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Duck Reach and Launceston's Electric Light

The Duck Reach Power Station was commissioned 120 years ago and is an important part of Launceston’s industrial heritage. My new book Duck Reach and Launceston's Electric Light will be published by Christopher (Gus) Green in April as part of Australian Heritage Week.

From 1896 to 1922 the Duck Reach Power Station, on the South Esk River at the Second Basin, provided nearly all of Launceston’s electricity needs.

Built by the Launceston Municipal Council after prolonged and sometimes bitter public debate, its primary purpose was to provide cheaper street lighting than the dim gas lamps of the day.

Duck Reach was Australia’s first publicly-owned hydro-electric scheme and operated for 60 years. It provided the model for Tasmania’s hydro-industrialisation.

Located on the northern side of a narrowing gorge on the South Esk River about five kilometres from its junction with the Tamar River, Duck Reach was named for the wild ducks that congregated there before the power station was built.

It is a spectacular location today but in the 1890s it must have seemed a formidable site for the building of a hydro-electric power station containing technology that was in its infancy.

Two workers were killed during its construction and wiring up Launceston for street lighting, and domestic and commercial customers, was a mammoth job, perhaps not unlike the rollout of the NBN is today. The power poles were initially put down the middle of Launceston’s streets.

The electric generating machinery was officially activated on February 1, 1896, and the public was advised that Launceston’s street lamps would be lit from half an hour after sunset until half an hour before sunrise.

Private homeowners and businesses were quick to take advantage of the new power. Competition for installing electric lighting in homes and businesses was reflected in the many advertisements in Launceston’s two newspapers – The Examiner and the Daily Telegraph.

At The Examiner’s office in Paterson Street the coming of electricity coincided with the arrival of the Linotype machine, a major technological advancement in printing, as it reported in its edition of Saturday March 14, 1896:

It is pretty generally known throughout the city that within the last fortnight some remarkable machines have been set up in The Examiner office that in their operation approach as nearly to human skill as is possible in the domain of mechanics.

The [linotype] machine does not set ordinary type, but it casts a whole line at once, hence its name, being an abbreviation of ‘a line of type’.

A fabulously large sum of money has been expended in experiments and subsequent improvements of the machine, until today it may be said to be perfect, the first machine having been erected by the New York Tribune in 1886.

For working these machines at night the electric light has been found most convenient. Shortly after six o'clock on Thursday evening the electric light was turned on, illuminating not only the first linotype installation in Tasmania, but also in that degree the first printing-office in the colony.

At the beginning of the 20th century Launceston was described as the best lit city in Australia and by the mid-1920s two major British woollen mills – Patons and Baldwins and Kelsall and Kemp – had set up large factories in Launceston, based on cheap, clean power and plentiful water.

The Duck Reach Power Station equipment and infrastructure had to be upgraded many times to meet the demand. At its peak the station had a capacity of 2,600 horsepower and could produce two megawatts of electricity, enough to light 1,200 homes in Launceston.

Its success was vindication for those farsighted aldermen on the Launceston Municipal Council in the 1890s who pushed for its construction and the talented team of electrical engineers, architects and builders recruited for its construction.

If it hadn’t been for the disastrous flood of 1929, which destroyed the power station building and plunged an inundated Launceston into darkness, the Duck Reach power station may have made an even greater contribution to the prosperity of the city.

Hydro-industrialisation in Tasmania started in earnest after the Second World War and there is no doubt that the success of Launceston’s Duck Reach power scheme, which had seen a huge textile industry develop in the city that at its peak employed around 4000 people, helped shape the state government’s promotion of cheap power for industrial development.

In March 1948, the Tasmanian Government reached an agreement with the Australian Aluminium Production Company to supply power for its proposed new plant at Bell Bay. The electricity was to be supplied by a new power station at Trevallyn, above Duck Reach at the Third Basin, a site first identified in 1906.

The Duck Reach power scheme had been forcibly merged with the state-owned Hydro-Electric Commission in 1944 and was decommissioned after the Trevallyn Power Station came into operation in 1955.

The Duck Reach Historical Group began working on reigniting interest in the power station in 2011 and last year the state government provided a $60,000 grant to develop and implement educational and historical content at Duck Reach, including the installation of signage and a video of historical information.

The Launceston City Council also called for expressions of interest for the restoration of power generation at Duck Reach. It is hoped that the installation of a mini-hydro scheme at Duck Reach will help preserve and celebrate the significant social and cultural heritage associated with the site and add to the tourist and educational experiences already available in the Cataract Gorge.

(Julian Burgess is a Launceston journalist and local historian. His book Duck Reach and Launceston’s Electric Light will be published in April to coincide with Australian Heritage Week.)


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