Readers familiar with Canberra, and readers of others of my Canberra reviews, will know that the ‘centre piece’ (or is it the pièce de résistance?) of the planned city of Canberra is a large artificial lake named after the man engaged to design a custom built capital city befitting of the then newly created Commonwealth of Australia (1901).

Entrants of the Federal Capital Design Competition drew heavily on a detailed survey of the Canberra district completed by surveyor Charles Scrivener in 1908 in coming up with their designs. Walter Burley Griffin’s winning design sought to, among many other things, incorporate a large ornamental water body by damming the Molonglo River. This would be a ‘playground for the city’.

Griffin’s planning favoured three separate but connected lakes. Scrivener later modified this vision into the cheaper more organically shaped single lake which we have to today. Perhaps confusingly, we refer to the east, west and central basins of the lake as if it were three separate bodies of water. It is not.

Rather than a series of weirs that would have been necessary to bring to life Griffin’s vision, Scrivener’s final design necessitated only one dam, the exact location of which he identified.

Due to ongoing political squabbling, the Great Depression and WWII neither Griffin nor Scrivener would live to see the lake come into existence. Griffin died in 1937 and Scrivener in 1923 and the centre of Griffin’s planned capital, to a large degree, remained farmland with a rather pathetic little stream in the form of the Molonglo River continuing to meander through the growing city.

Scrivener’s design for the lake was resurrected in the late 1950s and work started on the dam in September 1960. Three years later on 20 September 1963, on the 50th anniversary of the declaration of Canberra as the National Capital, Gordon Freeth, Commonwealth Minister of the Interior, closed the valves on what was now called Scrivener Dam.

Nothing happened.

There was minimal rainfall that summer with the result that the lake did not fill up as quickly as envisaged. Indeed the appearance of mosquito-infested pools of water provided the only visible evidence that the lake was filling at all for some time. The drought finally broke and on 29 April 1964 the lake was declared full. On 17th October 1964 Prime Minister Menzies officially commemorated the filling of Lake Burley Griffin.

The dam is a mass concrete gravity dam of German design, the only of its kind in Australia. For those interested in the technicalities, it stands 33 metres high and is 319 metres long with a maximum wall thickness of 19.7 metres. It incorporates five ‘fish belly’ overflow flap (flood) gates and three sluice gates. In over 50 years of operation the five overflow flap gates have only opened simultaneously once, in October 1976.

Lest I be pulled up for a factual omission, I should mention that there is another dam which is now also used in maintaining the water level in Lake Burley Griffin. This is the Googong Dam, further up the Molonglo River near Queanbeyen. The Googong Dam can be opened to release water into the lake in the event that the level falls to and unacceptably low level.


Should you cycle around the lake you will cycle across the dam. Otherwise, it is located on Lady Denman Drive beside the National Zoo and Aquarium and a short distance from the viewing area Governor General’s official residence. It is a short detour from the National Arboretum.

Worth a look If you are in the area.

Address: Lady Denman Drive

For my next CANBERRA – INNER SOUTH review click HERE.
For other CANBERRA reviews click HERE.


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