Tribute to the Electricity Industry Construction Gangs and Linesmen
Author: Dr. J. King
The massive programme of rural electrification and expansion including the construction of 33kV and 110kV transmission lines to handle the expected increase in demand, could not have happened without Construction Gangs and Linesmen. The team of men building the lines were called Construction Gangs, which was often shortened to ‘Con Gangs’ in the industry. In many parts of Queensland, particularly in rural and outback regions, the Construction Gangs were faced with hostile environments including mountainous ranges, dense wooded valleys and many river crossings to span before electricity could reach consumers. Outback Queensland added other dangers, often caused by the dust, hard ground, constant heat and lack of shade during the day. The work of the Construction Gangs was undoubtedly arduous and is so often skimmed over or not even thought about by people using their electrical appliances or equipment in homes and in the workplace.
In the late 1950s, the Southern Electric Authority of Queensland (SEA) had three such gangs. Considering that in 1958, SEA had 7500 miles (12,067.5 km) of supply lines in service spreading over 18,000 square miles (46,620 square km), the work of the Construction Gangs and Linesmen must be acknowledged. The Construction Gangs’ camps and work routines are typical of anywhere in Queensland.
Work and Camp Life for the Construction Gangs
Construction Gangs were originally set up to erect the high voltage lines, the 11kV lines and the various low tension extensions. In 1958 there were three Construction Gangs in the SEA network. Altogether there were 82 men in the three Construction Gangs, the numbers were distributed as follows; 21 in No.1 gang, 27 in No. 2 and 34 in No. 3 gang. Each Construction Gang was generally split into three parts. One section would fit poles in preparation for erection, another section would erect the poles and the third section would complete the cables and transformer stations. The first section would tend to follow behind again to ensure the tying in of the cables and the finishing touches were undertaken.
The organisation involved in their teamwork is quite complex, but runs smoothly and efficiently, in the face of various kinds of weather, and often over rugged, undeveloped country. Yet, we should all recognise its great national importance, and might well appreciate the fine camaraderie of the gangs.
In 1958, the No. 1 Construction Gang was employed constructing the 11kV line and low tension extension in the Brisbane Valley area, and when that job was completed they moved on to construction work on the 110kV line from Toowoomba to Dalby. Communication with the No. 2 Construction Gang assured the completion of the Toowoomba to Dalby 110kV line. The No. 2 Gang was also working on the completion of the Toowoomba to Warwick 11kV line. The No. 3 Gang was engaged on the erection of the Bulimba to West Burleigh 110kV duplication feeder line.
The Construction Gangs’ camps were relatively the same with tents for the men to sleep in and a ‘mess tent’ for communal meals, which included a ‘kitchen’, tables and chairs. Breakfast and evening meals were prepared for the men and packed lunches were provided for the days’ work away from the camp, which could be a considerable distance. Generally, the men worked a roster in the evening to help with the washing up and other chores. When the camp was near to a town, some of the men would visit the local entertainment venues, while the remainder would play card games or darts with their mates at camp.
When the steel transmission towers, which were erected by Electrical Power Transmission Pty. Ltd. in 1960, were in place spanning the Tweed River to support the Coolangatta to Cudgen 33kV line, the cable work was done by SEA’s No. 1 Construction Gang. The task was undertaken at ‘a giddy height’ for most people. It was all in a day’s work for the Construction Gang.
By 1962 about half of the Goomburra Valley extension was energised. The work had been carried out by No. 3 Construction Gang, which was based at Allora until the completion of the line. When the Goomburra Valley extension was complete, the Gang moved on to set up camp at West Warwick. The Gang was set to work on the first two sections of the Sandy Creek-Pratten-Condamine River scheme, which would take a few years to finish.
Completion of the Severnlea extension near Stanthorpe was undertaken by the No. 1 Construction Gang. The line served mainly orchards and farms to enable electrically operated irrigation systems to be utilised. The Gang moved on to Kilcoy to build extensions to farms in the Hazledean, Gregor’s Creek and Woolmar areas near Kilcoy. The No. 2 Construction Gang was camped at Nerang for most of 1962 to extend rural supply to the difficult sections of the South Coast district. While based at the Nerang camp, the Gang brought supply to Binna Burra Lodge, Springbrook and Advancetown-Gilston.
Taking Power to North Stradbroke Island
Another task requiring precision planning and hard, physical work by the Construction Gangs included taking power across the water to the islands. North Stradbroke Island and Bribie Island in Moreton Bay were two similar islands, both experiencing an upturn in tourism with North Stradbroke needing additional power for its growing mineral sands industry.
