During the late 1800’s shipping became an increasing problem in Fremantle . There was no harbour. Ships had to anchor offshore due to a rocky bar blocking the mouth of the Swan River . Many ships preferred to head straight to Albany and its to the safely sheltered harbour . From Albany, smaller ships would be used to transport passengers and cargo to Perth . However, with the booming whaling business in Fremantle and the discovery of gold in the 1890’s, it became clear that there was an urgent need for a harbour near the Capital City.
In 1892 C.Y. O’Connor (Engineer-in-Chief) was appointed by John Forrest (W.A.’s first Premier) to build the Fremantle Harbour to provide safe anchorage for large ships. It was his first major public works project. He proposed that the limestone bar and sand shoals at the mouth of the Swan River be blasted out. Then the entrance to the harbour dredged to make it deeper for ships to enter. Finally two stone moles would be built out into the ocean to stop the sand re-entering.
The project also required land reclamation to allow for the construction of quays and warehouses.
O’Connor had many critics of his proposal, many believing it was too expensive and impractical. However in 1892 construction commenced and in May 1897 the first ship, S.S. Sultan, steered by Lady Forrest, steamed into the Fremantle Harbour.
Fremantle soon became the colony’s busiest port, taking the honour away from the Albany Harbour that had previously been Western Australia’s main port.
During World War II the Fremantle Harbour played an important role in accommodating Australian and Allied naval vessels. It became the biggest submarine base in the Southern hemisphere from 1942-1945 with over 170 submarines using the port.
Today, the Fremantle Port still remains true to O’Connor’s original design and has an economic output valued at $780 million annually.