They said it couldn't be done

Huge challenges can be overcome by sheer determination.

Many cases exist through history of people being told, “That won’t work”, before they set out to prove otherwise. The following is the story of someone who did just that.

At the time of settlement, much of South East South Australia was a wetland but 150 years’ drainage has created great areas of predominantly productive land.

In the 1850s, public pressure on the government saw a team of specialists survey the area. Mr Goyder, the Surveyor General, acknowledged that “… successful work would not only double the area at present available… enable good roads to be formed at much less cost than… if the country continues to be liable to inundations from inefficient means to carry off the ordinary winter’s rain.” 

In other words, a bureaucratic paper saying, in not so many words, dig ditches, build roads.

Works were commenced in 1864, with a cutting put through to drain the Mount Muirhead Flat into Lake Frome and the sea. Narrow Neck was the first work in a scheme that would be known as the Millicent Drainage System.

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Over the years, more than 2,500 kilometres of drains have been excavated by government, around 70 per cent of those in the lower South East. A great deal of additional work has been done by landowners, which brings me back to where I was heading with the headline, as it were.

In the 1880s, the McCourt family moved to Woakwine, just to the north of Beachport. They soon realised the land they were on, rocky ridges and waterlogged peat flats, would never be viable if left as it was, and making a worthy living would be difficult.

Over the years, a number of plans were mooted for draining their land but for one reason or another all were deemed unsuitable. Eventually, in the 1950s, the Drainage Board assisted with the planning and draughting of a drainage channel but Mr Murray McCourt believed the plan, with its stepped walls, too complicated and far too expensive. Instead, he drew up an alternative plan with flat, tapering walls that were not far from the perpendicular.

Experts said that such a plan had inherent risks, especially the likelihood of the sides slumping or slipping. Should that happen, the channel would simply block itself again. Mr McCourt, with an army engineering background, had a good understanding  of local geology, especially the soft sandstone in the target area, and went ahead with the project. It was planned to take three years to complete and in fact it took just two weeks less, from May 1957 until May 1960. Two men, Mr McCourt and an employee, Mr Dick McIntyre, excavated what is now known as The Woakwine Cutting.

Using a Caterpillar D7 crawler tractor, a ripper, a scraper and a lot of very hard work, the two men effectively moved a mountain. They made a channel 1.6 kilometres in length, as much as 36 metres wide and 28 metres deep, with a width at the bottom of 3 metres, removing around 276,000 cubic metres of earth (that is, something approaching one-third of a million tons). Disposal proved no problem as there was a gully they could fill, with the remainder laid out along, although set back from, the southern edge of the cutting.

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This incredible feat – a massive task for its time, especially for just two men – allowed the drainage of a huge tract of land that is now improved pasture and permanently productive. A barrier held back water while the men worked but, when they finished their huge task, this was removed. There was great joy as they watched the water snake its way down the channel, taking just 35 minutes for it to reach the dune-bound Lake George and thus to sea.

The entire job is a credit to a man of determination, one who would not allow a negative stand in the way of what he knew to be right. Murray McCourt knew it could be done, so he did it. Bravo!

Do have any stories of overcoming obstacles to achieve the impossible?