Claimed to be ‘one of the most unusual transmission and distribution design and constructions programmes yet undertaken by the Authority’, the various departments in SEA to be directly involved in taking power to North Stradbroke Island included the ‘E.P. and D. Department’ for the planning, surveying and layout of the design, the Sub-station and Transmission Sections, Beenleigh and Cleveland Depots with the Underground, Test, Garage and Radio Sections involved at various times. The contractor for the major construction work was the Electric Power Transmission and SEA’s No. 2 Construction Gang. The Gang’s Foreman was John Frieberg and his camp was initially based at Beenleigh and then moved to Dunwich until the lines were completed and energised.
Part of the difficult operation included building special steel towers for the water crossing. Each tower carried ‘two earth-wires, six conductors with cross-arm provision for future 11kV’ reticulation. Wilkinson Island was the site of the first of four steel towers, which were required for the crossing to Russel Island, near Rocky Point. The preparation for, and erection of the steel towers was intense with sand, water, mud and rock to contend with. However, there were more problems to deal with when the tower on Stradbroke Island had to be constructed.
While the two towers on Russel Island have conventional excavated foundations, the 70ft tower on Stradbroke Island has posed problems. A long wooden ramp had to be built, rather like a big dipper at the Exhibition, and up this wooden ramp 28 tons of steel and concrete were dragged.
The steel tower water-crossings were constructed for 33kV and energised initially at 11kV. Before the wooden poles could be erected through North Stradbroke Island, rough roads had to be made using a tractor. When the lines were completed, supply to North Stradbroke and Russel Island had become a reality.
Those who have toiled and sweated in mud and sand can now feel justifiably proud.
Taking power to North Stradbroke meant that the Titanium and Zirconium Industries (TAZI), the beach-mining subsidiary of Con-Zinc Rio Tinto, could close down its diesel-driven plant at Dunwich Power Station and draw power from SEA’s transmission and distribution network. Redlands Shire Council was already reticulating power, generated at TAZI’s Dunwich Power Station to the small Dunwich community. A further 26 homes near Cylinder Beach were supplied with electricity from Mr. A. Clayton’s private plant at Point Lookout.
The Switch-on Ceremony took place on the evening of Saturday, 28 January, 1967. The effects of Cyclone Dinah was being felt on the Island with gusty winds, driving rain and battering seas. Regardless of the foul weather, the people of North Stradbroke gathered at Point Lookout for the occasion. Following a candle-lit dinner, the Point Lookout Branch of the Stradbroke Island Executive Council of the Progress Associations led the historic opening ceremony. Attending officials included Mr. Clacher, Acting Electricity Commissioner, Mr. Peter Hoare, SEA’s Southern District Engineer, Mr. E.G.W. Wood, Chairman of the Redlands Shire Council and the Hon. Mr. A.T. Dewar, Queensland’s Industrial Development Minister, who officially switched on the power to the Island.
For his switching-on speech, Mr. Dewar stressed the importance and value of electricity for North Stradbroke Island.
The changes that it is bringing here on Stradbroke Island are quite apparent. The improved comfort and convenience that electricity has brought to homes and the greater opportunities for the expansion of industries here are typical of the benefits being brought to thousands of new consumers each year throughout (SEA’s) distribution network.
I wish the tourist industry and the sand mining industry every success and urge you to make the maximum use of this wonderful facility, which is now at your command.
Humour Alongside the Hard Work
Writing about the good work done by the contractors and the Construction Gangs to complete the SEA’s 110kV double-circuit steel-tower transmission line from Rocklea to Bunyaville, Mr. Colin Morwood, the SEA’s Project Engineer, Northern Transmission, noted that another story could be told about the experiences faced by the SEA inspectors.
Such a story would tell of the unwitting transport of snakes, pulling up conductor complete with grimly hanging-on Italian, frantic stopping of an unscheduled train at the Oxley railway crossing, and other more everyday pantomimes involving language (swearing in Italian is very complicated), food (a bottle of beer per man per day standard issue for lunch, HUGE meals at the camp in the evening), singing (‘O Solo Mio’ floating down from the tower tops), and all the other side effects and issues that go to make a job not just a project to be completed but a worthwhile, lasting and satisfying experience.
Stories such as this were not uncommon and many incidents, which might have been serious at the time, were looked on with humour and seemed to cement close friendship bonds often found among the Construction Gangs, Linesmen and Depot staff in SEA’s Districts.
The devastating floods in March, 1955, which swallowed a good part of the Gympie District, the Western District and the Brisbane Valley, meant submerged power lines with the inevitable loss of supply to homes, farms and industries. It was imperative that supply was restored as soon as possible for the people, particularly those left in isolation by the flood waters. Mr. O’Connell of Cressbrook Homestead, near Toogoolawah found that the river had risen to 50-51ft, which was just 2ft below the 1893 flood height of 52-53ft. The SEA men worked with each other in dangerous conditions. Gangs from Redcliffe, Ipswich, Gatton, Esk and other places worked together, often in dangerous situations.
