltd (Camballin) Agreement 1959". This company was invited and signed an agreement to farm 2000 acres (800 Ha) just to the north west of Kununurra.

Water was supplied to this experimental farm from a new pump set up at Carlton Reach and via a small channel dug especially for this purpose. Eventually the supply was provided via the main channel and a pump known as MlP1.

Ron Kinsey was appointed manager. He later took up a cotton farm to the northern end of the allocated area. He was well known as one of the better farmers on the Ord.

The company's first rice crop of 70 tonnes was shipped to Hong Kong during August 1961. Then a wet season rice crop was planted on 400 acres in Dec 1961. This was harvested in June 1962 with a yield of 2.4 tonnes per Ha. Cotton was successfully grown and yielded 2000 lbs seed cotton(2160 kg per ha). In the dry season of 1962 rice linseed and safflower were planted. There was a real interest in oil seed crops.

From the research work being done. the Government became very interested in cotton as a crop for the Ord. Mr Jack Tomms, a wheat expert with Department of Agriculture was sent to USA in September 1961 to gain expertise in cotton. He returned and was moved to the Ord in November 1961 to plant the first larger scale experimental crops.

By September 1961 the Australian Inland Mission had finalised plans to build a residence and hall in Kununurra, and followed this decision with the appointment of the Reverend Ron Sparks of Canning Bridge [Applecross Western Australia? - Check into this - AB 22 VI 2010] Presbyterian Church to the town. This proved to be excellent choice. The AIM then completed a four bed hospital in December 1962, staffing it with three nursing sisters. On 6 September 1962 Bishop Jobst visited Kununurra and announced that his church would immediately start building a combined church and manse.

C R Keath Earthmoving Pty Ltd of Melbourne was awarded the contract for the irrigation channels, drains and structures in April 1962, a contract requiring the Govement [sic] of some 2 million cubic metres of earth and the placing of some 2,000 cubic metres of concrete in a large number of structures and bridges.

May 1962 saw the issue of brochures for the first 5 farms, while the Government Gazette of the 18th of that month advertised the first blocks for sale in the town. Four block[s] had an upset price of $120, thirteen were at $100. Other land included a butcher shop site at $200, a baker shop site at $200 and 2 general store sites at $220 each.

Meantime at Kimberley Research Station work was progressing under the guidance of John Auty Officer in Charge, N J (Norm) Thompson cotton, R T (Kevin) Richards entomologist, P J (P[i]eter) van Rijn rice and [Donald] (Bondi) Beach [sic Beech] oil seeds. At Kununurra the agricultural irrigation adviser was Ken Cole and the entomologist from April 1964 to December 1967 was Don Shedley. [The entomologist before Don Shedley was Kevin Richards - AB 29 VII 2020]

This station was particularly progressive under the guidance of Dr John Millington, Officer in Charge from April 1969 to September 1974. Not only was there wide ranging research work carried out but Dr Millington engaged in an excellent programme of public relations and public education.

It is interesting to note that, as isolated as it was, people of Kununurra took a keen interest in outside affairs. The Daily News on 16 July 1962, reported that Miss Rona Landquist, secretary at KRS had entered the Miss Australia Quest.

1962 – August 15th – C & N Mess Fire at the Diversion Dam Construction Site

The 15th of August 1962 was a bleak day for the site, the C&N mess and wet canteen burned and was completely destroyed about 1.30pm. Until such time as a new building could be erected the 400 men were fed in the Public Works mess, under the management of Mrs Foord, as well as the 120 departmental people, with 2 extra sittings a meal.

Both Hall [sic Hal] Foord and his wife worked for the Department. They had taken over one of the 10 acre farmlets [Which became Wilford's]. On the river north of the town. These blocks were set up in the 1950's as residential blocks for married Main Road workers. Some of the early tenants being Ted and Helen Sheppard, well known and respected residents of Kununurra in the early days and Charlie and Mary Guerinoni who still have an earth moving business in the town.

Hal Foord took up one of these blocks to grow bananas and run a few chooks. Chris Wilford took up this block at a later date and became known as the father of  bananas in Kununurra.

Foords beach at the end of what is now known as Riverfarm road was named after Hal Foord.

The Foords daughter Petra was the first Cotton Festival queen of Kununurra.

August 1962 The Government announces the 1st Five ORIA Farmers.

Shortly after the fire and on a brighter note, at the end of that month the Government announced the names of the first 5 farmers.

There were some 500 enquires to the initial advertisement, with 45 firm applications. The five selected were,

    Mr Beresford Arbuckle of Balcatta.
    Mr James Henry Arbuckle of Balcatta.
    Messrs.Beach, Gray, Massey & Tolson of KRS. [Ord River Farmers]
    Mr William Herbert Dougal of Queensland.
    Mr David John Revell of Victoria.

