CHAFFEY, George (1848-1932)


CHAFFEY, George (1848-1932)
pioneer of irrigation in Australia
was born at Brockville, Canada, on 28 January 1848. His father, George Chaffey, was engaged in the Lakeside trade, building and owning his own ships and tugs. He married Anne, daughter of Christopher Leggo, a well-known lawyer in Canada. The family moved to Kingston, and the boy was educated at the Kingston Grammar School. His health was not good and he was taken from school when only 13. He was, however, an omnivorous reader, especially of books dealing with mechanical devices. Later on he worked on one of his father's steamers and obtained his certificate as an engineer. When 19 he went to Toronto and entered an insurance office to obtain business experience, and presently met Annette McCord, daughter of the city chamberlain, and married her on 31 May 1869. He returned to Kingston, was taken into his father's business, and began building ships. Some of the steamers he designed became famous for their combination of speed, light draught, and carrying capacity. In 1878 his father retired and went to live in California, and when his son visited him in 1880 he at once became interested in irrigation. In 1882, with his brother William Benjamin Chaffey (q.v.), he formed the Etiwanda Irrigation Colony, the first Californian settlement watered by a cement pipe line system. Chaffey became associated with L. M. Holt, an exceedingly able man of the period, and together they worked out a scheme to put order into the then chaotic state of water rights. He became interested in electric lighting and was president and engineer of the Los Angeles Electric Company which made Los Angeles the first city to be exclusively lighted by electricity. He also installed the first long distance telephone in California. Towards the end of 1882 a more ambitious venture, the founding of the settlement of Ontario was begun. Its success was largely due to the fact that Chaffey realized that much of the water that came from the mountains percolated underground. This supply he successfully tapped by boring. In 1903 Ontario was selected as a standard irrigation settlement by the United States government, which had a model of it prepared for the St Louis world's fair held in 1904. In 1885 Alfred Deakin (q.v.), who had gone to California to report on irrigation, met Chaffey and his brother, and was much impressed by their work at Ontario. The suggestion was made that there might be an opening for the brothers in Australia, and about the end of the year they sent a representative to Australia, who assured his principals that they would be able to obtain unlimited land from the Australian government in return for the introduction of scientific irrigation. Chaffey immediately left for Melbourne and arrived on 13 February 1886. He was sufficiently encouraged by his reception to send immediately for his brother. He eventually fixed on the district where is now the thriving town of Mildura. It was then part of a waterless region, except that the Murray bounded one side of it, covered with mallee scrub and inhabited chiefly by rabbits. But Chaffey knew that and country in California had responded marvellously to water, and on 21 October 1886 he signed an agreement which was the beginning of successful irrigation in Australia. Chaffey said that Deakin, acting on behalf of the colony of Victoria, drove a hard bargain with him, but a section of the opposition in parliament bitterly fought against its ratification. Eventually difficulties were overcome and a start made. By 1890 there were 3000 residents at Mildura. But all were not suitable for the work, the nearest rail-head was 150 miles away, the land boom was bursting in Melbourne, and the general feeling of optimism was departing. By 1892 Mildura had outgrown its strength, and in 1893 the bank crisis led to a long-continued depression. Difficulties arose with the settlers about the payment of water-rates, and it looked as if the settlement was doomed to failure. A companion settlement at Renmark over the South Australian border had caused some division of interest, and George Chaffey was also tempted into undertaking another venture at Werribee, near Melbourne, which proved a failure. Disaffection grew among the settlers, and eventually the position of the Chaffeys at Mildura became intolerable, and it was impossible in the then state of the money market to finance the venture to any further extent. Chaffey Brothers Limited was wound up at the end of 1895. It was no longer solvent and the Chaffeys were ruined. George Chaffey left Australia early in 1897. In 1898 he went back to Ontario which was in some difficulty about its water-supply. He soon found fresh springs and devised a system of tunnelling which saved the settlement and enabled Chaffey at 50 years of age to make a fresh start in life. In 1899 the Californian Development Company gave him another opportunity. For years it had been wrestling with the problem of how to deal with a huge area of nearly level land, which would undoubtedly be of great value if it could be irrigated. Chaffey succeeded in constructing the Imperial Canal in less than 18 months, and what had once been a 1,000,000 acre desert became valuable land on which 70,000 people were to settle within a generation. In 1902 Chaffey began his last irrigation project, the development of the east Whittier-La Habra valley about 20 miles from Los Angeles, which became a most successful citrus growing centre. He then turned his attention to banking until his retirement in 1917. He died on 1 March 1932. He was survived by three sons, Andrew, founder and president of the California Bank, Los Angeles, Benjamin, a successful pastoralist in Australia, and Lieut.-Colonel John Burton, a vice-president of the California Bank. His wife had died in 1917.
Though delicate as a boy George Chaffey grew into a big man with a heavy beard, and keen eyes, conscious of his own ability, and never lacking in courage. He had a wonderful capacity for sizing up what could possibly be done, and then finding the shortest road to its attainment. When the Mildura project was apparently wrecked a royal commission found that the principal cause of the failure was the bad financial management of the company. That was not a correct finding; the causes were many, but probably the most important was the financial crisis which culminated in the closing of the banks in 1893. The characters of the Chaffey brothers were untouched. No one questioned the honesty of George Chaffey when he left Australia, apparently a ruined man, and the men who had been closest in touch with him, such as Deakin, and his solicitor, Theodore Fink (q.v.), honoured him most. From the point of view of actual achievement George Chaffey was one of the greatest men that ever came to Australia. His monuments are the thriving settlements of Etiwanda, Ontario, Mildura, Renmark, Imperial Valley, and La Habra.
J. A. Alexander, The Life of George Chaffey; The Argus, Melbourne, 4 March 1932.

Dictionary of Australian Biography by PERCIVAL SERLE. . 1949.

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