Catastrophic Dam Wall Burst-Failings – Controversies of those “Two” Cataract Dams = Sherbrooke Sacrificed

The Cataract Dam as part of the Nepean system had been proposed as far back as the 1870’s. No doubt when the “First” Cataract Dam was under construction in the 1880’s, the good folk of Sherbrooke on Bulli Mountain would probably have had little idea that their idyllic existence would be under grave threat in less than two decades.

The Cataract Dam’s construction was considered complete in 1885 – yet these days the NSW Government Heritage Council refers to its completion date as being over 20 years later in 1907-08, with no mention of the “Original” or 1st Cataract Dam. Further the Australian Society for History of Engineering & Technology also refers to the Cataract Dam construction period as being 1903-1907 with no mention of the earlier construction of the 1880’s in its October 2010 Newsletter. And then the Sydney Water Newsletter of  April 16 2013 claimed that the Cataract Dam construction began in 1907 and was completed in 1915.

And none of these three history & heritage related sites mentions the little of village of Sherbrooke that was sacrificed in the construction of the “New” Cataract Dam of the early 20th Century years.

Ostensibly “completed” in 1885, by the time of the floods of February 1898, there had been a catastrophic failure of the Cataract Dam main wall!  Repairs were quickly under way to fix it – but less than two years later there was another alarmingly catastrophic failure of the Main Wall in 1900. And then there was the drought of 1902

No surprise that this all led to a Royal Commission – the first of two on Cataract Dam in the early 20th Century Years – the first appears to have addressed both the drought and the storage capacity/engineering reliability issues.

Thus the “Two” Cataract Dams seems to have been a vexed and controversial issue almost from Day 1 of the idea of the dam conception – built and then so quickly the Dam Wall was washed away in those great floods of February 1898 & 1900.

Following the First  Commission of Inquiry conducted in 1902, Legislation was sent through the NSW Parliament for the “New” Cataract Dam.

And this also included the political expediency of amending Legislation to allow the resumption of all those little rural properties at Sherbrooke in 1902 – shattering their “Shangri-la  Secret Valley” existence. Forced to come down off the Bulli Mountain – to seek a home and living elsewhere. Such a very different treatment to that the folks received years later in the great Post WWII Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electricity and Dams Project.

Adding insult to the injury – valuations for their resumed properties were not really sorted out for some years.

Then a blow-out on the cost to build the “New” Cataract Dam and yet another Commission of Inquiry!

And  the furores of 1904-1911, when the local Colliery Owners caused outrage when they expressed their intention to mine under the Cataract Dam – an issue that has continued for another 110 years to this very day in fact !

So our little lost Village of Sherbrooke was the sacrificial lamb – and little thought given to capturing its story … you only hear about it in snatches .. its story is indeed within a Shadowland.

A photographic collection of Cataract Dam – search Trove digitised collections.

Proposals for the “Original” Cataract Dam in the early 1880’s :

The “Original” Cataract Dam Construction Under Way – mid 1880’s

  • Sydney Morning Herald – 1884 -06 -05 – this is in contradiction with the NSW Heritage Council’s construction period of 1902-1908 ???

The “Original” Cataract Dam Completion – 1885

The “Original” Cataract Dam Burst – Dam Wall Washed Away in Floods in February 1898

The “Original” Cataract Dam – Repairs after the Dam Wall Washed Away in Floods in February 1898

Again  – The “Original” Cataract Dam – Damage – Masonry Washed Away in Floods in 1900

Cataract Dam Commission of Inquiry – including Proposals to “Secure the Catchment” & Build Retardation Dams

The “New” Cataract Dam – Sherbrooke Resumption “Issues”

  • Sydney Morning Herald – 1902 – 08 – 14 – Government Legislation Changes to Facilitate Resumption
  • Sydney Morning Herald – 1903 – 04 – 22
  • Sydney Morning Herald – 1903 – 06 – 16
  • Evening News – 1903 – 06 – 16
  • Evening News – 1903 – 06 – 19
  • Sydney Morning Herald – 1903-06-20 – Minister for Public Works O’Sullivan visited Sherbrooke & Ferndale, met Knight and Brown families, as well as several others from Sherbrooke plus Johnstone the Manager of Bulli Mine – Minister O’Sullivan commented on the area’s beauty and the developments of their properties, but expressed his regret that the needs of the city demanded the resumption of their homes
  • Sydney Morning Herald – 1903 -10 – 31 – Dispute over valuations for resumption assisted by J B Nicholson MLA
  • Sydney Morning Herald – 1903 – 12 – 12
  • Sydney Morning Herald – 1904 – 06 – 23
  • Australian Town & Country Journal – 1905 – 01 -04
  • Evening News – 1907 – 05-02 – Keegan – Valuation & Resumption Issues – “Dead Man” returns –  before the NSW Courts
  • Adelaide Advertiser – 1907 – 05 -03 – Valuation & Resumption Issues – “Dead Man” returns – before the NSW Courts
  • Sydney Morning Herald – 1911 – 09 – 07
  • Grenfell Record & Lachlan District Advertiser – 1933- 10 – 12 – Brown

Cataract City for the Construction Site of The “New” Cataract Dam

Sherbrooke Folk Re-settle Elsewhere

The “New” Cataract Dam – Cost Blow-outs – Another Commision of Inquiry

The Blackberry Pest following the Departure of the Sherbrooke Folk

Mining Under Dams Controversy Emerge

Cataract Dam – Controlling Public Access


Cataract Dam – Aboriginal Heritage Issues

The anniversary of the Appin Massacre of April 17 1816 is commemorated annually in April at Cataract Dam where there is a memorial. However for many on the eastern side of the Illawarra escarpment, its story is almost unknown. Some links about the Massacre, and Aboriginal history from pre-European times – see more.  There have been calls for the Massacre site to be returned to Aboriginal people – 2010 – ABC interview transcript.


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