Spotlight on Snowy marvel… 70 years on

Associate Professor Siobhan McHugh launches updated edition of award-winning book

A University of Wollongong (UOW) academic has shone a new spotlight on the evolution of the Snowy Mountains HydroElectric Scheme, which this year celebrates the 70th anniversary of when work first began on this momentous project, hailed as one of the world's engineering marvels.

An oral historian and producer of podcasts and audio documentaries, Associate Professor Siobhan McHugh, from UOW's School of Arts, English and the Media, has produced an expanded social history edition of her prize-winning text, which focused on the Snowy scheme.

The first edition of The Snowy: A History won the Douglas Stewart Prize for Non-Fiction in the NSW Premier's Literary Awards in 1990 and was the basis of an ABC radio series and a Film Australia documentary.

Professor McHugh has interviewed migrant workers from more than 25 nationalities, as well as High Country residents, who helped forge the scheme over a quarter of a century from 1949 to 1974. It was a project that drove rivers through tunnels built through the Australian alps, irrigated the dry inland and generated energy for the densely populated east coast.

A revamped The Snowy: A History will be initially launched on Friday (10 May) and contains a substantial foreword, giving the back stories to Professor McHugh's investigations and providing a theoretical perspective on her oral history process.

"It also has a lengthy afterword, which assesses the environmental impact and political atmospherics, including how the Snowy, as the birthplace of multiculturalism, resonates with current debates on migration," she said.

Professor McHugh highlights how The Snowy Mountains Scheme was a site of post-war social engineering that helped create a diverse multicultural nation.

Through her in-depth interviews with those who were there at the time, Professor McHugh reveals the human stories of migrant workers, High Country locals, politicians and engineers.

One, Kon Martynow, a Russian refugee who started as a surveyor's assistant in 1950, spent his "first seven years straight" living in a tent in isolated investigative camps.

"It was very strange and rough," he said. "In those mountains they say you need one long leg and one short!"

Italian miner Charlie Salvestro was only 16 when he started work there – he pretended he was 18 to get the job. The risks inherent in tunnelling were exacerbated by an arrangement that saw miners get bonus payments the faster they worked.

Professor McHugh examines the difficult and dangerous aspects of such a major construction in which 121 men in all lost their lives. Rich and evocative, it is a sweeping narrative which tells stories of love, endurance, tragedy and hard work during a transformative time.

Well-known author Tom Keneally gives the book a ringing endorsement, urging people to read a tale of an era when Australia dared to have a vision.

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