1949-74 Snowy Mountains Scheme

Men at work on the Snowy Mountains Scheme. Image: Snowy Scheme Museum

The Snowy Mountains Hydro-electric  Scheme was an ambitious engineering project to turn back the waters of rivers that flowed east from the Snowy Mountains and channel them inland for electricity generation and irrigation. In the post-WWII period, it attracted migrant workers, who helped to change food culture in Australia.

The Snowy Mountains Scheme made a significant contribution to food production in the Murray and Murrumbidgee river basins. In 1954 a government spokesman said that by 1958 the scheme would be supplying the Murrumbidgee river with 500,000 acre feet (616, 740 megalitres) of additional water each year, increasing to 2,340,00  acre feet (more than 288,000 megalitres) when the project was completed. The additional water was expected to help treble the amount of food grown in the area.

There were more than 100,000 people employed in the construction of the Snowy Mountains Scheme. Two-thirds of them were immigrants, from more than 30 countries. They faced challenging conditions in the camps and were horrified at the food. In an address at the National Archives, author Siobhan McHugh recounted stories from her research:

…the food was a source of constant horror. If I had a penny for every time I saw eyes rolled at the mention of mutton chops. Lambs fry and dripping were other horrors. The Australians classified these people as ‘garlic munchers’. It was considered horrific and an affront to civilisation that you would eat garlic.

In the camps, food could be very basic:

You were lucky if it wasn’t fly-blown. You left it in the creek to let water run over it. If you were really lucky and had meat, you cooked it on a shovel.

Because of the White Australia policy, most of the immigrant workers were European. They began to change the local food culture. In Cooma, the nearest substantial town to the mountains, delicatessens and restaurants opened offering a range of continental foods. My husband, who grew up on the edge of the Victorian high country, first tasted continental-style liver as a teenager, when visiting a friend whose family were Snowy Mountains Scheme immigrants.

After the scheme was completed, in 1974, most of the workers stayed on in Australia – part of a post-WW2 influx of migrants who helped change our society forever.

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