Dalgety failed to make a splash
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Dalgety failed to make a splash

What if, as nearly happened, the federal capital city had been built not at Canberra but at Dalgety? And what if - the inspired Griffins winning the design competition for the city there instead - today's Lake Burley Griffin was made from the waters of the Snowy River?

Throughout our centenary year and wearing my historian's hat (and being a pathological stirrer), your columnist liked to tease that it was a shame that the federal capital city hadn't been built at Dalgety.

Bracing decision: Senators bathing in the Snowy River, at Dalgety, in 1902.

Bracing decision: Senators bathing in the Snowy River, at Dalgety, in 1902.

Photo: Courtesy of the National Library of Australia

Now it is Lake Burley Griffin's 50th birthday, but what might Dalgety have had in the way of the prescribed "ornamental waters" if the capital had been built there? Would Dr Jamie Pittock, the famous miserabilist, be writing of those waters at a Dalgety capital, in the scathing way in which he has just been writing (Canberra Times

Canberra and Dalgety were neck-and-neck at the very end, the Canberra site just getting its nose in front in an exciting, exhaustive ballot reminiscent of the Melbourne Cup, in the House of Representatives.

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Champions of the Dalgety site made much (often lying hyperbolically) of the way the snow-fed Snowy River, Australia's most constant river, surged, sparkling, through the place. A federal capital city was going to need an abundance of water, and pro-Dalgety folk pointed to how the Snowy guaranteed that.

Meanwhile they alleged, at God-forsaken Canberra the Molonglo was only an occasional trickle and the Cotter, the imagined source of the imagined city's waters, was just a capricious creek.

Sydney's Bulletin, passionately pro-Dalgety and rabidly anti-Canberra, published pictures of the Snowy at Dalgety looking like the Danube at Budapest. And it published pictures, sometimes photographs taken of the Cotter's most miserable stretches at the driest time of the year, of what the Bulletin always called "Cotter Creek."

Had Dalgety become our federal capital site it too would have had "ornamental waters". Entrants in the international design competition, imagining a city there, would have been given instructions (as they were for the Canberra site) that their design had to have these city-flattering waters.

Ornamental waters had been a great hit at the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893, and in any case those imagining a fine Australian federal capital city probably drew on thoughts of existing fine cities (London and its Thames, St Petersburg and its Neva) that owed a lot of their character to the bodies of water they were juxtaposed with. And Australians imagining their city may anyway have thought, as Walter Burley Griffin did, that cooling, "artistic waters" would be a "blessing" for an inland city in a country so dramatically hot and dry in summer.

To assist the pro-Dalgety cause, artist Lionel Long produced a famous illustration of an idealised lakeside federal capital city at Dalgety. It is a gorgeous sight. The city is an orgy of noble buildings and the waters are gloriously ornamental and are busy with frolickers boating. Nearby, flatteringly repositioned and reshaped (to give it a bit of a peak), majestic snow-capped Kosciuszko beams down on the city nestled at its feet.

What kind of ornamental waters might we have had at Dalgety?

Lots of Lake Burley Griffin's horrors (as colourfully catalogued by Dr Pittock) derive from the fact that is made by damming a sluggish little river, the Molonglo. With nothing to keep new waters bustling through the lake and with various creeks and drains dribbling nastiness into it, it stands still, like 33 million cubic metres of mediocre soup in a giant saucepan.

A lake made by cajoling the Snowy (as it was before the Snowy Scheme broke its spirit) would surely have been a fresher creature altogether.

What might have been ideal, your columnist dreams aloud (for I am besotted with Dalgety and make pilgrimages to it) would have been for Dalgety to be selected as the federal capital site before or after the mania for ornamental waters had governments and landscape architects in its grip. Then we might have had, instead, a city that had its ornamental, metropolis-enhancing waters in the form of a river that ran through it. It might have been Dalgety, arranged around and along the Snowy, the way Budapest is with the Danube.

The federal capital city was always going to be built far inland and in an elevated place (just like Dalgety, just like Canberra) because everyone wanted the city to be in a place with a "bracing" climate. After all, bracing places produced the healthiest people and (just look at the Vikings and the British, especially the Scots!) the best races. But there is nowhere in Australia, other than at Dalgety, where the climate is Nordically bracing and where there is, too, a terrific, muscular, rippling river for a city to pose beside.

Is it too late to begin again, this time at Dalgety?

In one of the most famous Australian historical photographs we see senators visiting Dalgety in 1902 to inspect its possibilities as the site. They are taking a dip in the scrotum-shrivellingly, testicle-numbingly cold but pure and bracing waters of the Snowy. Has a group of Senators ever dared or bothered to bathe in the ornamental but cyanobacteria-buggered waters that make up Lake Burley Griffin?

Ian Warden

Ian Warden is a columnist for The Canberra Times

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