Cataract Dam is one of the oldest and most picturesque dams in Sydney. The castle-like sandstone building on top of the wall and fanciful outlet tower evoke a sense of importance. At the time of its construction from 1902 to 1907, Cataract Dam was the biggest engineering project in Australia and the fourth biggest in the world.
Cataract was the first of the four dams constructed to collect water from the Illawarra Plateau. Created by damming the Cataract River, construction started in 1902 and was completed in 1907.
Together with Cordeaux Dam, Cataract’s main role today is to supply water to Camden, Campbelltown and Wollondilly council areas via the Macarthur water filtration plant.
Together, the Nepean, Avon, Cataract and Cordeaux dams also provide an additional supply of water for Sydney, via Pheasants Nest Weir, Broughtons Pass Weir and the Upper Canal.
Cataract Dam is located on the Cataract River, a tributary of the Nepean River, just below the junction with the Loddon River. Construction started in 1902 and by June 1903, much of the area to be submerged had already been cleared of timber.
Cataract Dam is a straight dam with an unlined side spillway to the left of the dam wall. For the first time in Australia, pre-cast moulded concrete blocks were used to build the upstream face of the dam. They were hauled to the site from an open factory on the banks of the Loddon River.
Cement and other supplies were delivered to the site by steam tractors hauling trailer trains over rough roads from Campbelltown, 16 kilometres away.
Cottages for men with families, and barracks for single men, were built to house workers for each of the new dams on the Upper Nepean and at Woronora. The towns had a school, amusement hall, medical clinic and ambulance. As each dam was completed between 1907 and 1941, much of the town was dismantled and moved to the next dam site, along with most of the workforce.
Completed in 1907, when Cataract filled to capacity for the first time in January 1911, it soon became clear that the spillway needed to be widened to prevent any risk of floodwater overtopping the dam wall. This work was completed in 1915.
Top 5 things to see and do
1. Book the Manor house for a visit
Cataract Dam is unique in retaining a set of handsome cottages which date from the dam’s construction, built with ‘ashlar’ (precisely cut) sandstone quarried on site. Accommodation can be booked for short stays. The official quarters is a particularly fine example of a Federation Queen Anne bungalow, with matching outbuildings and landscaped gardens surrounded by a castle-like sandstone fence. When built, the house contained a board room, offices, four bedrooms and a kitchen.
2. Make a grand entrance!
From The Manor – dramatically set on a cableway platform used in the dam’s construction – walk down a drive flanked by an avenue of Phoenix palms and Jacarandas towards the dam wall. At the top of a flight of steps, experience a magnificent view of the dam wall directly ahead, with its unique valve house set against the backdrop of the lake’s densely wooded shores. You’ll feel like a king or queen making a grand entrance!
3. Walk across the dam wall
Walk down the steps and across the dam wall for magnificent views of the lake and Keele Island upstream, and of the deep Cataract Gorge downstream. If you walk the full 247 metres to the other end, you’ll glimpse the dam’s spillway. When the lake is full, the wall feels much higher than its 56 metres. Look out across the lake, then cross to the other side and look down into the gorge. You might be lucky and see giant plumes of water being released from the outlets below.
4. Be photographed next to a castle!
Near the centre of the dam wall stands the valve house, finished in weathered sandstone. Its Tudor style features a slate hipped roof with ridgecap finials and with parapet gable ends on the north and south sides and arched parapets on the east and west sides. It’s a great place for photos. Your friends might even think you’ve visited a castle!
5. Relax with a picnic
Throw down a rug and enjoy a picnic with family and friends in the landscaped grounds. Look out for reminders of the dam’s glory days as a picnic spot in the 1920s and 1930s, when Upper Nepean dams competed for the most beautiful gardens. Remnants of ornamental gardens, grotto shelters, decorative walls and ferneries are scattered throughout the upper picnic area, and near the dam wall is a concrete faux-log bridge. Modern facilities include electric barbeques, drinking water, picnic tables, a children’s playground and toilets.