On Friday evening, 12 July 1912, a special train left Sydney for Yanco in the Riverina, carrying a large contingent of politicians, senior civil servants, various other dignitaries, and senior representatives of a number of newspapers. They arrived at Yanco at 8 o’clock the next morning, had breakfast in a large tent near the station, and set out for the days activities. There were about 150 in the party, and every available horse and vehicle was pressed into service to take them on a tour of the immediate area. The land had belonged to Sir Samuel McCaughey, who had allowed the Government to resume a portion of his property at a very reasonable rate, so reasonable that one of the dignitaries later that day described him as ‘a benefactor to his country.’ Sir Samuel had also shown the way by developing an irrigation scheme at his own expense, thus helping to demonstrate the practicality and utility of the concept.
The politician credited with initiating the official scheme was the former Minister for Works, Mr. C.A. Lee, after whom Leeton, the central town of the area, then in the early stages of development, had been named. The land was divided into blocks for purchase by small farmers of limited means, so that the scheme would benefit the ‘poor’ man. The Government would do all it could to provide for the settlers, and they were encouraged to apply themselves to the task of making the venture a success. They could build homes with their own capital or have the Government build the style they wanted on a ten-year loan. Canals were laid out, water was supplied, roads were being developed and buildings constructed. Land had been cleared, with some trees left for shade, cattle and horses had been brought in, butter and bacon factories had been built, and there was even a School of Arts. In reporting all these things, the Sydney Morning Herald commented, ‘They are looked after in most paternal fashion, these settlers.’
In the course of the day an orange and a peach tree were ceremoniously planted. The sluice gates were officially opened, and at 6 o’clock a banquet was held in the marquee, both occasions giving opportunities for speakers to express great hopes for the scheme. It was looked on as the best in the world. The dam being built upriver at Barren Jack would be the largest artificial reservoir in the world after the Assouan dam in Egypt. The Minister for Lands, Mr. Beeby, foresaw a population of a quarter of a million. The M.P. for the Riverina, Mr. J.M. Chanter, was glad that this portion of New South Wales was now being recognised at its true worth, rather than being called ‘the Never Never country, as it was when I first went into Parliament.’ Mr. Lee, M.L.A., could assure the settlers that all possibilities had been investigated. ‘Under no conditions would they be left without water, and they could feel assured that the results of their labour would find a market.’
Mr. L.A.B. Wade, the Executive Officer in charge of the whole work, gave some details of the origin of the scheme, which he thought very few people knew. ‘I think the first practical steps may be said to date from the time that Colonel Home, the Chief Irrigation Officer of the Punjaub, was brought here to report on irrigation.’ Colonel Home advised the necessity for storage and recommended exploring sites along the Murrumbidgee for a dam and a canal on the south side. This was in 1894. Mr. Wade took the responsibility of preferring the north side of the river for the development of the canal system. Colonel Home also advised, unofficially, not to bring engineers from overseas. ‘Go in and do the work yourselves.’ This had been done, and now that the engineering tasks were being achieved it was time to show what the population could achieve on the agricultural side.
‘I look upon this scheme,’ said Mr. Lee, ‘as being a great instructor that will lead by degrees to the settlement of our great, dry, western country.’
‘Water for the land. Barren Jack floodgates open. Great Murrumbidgee scheme. Official ceremony’, Sydney Morning Herald Monday 15 July 1912, p. 7.