Life Sentences - Sunken Canberra

Malcolm Allbrook 'Sunken Canberra: As Canberra grew into its role as Australia's capital, the centrepiece of Walter Burley Griffin's masterplan hid large parts of the city's past', ANU Reporter, vol 47, no 2, Winter 2016, Life Sentences, p 60

It is hard to imagine Canberra without its lake, a body of water large enough to reflect the changing weather.

One day reflective, the next stormy and ruffled.

Yet over much of the short life of the city, Walter Burley Griffin's vision of a body of water filling the visual gap between north and south seemed unattainable, as politicians debated its virtues and Canberrans grew accustomed to a life along the banks of the narrow, meandering Molonglo River.

In the suburb of Acton, where ANU now stands, a number of buildings survive from the pre-lake days; Old Canberra House (built 1913), the old Bachelors' Quarters opposite (1912), the Institute of Anatomy (1930s, now the National Film and Sound Archive) and Canberra High School (1939, now the ANU School of Art).

A few weatherboard cottages remain in Liversidge Street and Balmain Crescent, while parts of the old Hotel Acton are now immersed in the NewActon development.

But down on the banks of the Molonglo was 'Lower Acton', where Frank Dunshea lived between 1926 and 1946.

Telling his story to the Canberra historian Ann Gugler, his memories are a vivid reminder of a place that was slowly evolving to house the nation's capital.

Here lived the workers in 15 small weatherboard cottages below Old Canberra House on the way to the now submerged Lennox Crossing.

A suspension bridge over the river joined the two fairways of the Royal Canberra Golf Club and Dunshea recalls that "paddling for and finding golf balls in Springbank Creek was a useful source of pocket money".

On the flat lands on the north side of Acton, now West Basin, were sports grounds for hockey, football and cricket and, to the west, was the racecourse.

On the river, near where the National Museum of Australia now stands, was a deep pool, a popular swimming place and "one of the prettiest tourist camps in Australia".

For Dunshea and his friends, the river was a playground, a place of grassy banks and trees, "good for fishing and swimming" and with lots of wildlife.

The death knell for the river came in 1958 when the National Capital Development Commission, supported by then Prime Minister Robert Menzies, reinstated plans for West Lake.

Two years later, construction started and 500 labourers with earthmoving machines removed 382,000 cubic metres of ground that was used for six artificial islands and lakeside public parks and gardens.

Foreshores were established, gravel beaches and rocky outcrops all constructed.

And two large bridges were built; Kings Avenue bridge opened in 1962 and Commonwealth Avenue Bridge the following year.

Finally Scrivener Dam, named after the surveyor who had identified the site of the future capital in 1909, had its valves locked by Minister for the Interior Gordon Freeth in September 1963.

The lake began to fill, slowly at first, but with the breaking of the drought it had reached its planned level by April 1964.

So Canberra finally had its lake, the focal point that Burley Griffin had imagined, which was named after him at the insistence of Menzies.

The pools and willows of the Molonglo were sacrificed to his vision.

The workers' camp at Lower Acton where Dunshea and his friends had grown up was no more.

The only reminder of its existence a striking memorial on the banks of the lake, looking out over the place where the small village once lay.

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