These men worked knee-deep in mud and silt and in places where debris was piled 15ft high.
The villages of Kenilworth, Imbil, Kandanga and Amamoor were totally isolated from each other by the fast-flowing water and road communication was completely severed to Gympie for the disaster gangs. The Defence Department provided six army amphibious vehicles. Two of the ‘ducks’ as the vehicles were called, were used in Gympie. Stories from the gangs soon began to filter out of the flooded areas. Merv, a linesman from Gympie apparently ‘enjoyed the novelty of canoeing across Memorial Park’ to undertake some tasks. However, there was danger lurking in the water.
He accomplished the job after battling his way through spiders, beetles and other livestock, only to find a snake stowed away on board the canoe for the return trip. He and ‘Joe’ observed a truce, one for’ard and one aft, and the crossing was established in record time. Merv is now contemplating entering the canoe event at Melbourne next year.
Merv’s fright stayed with him into the next day when he was crossing the railway bridge between Gympie and Monkland in pitch darkness with the rest of the patrol gang. The bridge was the only link during the high flood and with two narrow planks to cross above a raging torrent of water,
...barefooted Merv trod on something cold and slimy. His squeal would have chilled a teenager. He landed, running, four yards nearer home and was very hard to convince that the ‘cold and slimy’ had been an inoffensive frog.
When the Esk area was hit by the floods on 28 March, 1955, and the Brisbane River reached a peak of 63 feet at the Murrumba Bridge, the SEA system was badly affected. Around 59 poles and four transformer stations were washed out with some disappearing altogether. The Esk Depot gang thought of a way to encourage gangs from other districts to help with the work.
...men from the Esk Depot invited their colleagues from Gatton, Ipswich and Redcliffe to join in the ‘fun’. Entertainment laid on included boating parties on the river, ‘hunt the pole’, and ‘bog the lifting wagon’.
In view of the tremendous work of the ‘organising committee’, it is regretted that it may be 1975 before the next flood performance. However, a warm and liquid welcome will be extended to friends from other depots whenever another such flood turns up.
The Redcliffe Depot gang just made it back in time for an important event, according to the following birth notice in the SEA News, ‘Tiddles’ the Depot cat gave birth to ‘four daughters (Eenie, Meenie, Minie and Mo) on April 13!’
More Humour from the ‘Boys’
A letter found its way to the Editor of the SEA News from the ‘boys at Boonah’ and is reminiscent of the humour that was typical among the Construction Gangs, Linesmen and Depot Staff amid the hard, physical work they all endured many times during their careers.
A section of the letter, from ‘Miss Fifi Paree, Manager of the Outdoor Nudist Camp for Girls’ is reproduced below, with thanks to the ‘Boonah Boys’ of 1973.
I wish to express my sincere thanks to you for the excellent service your linesmen performed last summer. It was explained to us that the transformer was of a special type that had to be dusted twice daily, oiled once a week, and have the bolts tightened every 10 days...I am happy to report that your linesmen stopped every morning and afternoon and spent 15 minutes dusting...
Your crew was always very conscientious in making repairs. On one occasion a cross-arm broke on a pole next to the tennis court where some of the girls were playing tennis. Nine men with three ladder trucks worked four hours to repair the cross-arm.
Evidently, we have a special type of meter by the swimming pool. The meter reader told us it had to be read twice a week by two men so that an exact average of power could be calculated. One of your meter readers is rather clumsy, because during last summer he fell over two lawn chairs, a picnic table and a garbage can while walking over to check the meter.
I have been assured that all the men will be on the job again this summer...Last summer two men gave up their vacations just to make sure that the electrical equipment worked properly.
Undoubtedly, the Construction Gangs, Linesmen and other industry staff worked hard to bring the benefits of electricity to people in rural and outback Queensland.
1 SEA News, November, 1958, pp.16-17, ‘They Build the S.E.A. Network. Facts About the Construction Gangs’ Work and Camp Life’.
2 SEA News, November, 1958, pp.16-17, ‘They Build the S.E.A. Network. Facts about the Construction Gangs’ Work and Camp Life’. The images of the Construction Gangs from 1958 appear in this article. Originals held in the QEM Archive.
3 SEA News, August, 1960, p.2, front cover story.
4 SEA News, April, 1962, p.11, ‘Power for new areas’.
5 SEA News, August, 1962, p.21, ‘More rural lines’.
6 SEA News, August, 1962, p.21, ‘More rural lines’.
7 SEA News, August, 1966, p.8, ‘Transmission Project Serves Mineral Sands Industry’, by David Henderson, Overhead Construction Engineer,
8 Ibid, p.9.