These farmers were required to be on site by early 1963.

[New Ord River Station]
In the upper reaches of the catchment area, work on soil conservation methods was progressing well. The Minister for Agriculture Mr Nalder announced that 5 large paddocks had been fenced to protect some 500 square miles of land, while 130,000 acres had been furrowed and seeded with buffle, birdwood and kapok. Mr Kevin Fitzgerald was officer in charge of this work.

A series of industrial strikes in early September 1962 caused some concern and delay to the construction of the dam, but were settled by September 11.

Sept 16 1962 NDL shipped 260 tonnes of rice on the Bakke Line ship to Far East with a further 140 tonnes to go a few weeks later.

Sept 29 Tenders were called, by the State Government, for the cotton gin. Government financed this gin in recognition of the fact that farmers could not afford the funds. The second gin was purchased by the Co—Operative.

During Oct Government announced that a school would be built in Kununurra, initially of one room and work would start in April 63. At that time children attended school at KRS and travelled by bus.

On Nov 24 62 the last span was placed in the Dunham River bridge, thus paving the way for the new road  to Wyndham.

Dec 62 the AIM four bed hospital was ready for use, and the upgraded gravelled but un-sealed airstrip was ready for use.

Jan 01 63 the cotton gin tender with British Engineering Pty Ltd was accepted. The plant was Platt Lumus and the price $143014.

At a Commonwealth Grants Commission meeting in Perth on [sic] February 1963 before Mr PD Phillips QC (Chairman), Sir Alex Reid and Professor W Prest, the Director of Agriculture, Dr Dunne said that it had been decided that the economic prospects of the Ord lay with cotton and he proceeded to provide anticipated yields and returns. He suggested that Ord cotton production costs would be much cheaper that that in Queensland. When asked by the Chairman about the prospects for rice, Dr Dunne said that further research work was needed.

Mar 8/63 the gates on the dam were closed and water storage commenced.

Meantime work on the channels and town was proceeding satisfactorily.

1963 – March 17th – The Royal Visit

In mid March, as the Royal visit drew nearer, the town was flooded with officials, security, airforce personal and DCA officers. A control tower was constructed at the airport, and for the first and probably the last time, the airport became a controlled airport, all in readiness for the Convair aircraft of the Queens flight.

Her Royal Highness Queen Elizabeth ll visited Kununurra and inspected progress on March 17 1963. Arriving at 10.30am for a 90 minute visit which lenghtened [sic] to nearly 3 hours to include a tour of the farms, the dam, morning tea with the AIM nursing sisters and an official reception. In presenting the speech of welcome, Resident Engineer Roy Hamilton said "... in time when the full potential of this great region is realised, it is believed that the Kimberley could become the food bowl for the expanding population of the world."

The Ord project was designed (from an engineering point of view) for a rice crop. However when calling for these first farmers it was agreed that the secret of growing successful rice on the Ord had still not been found. These first farmers were therefore advised to plant the oilseed crop safflower.

April 6/63 a land auction was held. The hotel site was sold to Frank Camer—Pesci for $2400, a service station site to Arthur Cambridge for $2040 with the other service station site going for the upset price of $200 [?] to Ampol. Seventeen residential lots, at upset prices of $100 and $120, were passed in through lack of bidders.

And an important day, the 2nd of May 1963 the first water was provided to the farming area from the diversion dam supply via the main channel.

Later that month applications were called, closing 24 July 63, for the next 7 farmers.

The 30th May saw two U.S. cotton experts, Mr Early C Ewing and Mr Buell M Nunnery of the Delta Pine Co. of Mississippi visit the Ord.

On the same day , and because of concerns with adverse publicity around Australia, Government announced that a University team lead by Professor I.I. Bowen and including Dr A Kerr and Dr C.A. Cannegieter would work in co-operation with the Bureau of Agricultural Economics to carry out a survey of the economic implications of the Ord River Development.

June 20/63 provided the first reports of possible insect damage to the cotton crop. A helicopter was brought in for experimental crop spraying, using varying patterns and chemicals, and later the first crop spraying aircraft was a Cessna 175 tail wheel, with pilot John Turner.

1963 – July 20th – The Great Day – Official Opening of Ord Stage 1

July 20/63 was the great day, the official opening of the project by the Prime Minister of Australia, Robert Menzies. Although an exciting time for the State Government, the construction workers and the farmers, to many it was a disappointment because it was expected that the Prime Minister would announce the allocation of funds for a start to be made on the Main Dam. This offer was not forthcoming.

However water was being supplied to the farms, new farmers were coming in, business houses were being established, civic services were being considered, sporting facilities were being set up, and the change was being made from a construction village to a town.