"That term 'multicultural,' I think it started here in Cooma," former Snowy Scheme worker Charlie Salvestro says.
"At work there were many different languages spoken and Cooma had everything in those days - continental restaurants, I'm not joking when I say five nightclubs, coffee lounges, musicians came from all over the world, floor show girls," Salvestro says.
"Kings Cross had nothing on Cooma, it was like a gold rush town."
The 81 year old Salvestro will be sharing his memories of the era at a free panel discussion event at Parliament House at 2.30pm this coming Friday 18 October, with former ABC journalist Louise Maher leading a panel of experts about the life and times of the Snowy Scheme. Joining Salvestro on the panel are Professor Joy Damousi from the Australian Academy of the Humanities, and Roger Whitby, Chief Operating Officer of Snowy Hydro.
Seventy years ago this month - 17 October, 1949 - construction work started on the Snowy Scheme, the largest infrastructure project in Australia's history. It was to be another 25 years before the ground-breaking project was completed for a total historical cost of $820 million - but it was on time and on budget.
The plan was to divert water from rivers such as the Murray, Murrumbidgee, Snowy and Tumut through the Great Dividing Range, releasing flows to where they were needed to combat the effects of drought.
The idea was not new - it was flagged as far back as the 1880s - but it wasn't until 1944 that Commonwealth and State representatives started looking at it seriously. Five year later, on July 7, 1949, the Commonwealth Parliament passed the Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Power Act, establishing the Snowy Mountains Hydro Electric Authority to run the Snowy Mountains Scheme.
The finished project consisted of seven power stations, 16 major dams, 80km of aqueducts and 145km of tunnels. From 1949, when the Governor-General, Sir William McKell, Prime Minister Ben Chifley and Chief Engineer William Hudson fired the first blast, more than 100,000 men and women, from a total of 30 different countries, were employed on the project. Many of the new workers fled their war-torn homes for a new life on the other side of the world.
Charlie Salvestro arrived in Australia 67 years ago as a thirteen year old from Northern Italy. His father had chased work to Sydney, arriving in 1950, but after struggling to make ends meet, friends encouraged him to jump on 'Old Smokey', the train to Cooma where friends had told him about a 'thirty year building project.'
Within two years, Salvestro Snr had bought a block of land and brought his wife, a 13-year old Charlie, and four sisters to the booming inland town.
To learn English so he could help his mother with the shopping and other duties, Charlie was sent to the local school, where Charlie and his sisters were among the first migrant children at the local school.
"There were a lot of Italian workers there because an Italian firm - Pasotti - had won the tender to build 100 houses for staff, but no families had moved there yet," Salvestro says.
By the age of fifteen, Salvestro had a few years of experience labouring for his carpenter father, and a friend had filled his head with stories of big adventure and good money to be made working on 'The Snowy'.
"My dad and I weren't getting on," Salvestro recalls, "and so my mum helped me to pack and get me on the free bus to Guthega."
Salvestro slept on a friend's floor and presented himself every day to the office of Brian Kleven, employment officer for the Norwegian company Selmer where he was quizzed about his age.
"I'd say 'Do you have a job for me?' and Brian would say 'How old are you?' I'd say 'Eighteen!' and he'd laugh and say 'Pull the other one!'" Salvestro says.
"I thought, 'Pull the other what? I didn't know what he bloody meant," Salvestro laughs.
Eventually the young Salvestro was put to work on a series of jobs, including labouring for carpenters outside the tunnels, sometimes inside the tunnels as brakeman (responsible for connecting wagon carriages), miner, and other tasks, some dangerous, some exciting.
"In Winter, you looked for a job that would get you inside the tunnels," he says, "because it was warmer."
Perhaps it was the hardships that drew these workers and their families together. Over the years, a strong camaraderie developed because of the harsh conditions and isolation, with the blend of cultures creating a new way of life for everyone, regardless of how long they'd been living in Australia.
"The camaraderie was unbelievable and we all learned a lot from each other," Salvestro says, "starting with the swear words first."
Salvestro says the friends he made working in the mountain camps remain close to this day, despite many returning to Europe.
After his on-the-job experience of a range of work on 'The Snowy', Charlie moved back into Cooma where he worked for a local builder and eventually got his own licence and became his own boss.
Salvestro met and married Sue, his wife of 50 years, and had three sons who would follow him into the family construction business which he officially retired from six years ago.
"The work on The Snowy didn't really stop," Salvestro says.
"The SMA, now called the Snowy Hydro, stayed in Cooma and support the community, they give jobs to young people."
Built in the national interest with the support of the NSW, Victorian, South Australian and Commonwealth Governments, the Snowy Scheme now provides electricity to the National Electricity Market and drought security to Australia's dry inland.
- '70th Anniversary of the Snowy Hydro': A Discussion, will be held at Parliament House on Friday October 18 at 2.30pm. Entry is free. Bookings at aph.gov.au/visit.
- There will also be a reunion event hosted by Snowy Hydro Ltd in Cooma on Saturday October 19. Visit snowyhydro.com.au
- Cris Kennedy is Director of Visitor Experience at Department of Parliamentary Services.