Originally built in 1887 to provide drinking water to Newcastle, Walka Water Works has a long and complex industrial history. It still stands today, a perfectly preserved site that now provides refuge for native wildlife and a picnic spot for families.
Walka Water Works — derived from the Wonnarua word “Walka”, meaning “resting place by the water” — is a heritage-listed 19th-century pumping station located just outside of the Maitland CBD. It has had a few different lives over the past 130 years. Originally, it was designed and built to supply clean drinking water to the Newcastle area and up until 1923, this is exactly what it did. Prior to this, an unmanaged network of storage tanks, creeks, and boreholes were used but they would frequently become contaminated and lead to disease outbreaks. Walka pumped its water from Dickson’s Falls on the Hunter River and was the first such plant in Australia to have its own filtration system.
During peak operation in 1915 the site produced 3843 megalitres. A complication arose between 1902 — 1905 when severe droughts dried up the river, causing water shortages and demonstrating that the river wasn’t a reliable source for the region. At this point, the construction of major dams began across the Hunter Valley, including Chichester Dam in Dungog. Walka Water Works continued to be used as a backup system until 1940 when it was completely decommissioned. In 1949, after the Second World War, most of its pumping equipment was sold for scrap.
Two years later, in 1951, the site began its second life as a temporary power station, to assist in shortages driven by post-war demand for electricity. The refit was imported from General Electric in America, in parts, and assembled on-site almost like a kit. By 1953 it was up and running, with three coal-fired boilers and one that ran on oil. Coal rail lines were extended from the North Coast line, some of which are still visible on the entrance road.
Now a museum and recreation area, the site’s third life comes with a new title: Walka Recreation and Wildlife Reserve. Remnants of its pumping and power station eras are on full display, however, it’s main purpose now is to serve as a place for families to picnic and for 300 species of birdlife to roost.
Walka Water Works is located at 55 Scobies Lane, Oakhampton, just 2km outside of Maitland. If you are coming in from Newcastle on the Pacific Highway, you will need to take the first exit at the roundabout at the entrance to Maitland. From the New England Highway, take the turn to Paterson. There is a direction sign located at the roundabout by Maitland Station, with several others guiding you through to the site.
The reserve is open seven days a week and offers on-site parking, toilets, shelters, drinking water, picnic facilities, marked walking and cycling trails as well as a playground. The main building has been converted into a museum, however, this is currently closed. No dogs are allowed.
Designed in a unique Victorian/Italianate style, the main pumphouse features ornate pink and cream brickwork and a striking chimney that stands out in the otherwise flat and green pasture that surrounds it. This building is one of the largest and most intact 19th Century industrial complexes in the Hunter Valley. Closely connected is the former boiler room, the old settling tanks and filter beds, a sandstone dam wall, and a miniature railway station.
The site’s curtilage is roughly diamond-shaped and features a hillside zone and foot slopes to the U-shaped reservoir.
Native gardens and picnic areas surround the pumphouse and adjacent buildings, and there are approximately 12 kilometres of mainly gravel trails for walkers and cyclists. The reserve also operates as something of an open-air museum, in which people can view the remaining infrastructure as well as a range of disused pumping equipment, all with informative plaques.
A wide variety of waterbirds, including cormorants, ducks, geese, and black swans, can be seen in the reservoir which is now affectionately called the Little River Pond. The pond is surrounded by native bushland and five km walking trails, including The Kangaroo Trail which is one of the best places to see a mob of kangaroos in the area.
Another feature of the nature strip between the pumphouse and the reservoir is the Walka Miniature Railway, a 3 km mini train ride run by the Walka Model Engineering Society which operates on the 1st and 3rd Sundays of the month.
The area provides a wonderful day out and the opportunity to engage with a rare and important piece of local history. The grounds are extremely well maintained and the buildings are in immaculate condition, however, on my visit I couldn’t help but feel like there is still a missed opportunity to fully activate some of the features of the site. The large settling tanks and filter beds for example are completely fenced off, and while they are still visible behind the chainlink, being able to wander through them would be a fantastic feature. The large grounds are also ripe for public art and richer landscaping. Play equipment also seemed to be conspicuously absent, although I may have missed this.
Walking around this great space I kept thinking about Ballast Point Park in Balmain, a former oil refinery by the harbour that has been sensitively enhanced with the features I’ve mentioned above and is much richer and more engaging for it. It’s a great model for how to redefine a place with respect to its past and very little intervention. I could see such an undertaking would benefit the well cared for but underutilised Walka Water Works, providing people with full access and adding some contemporary elements. Still, it is absolutely worth the trip out, especially with kids, and we are lucky to have this remarkable piece of local history so easily accessible and in such great shape.
Historical images c/o Maitland Library
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