ON THE RIVERBED: Construction work inside the coffer dam on the Fitzroy River Barrage.
ON THE RIVERBED: Construction work inside the coffer dam on the Fitzroy River Barrage. Rockhampton Hist Soc

Project that transformed a city

AS CONSTRUCTION of the northern side of the Fitzroy River Barrage neared its end, John Alexander watched people work on the dry, dusty riverbed.

He was a clerk in the City Council revenue office at the time and Mayor Rex Pilbeam had organised for buses to take all employees to see the imposing structure being built.

Having always been fascinated by construction, Mr Alexander said it was exciting to see the barrage transform from plans to reality.

"I think it was a very exciting time for Rockhampton because it had been talked about for a long time," he said.

After years of severe water restrictions, Mr Alexander said people in Rockhampton knew "before too long they would be able to turn the town green again".

"The Mayor was very positive about what it would do (for the city)," he said.

By March 19, 1970 that dry riverbed of the construction site was once again hidden by millions of litres of water as Rockhampton prepared for the barrage's official opening.

As the sun set over the mighty structure that evening, fireworks signalled the city's celebration.

The Morning Bulletin reported then Premier Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen paid tribute to Mr Pilbeam's "persistence, determination and enterprise" in seeing the project completed after decades of discussion and "official discouragement".

In Mr Pilbeam's address to the crowd, he praised council engineer Arnold Philp who "had directed the project so successfully, solving some unique problems" during construction.

In his speech, the chairman of the water supply and sewerage committee Alderman E. L. W. Jones said he felt "a deep sense of gratitude that this dream, unlike many dreams, had come true".

He also paid tribute to the tradesmen who worked on the barrage construction and to the people of Rockhampton who had patiently waited through water shortages and restrictions before its completion.

Sir Joh told the gathered crowd the barrage scheme was the first of its kind in the state to that time.

"When we see the completed project today, few will realise the long years of endeavour of your Mayor and aldermen - their tremendous battle to convince authorities that it was practicable and possible to organise finance," he said.

"They wanted an adequate supply of water for domestic, commercial and industrial purposes in Rockhampton, and you are now assured of a plentiful water supply of 30 million gallons a day," Sir Joh said.

"You have got the possibility of providing some of the cheapest water for industrial purposes."

As his speech came to a close, the Premier pressed a button on the dais, sounding a hooter which signalled the barrage gates were lifting.

The opening ceremony concluded with the unveiling of a plaque on the north wall of the barrage.

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