White Bay power station c1930, City of Sydney Archives (SRC352)

White Bay power station c1930, City of Sydney Archives (SRC352)

Sydney Harbour was once a bustling maritime port and industrial waterfront. The White Bay Power Station is a landmark industrial complex on the shoreline of White Bay, an abandoned reminder of this 20th century history.

It was built between 1912 and 1917 by the NSW Railway Commissioners to cope with the expansion of the tramway network and to deal with the anticipated electrification of the railway system and the proposed underground railway system for the city. This is a state government agency that was thinking ahead and planning for the future. What a radical idea! During its operation from 1917 to 1984, the White Bay Power Station helped to power Sydney’s public transport for most of the twentieth century.

Its location allowed coal ships to dock right beside the facility and deliver coal directly into the plant. The water in the bay provided unlimited cooling water to circulate through the plant.

The White Bay Power Station is massive. Its presence really marked a gateway to the Balmain industrial waterfront. The power house is sometimes referred to as Balmain Power Station, but that was actually another power house situated just east of the Iron Cove Bridge. Its no longer there – that site is covered by apartments. We have an article about that in the Dictionary too – naturally!

The White Bay site is now the last remaining example of a coal-dependent, harbourside, industrial complex, something that was once relatively common in Sydney.

As well as its physical presence on the landscape, the internal space of the White Bay power house inspired visitors and workers alike, with large cavernous boiler houses and turbine rooms that were cathedral-like in their industrial scale.

Today the White Bay Power Station retains its landmark quality with the remaining chimneys easily identified from many vantage points.

In 2006, White Bay was included on the New South Wales State Heritage Register.

The White Bay Power Station has been in the news over the last 12 months because the state government is planning to redevelop the “Bays Precinct” and there’s talk that the power station building will be adaptively reused.

You can hear former power station workers talk about the plant, see interiors of the powerhouse and historic photographs in this 15 minute video produced by the Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority.

Listen now

If you missed today’s segment, you can catch up here via the 2SER website. Tune in to 2SER Breakfast on 107.3 every Wednesday morning at 8:20 am to hear more from the Dictionary of Sydney.

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