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The human cost of constructing Hume Dam

Constructing what was at the time the largest water storage in the Southern Hemisphere was not without significant risk. October 2021 marked the centenary of a massive explosion during the build of Hume Dam which saw 3 men killed.
Published: 10 November 2021

Hume Dam is the second largest storage in the Murray–Darling Basin and was regarded as a triumph in engineering when it was completed in 1936. However, some may not be aware of the tragedy surrounding its construction and the number of workers killed during the build.

Hume Dam took 17 years to build from the turning of first sod on 28 November 1919 by Sir Ronald Munro-Ferguson, Governor-General of Australia. The construction required a workforce of hundreds and housing, barracks, stores, workshops, and recreation halls were built to accommodate the workers. A post office and police presence were also established, as well as a casualty ward with a doctor.

The workforce endured gruelling conditions and were originally required to work a 48-hour week, which was later reduced to 44 hours. The combination of long working hours and difficult and dangerous conditions meant it was little wonder that an on-site casualty ward was required.

Surprisingly the first few years of construction were rather uneventful with no deaths recorded. However this changed on 25 October 1921 when Jacob Gehrig Snr, 55, George Pearce, 62, and William Wakeford, 17, were all killed while attempting to retrieve unexploded blasting powder

A local newspaper at the time, the Albury Banner, reported:

"The work of removing the powder from the cavity in which it was lodged was in progress, and about half a bag of explosive substance had been taken out. Gehrig was in the hole when the terrific explosion occurred."

The Albury Banner went on to note that the force of the explosion caused Gehrig to be thrown into the air and land 137 metres away.

These 3 deaths were sadly followed by 4 more confirmed fatalities at the dam construction site across the next 14 years. Several other workers suffered injuries due to dangerous working conditions.

An onsite plaque at Hume Dam references 9 deaths but provides no extra details and it is believed that some people may have died later due to work-related injuries. Despite the years since the dam’s completion, these deaths have not been forgotten by the Albury-Wodonga community.

MDBA Wodonga staff Ema Falez, Rebecca Durant, Digby Jacobs, Craig Hardge, Alex Anthony, and Ces Burke gather at Hume Dam to mark the centenary of the tragic accident which killed 3 men during the dam’s construction.
MDBA Wodonga staff Ema Falez, Rebecca Durant, Digby Jacobs, Craig Hardge, Alex Anthony, and Ces Burke gather at Hume Dam to mark the centenary of the tragic accident which killed 3 men during the dam’s construction.

On Monday 25 October 2021 – 100 years after Gehrig, Pearce, and Wakeford died – staff from the Murray–Darling Basin Authority Wodonga office and the wider community ventured to Hume Dam to participate in a memorial ceremony to commemorate these workers and acknowledge the sacrifice they and their families had made.

Hume Dam, with its ability to store and release water for downstream water users, has changed the lives and fortunes of many communities from the dam all the way to the sea since 1936.

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