Darjeeling Hydro Power System

Information on the Darjeeling hydro-electric scheme. Not only was it the first installation of its kind in India, but also the first public electricity supply scheme of any sort there.

'Having had no connection with water power ... I now found myself in sole charge of the construction, and to some extent, the design of a pioneer installation... The problem before me was to build a reservoir of 40 000 cubic feet capacity, for one-fifth of the sum which a Public Works Department engineer said it would cost; then to bring water to it from two streams through several miles of galvanised ion channel laid either in dense jungle or on almost vertical cliffs; 

to connect the reservoir with a smaller one as a forebay; to lay two steel pipes down a steep hillside to a small power house; to erect and test the turbo-generators and their switchgear after building this power house; to put up a 3 mile overhead transmission line, 3 or 4 sub-stations in the town, and place lights in all the streets.' 

Sketch by J.W. Meares of the Darjeeling Hydro-Electric Works

John Willoughby Meares records in his autobiography, `At the Heels of the Mighty', 1934 (SC MSS 169/1/1), donated to the Archives by his son, Stanley Meares, that the Darjeeling hydro-electric scheme, not only would be the first installation of its kind in India, but also the first public electricity supply scheme of any sort there. He took up his appointment with Kilburn & Co of Calcutta in 1896, aged 25.

The firm was was one of those many old-established concerns dating from the trading days of John Company-the old East India Company.  Custom decreed that they should recruit young men from home for service on short term agreements, which in most cases were extended until by effluxion of time the man became a partner or retired at about fifty-five. 

Each of these firms was the agent for several English Companies, often of the most diverse character; and also took under its wing as many Indian limited liability companies as it could, in the capacity of "managing agents."  The firm held a controlling interest financially, supplied the directors, settled the policy, negotiated sales, and took a share (sometimes a lion's share) of the profits.'

Once in post in Darjeeling, he had to deal with many unexpected problems and solve them immediately, without recourse to the advice of more experienced senior colleagues.  He also had to contend with the hazards of working in a tropical jungle.  He killed from six to a dozen poisonous snakes a day.  Once a rock blast flushed out two hamadryads (a type of cobra) over 7 feet long, 'which almost alone of these reptiles will attack without provocation'.  

Other hazards were stink bugs, and  diseases such as plague, leprosy, smallpox, typhoid and paratyphoid.  Food poisoning was an ever present risk.

'I may add that the young engineer who finds himself in difficulties can generally count upon help from some more experienced man in his neighbourhood; but in pioneer work in a remote spot, where there were no other fellow-practitioners to consult, every sort of mechanical conundrum had to be taken and dealt with as it turned up.'

During construction there was an earthquake on June 12th 1897.

'Its epicentre was in the Khasia Hills of Assam, and Shillong was almost entirely destroyed. I was having tea in my room in the Darjeeling hotel at the time, and the first mild tremors rattled the cup and saucer and then upset some tea. ... I cleared out of doors with all haste just as the first severe shock arrived ... I saw the approach of the second great shock right across the town, and each wave-crest and hollow could be seen on the flat ground where I stood, as the trees bent right over. 

Meanwhile our chimneys were gaily disintegrating and falling through the roof. Photographs are still obtainable showing the track of the dead-straight Eastern Bengal railway, at the foot of the hills, twisted into enormous rhythmical curves with chasms in the ground...'  

The damage to Meares's 'embryo works' was considerable.  Despite this, the job was finished before the end of 1897, less than a year after work began.

In September 1899 there was a cyclone in Darjeeling 'bringing some 40 inches of rain down within 48 hours'.  Meares, now working in Calcutta, returned to see whether his station had survived. 

'I went to see my works in the valley below, with the Municipal Engineer, the undertaking having meantime been taken over by the municipality.  As already mentioned, the power station was at the unction of two streams; a great landslide had occurred in one of them, blocking up its bed to a height of about 40 feet immediately below my small building.  The full force of the stream in spate fell upon it, and before the landslip dam was breached the power house was ten feet deep in mud, only a few of the contents showing over it.  

The staff got quickly to work and cleared the mud, washing out everything even to the high pressure alternators with jets and buckets of water; then everything was dried out with charcoal fires, and after about 6 weeks the plant was working again as though nothing had happened; in fact those Crompton-Brunton alternators are still doing duty [in 1934], to the credit of their manufacturers, though the type has long been extinct.' 

Sketch by J.W. Meares of the Cherrapungi view