It has been 60 years since the township of Burragorang Valley in the lower Blue Mountains was cleared and flooded to create storage for Sydney’s water supply.
Houses, farms, churches and bushland were bulldozed and cemeteries were dug up and relocated.
A tight-knit community was uprooted and displaced to guarantee a secure water supply for the people of Sydney.
Beneath the waters of Lake Burragorang lies a valley that hundreds of people once called home.
Lake Burragorang formed in 1958 after the construction of Warragamba Dam. (ABC News: Geoff Kemp)
“You look down there now, you’d think it was always like that,” Eileen O’Brien said.
“Not to me it wasn’t.
“I see it as it was before it was filled up.”
Ms O’Brien was 28 years old when she left the valley.
Now 88, she still has not forgiven the government for forcing her young family out.
“It’s still a sore point with me even now, looking down there. Always will be,” she said.
An idyllic lifestyle
The Burragorang Valley was renowned for its pristine river and majestic mountains.
Kevin Wintle remembers bathing in the river as a boy.
A homestead in Burragorang Valley before the town was flooded. (Supplied: Kerry and Co, Powerhouse Museum’s Tyrell collection)
“We’d leave the soap on the rock down near the river, so it was always there, so of an afternoon you’d have a bath,” he recalled.
“Everything was beautiful down there.”
The valley’s untouched beauty made it a popular destination for tourists.
People would travel for miles to stay in several guesthouses dotted along the water.
Burragorang Valley houses, farms, churches and guesthouses were demolished to make way for the dam. (Supplied: Wollondilly Heritage Centre)
“All the guesthouses had little shops that sold cameras, film, cigarettes, probably a bit of sly grog and people used to come back time after time, year after year to have holidays,” Ms O’Brien said.
People rode horses, ate rabbit, swam in the river and worked the land.
But the idyllic lifestyle was not for good.
A population boom after World War I, followed by the worst drought in recorded history, placed immense pressure on Sydney’s water supply.
The Burragorang Valley was identified it as the ideal place for a dam.
“It’s very sad when you’re born and bred in there and all of a sudden you’ve got to pick up traps and move away into a different environment and different way of living,” Brian Pippen, whose grandfather ran one of the valley’s guesthouses, said.
Former Burragorang residents Joseph Carlon, Arthur ‘Sandy’ Toovey, Brian Pippen, Eileen O’Brien and Kevin Wintle. (ABC News: Geoff Kemp)
The authorities moved in and the township of Burragorang Valley was demolished to make way for the building of Warragamba Dam.
The government acquired every property and bulldozed every structure.
Sixty-four square kilometres of bushland was cleared and cemeteries were dug up and relocated.
The dam wall was built and in 1958, the water came.
The dam was opened in 1960.
Warragamba Dam, pictured in 1960, the same year that it opened. (Supplied: John A. Tanner, National Library of Australia)
“Not a lot of people from the valley saw that happen, they didn’t want to see it fill up, because that was our territory disappearing,” Mr Wintle said.
Mr Pippen’s grandfather died just a few years after leaving Burragorang Valley.
“Just a broken heart I think … he just couldn’t accept the fact that he had to move out of the valley.”
Ms O’Brien has never visited Warragamba Dam, even after all these years.
“If I got over there I’d pull the plug out I think. No, I don’t like Warragamba Dam. I never did.”
Warragamba Dam is one of the largest domestic water supply dams in the world, supplying water to nearly 4 million people in Sydney and the Blue Mountains.
Its storage lake covers 75 square kilometres and holds four times more water than Sydney Harbour.
Former valley residents have held reunions three times a year, every year since 1959.
Mr Wintle said the group will never forget Burragorang Valley.
“Although they took it off us … we were lucky to have the opportunity to be there.”