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When steam kept Launceston's lights on

The South Esk River was at such a low level after a period of below-average rainfall in 1911 that there were fears there wouldn’t be enough water for the Duck Reach Power Station.

Demand for electricity from Australia’s first council-owned power station had increased steadily since it was commissioned in 1895 to light the streets of Launceston.

The auxiliary steam plant building today.

With the start of the Launceston Municipal Tramway in August 1911 the council decided to buy an auxiliary steam plant to generate electricity in support of its hydro scheme.

The Examiner voiced its concerns at the cost of the steam plant, estimated to be from £10,000 to £15,000, and urged aldermen to look at the lakes above Cressy to increase the flow in the South Esk.

After an inspection tour in March 1912 the mayor and four aldermen reported that with additional sluices at Woods and Arthurs lakes all the necessary water could be directed to the South Esk.

Work on installing the auxiliary steam plant however was already under way near the Launceston Municipal Tramway workshops at Inveresk.

A contract was signed with the Cornwall Coal Company at Fingal and the Launceston Marine Board gave approval for water to be drawn from the North Esk River.

The plant, which consumed more than half a ton of coal per hour, was tested on Monday, December 9, 1912, and The Examiner quoted the city electrical engineer, Robert Strike, as saying the trials had “given every satisfaction.”

He said that Duck Reach was gradually nearing the limits of its generating capacity, which was 1300 hp. “Last year the maximum load was 1200 hp, leaving but a narrow margin of 100 hp.”

Mr Strike said that in the event of anything serious happening at Duck Reach, the auxiliary plant could be ready for use within a couple of hours and carry a load equal to 300 hp.

On Monday, February 10, 1913, The Examiner reported that for the first time the auxiliary steam plant had met all the city’s electricity needs, including the trams, while the machinery at Duck Reach was inspected.

When the auxiliary steam plant was used again in a period of drought in November 1914 the Daily Telegraph was full of praise for the council’s foresight in buying the machinery.

There was another dry spell in the summer of 1919 - 1920 and the auxiliary steam plant again came to the rescue. The Examiner of Wednesday, January 28, 1920, reported that it had become necessary to run the plant for two shifts every day.

In 1920 the Launceston City Council contracted the state government’s Hydro-Electric Department to build a weir at Arthurs Lake to increase the water flow into the South Esk River.

When the council signed an electricity supply contract for power from the government’s Waddamana power station in 1922 the auxiliary steam plant was made redundant and decommissioned in 1931. The concrete building that housed the steam boilers was later used as offices for the railways and today contains a cafe downstairs and an art gallery upstairs.

1929 aerial photo of the auxiliary steam plant, with twin chimneys.

Images -- TOP: The auxiliary steam plant building at Inveresk today. MIDDLE: The Duck Reach Power Station in 1905 from the Weekly Courier of 17 June 1905. BOTTOM: An aerial photo of Inveresk taken by H. King in 1929. The auxiliary steam plant building is in the centre of the image with two chimneys. From the Weekly Courier of 24 April 1929.

(Written for the Launceston Historical Society and published in the Sunday Examiner on 26 June, 2022)


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