From Cranks and Nuts (University of Melbourne Engineering Students magazine), 1966.

The very little town of Pallas, Central New South Wales huddled in a rich, green cow-country valley below a great concrete dam set on old sandstone.

At the time at which this story begins work had only just been completed on the dam, and rains falling in the steep-sided valleys above Pallas were filling the weir to its capacity.

The construction of the dam, which would irrigate and provide power for the vast lowlands to the West of Pallas, had taken many years, and the shopkeepers of the town had grown fat from the pockets of the workmen.

But do not think that the Good People of Pallas were entirely happy with the presence of the inland sea above their heads. Recently the papers had told of whole townships overseas swept from their foundations by the rampant waters of broken dams. Ever since the plans for the dam were put forward voices in the town had grown stronger and more numerous in their prophecy of disaster.

In order to quieten these fears, the City Councillors had planted vast pine plantations on the hillsides around the wall; the roots of these trees would bind the soil together holding it firm against the rainwater and a thick cover of pine-needles would protect the slopes from erosion.

Further, the State Government had promised that should the dam fail, rescue and rehabilitation operations would be swift and effective. The town was comforted by this.

Nevertheless, fears and even alarm continued to mount in the hearts of the townspeople. A few militant groups of people went on strike, calling for an end to the rising of the water in the Dam, and there were threats of sabotage. Eventually, the almost unanimous voice of the citizens forced the City Council to send a deputation to the Capitol demanding abandonment of the project. The Government’s reply stated that this was out of the question as the livelihood of the whole country depended on the water from the dam.

Pressures, however, forced the State to make a concession to the good people of Pallas, and very soon a party of workmen equipped with band-saws and tractors arrived in the valley. They cut down the pines and built sturdy wooden barricades around the town to hold back the flood waters and silt. Quick to show their appreciation for this act of benevolence, the City Councillors made an appeal to the youths of the town to offer their time to help the workmen on the mountainside. This plea, however, brought only seven replies from the district gaol and twelve from the unemployment office. The councilmen regretted they could not accept these offers. Thus they followed the only course left to them and announced that they would select from the best of the young farm workers and labourers living near Pallas, a group of men to go up into the pines and help the workmen from the Capitol.

The work was slow and treacherous, for the men had to grapple with the long logs on the steeply sloping hillsides and haul them a long distance to the township. This activity comforted the people.

Although most of the youths engaged in the work took the attitude that someone had to do the job, there were some who tried, on various grounds to evade their responsibility. Shame. The complaints these young men gave did not go unheard though, and the city councillors saw that the boys were adequately compensated when their term of service was finished.

Work proceeded day and night and heavy tracks were worn on the mountainside where the tractors had dragged the timber down to the barricades, but still the people grew anxious and suddenly, in the face of rising protestation, the Government Engineers had several thousand acre-feet of water removed from the weir. As many people said afterwards, this measure was applied just in time for only the next day slip fields were sighted by the workmen on the mountainside. The papers could not hush the news and alarm spread quickly. A mob of people gathered outside the townhall and demanded action from the councilmen.

Many people left the town that day, others made camp on the mountainside above the dam. A petition signed by a group of young people was sent to the Capitol proclaiming that if the government did not destroy the Dam before the Dam destroyed the town, they would destroy the Dam themselves.

Engineers were sent in by the State and after inspecting the landslide areas, they concluded that the Dam need not be demolished but that work should commence immediately to drastically modify the dam wall.

The town met the engineers’ report with silence and the night following its announcement, a State Government warehouse was robbed and explosives were stolen. A bomb was planted in the dam wall. The Great Dam was annihilated.

Time allowed Pallas no panic, no recrimination, no regret. Pallas was buried beneath the concrete rubble and washed from its green valley by the waters. Not even the families camped on the mountainside were saved, they were buried in the landslides that followed. The wooden barricades were washed away along with their builders, down into the wheat country in the lowlands to the West of Pallas.

The State Government was swift in providing aid and within a decade new cows grazed in new green valleys below a Great New Dam.

Andy Blunden