O'Connor was born in Gravelmount, Castletown, County Meath, Ireland and was home schooled by his aunt before being educated at the Waterford Endowed School (also known as Bishop Foy's School). In 1859 he was apprenticed to J. Chaloner Smith as a railway engineer. At the age of 21 he migrated to New Zealand, and on 6 September 1866 was appointed assistant engineer for Canterbury Province. After holding other positions, O'Connor became inspecting engineer for the mid-South Island. In 1873 he married Scotish born Susan Letitia Ness and together they raised seven children, four girls and three boys whilst in New Zealand. In 1883 he was appointed Under-Secretary of Public Works in New Zealand and in 1890 he was appointed Marine Engineer for the colony.
By 1891 O'Connor had much experience in harbour and dock construction when he resigned his position in April of that year to become Engineer-in-Chief of Western Australia. His wife and children relocated with him to Australia. There he was responsible for the construction of Fremantle Harbour and the Goldfields Water Supply Scheme project that supplied water to the Eastern Goldfields. He was the inaugural Engineer in Chief of the Public Works Department.
The construction of Fremantle Harbour was probably O'Connor's greatest personal triumph, as his proposal to build the harbour within the entrance to the Swan River was contrary to previous expert advice that this was impracticable and that the construction would require constant dredging. Work commenced in 1892 in removing a limestone bar and sand shoals at the mouth of the Swan River and was successfully completed in 1903. On 4 May 1897 the first overseas passenger vessel, the Sultan berthed alongside the wharf, which had been named Victoria Quay in honour of Queen Victoria, who celebrated her Diamond Jubilee that year. At age 54, O'Connor travelled to London to be inducted in the Order of St Michael and St George as a Companion.
Over 100 years of continued use of Fremantle Harbour by heavy shipping has erased all doubt concerning O'Connor's technical judgement.
Goldfields Water Supply Scheme
O'Connor is best known for his work on the Goldfields Water Supply Scheme, also known as the Goldfields Pipeline. This pipeline — perhaps the world's longest water main — carries water 330 miles (530 km) from Perth to Kalgoorlie. A succession of gold rushes in the Yilgarn region near Southern Cross in 1887, at Coolgardie in 1892, and at Kalgoorlie in 1893 caused a population explosion in the barren and dry desert centre of Western Australia, exemplified by towns like Cunderdin and Merredin. On 16 July 1896, John Forrest introduced to Western Australian Parliament a bill to authorise the raising of a loan of £2.5 million to construct the scheme: the pipeline would cart five million gallons (23,000 m³) of water per day to the Goldfields from a dam on the Helena River near Mundaring Weir in Perth, pumped in eight successive stages through 330 miles (530 km) of 30 inch (760 mm) diameter pipe to the Mount Charlotte Reservoir in Kalgoorlie. The water is then reticulated to various mining centres in the Goldfields.
O'Connor was subjected to prolonged criticism by members of the press and also many members of the Western Australian Parliament over the scheme. Forrest, always a supporter, had left Western Australian politics to become federal defence minister; defamatory attacks by the press had wounded him. O'Connor committed suicide less than a year before Forrest officially commissioned the Goldfields Water Supply Scheme.
Evans describes how political machinations and individual greed led to many libellous newspaper articles about O'Connor towards the end of the pipeline project. One article in particular in The Sunday Times, 9 February 1902, is thought to have contributed to his death. Accusing O'Connor of corruption, it read, in part:
“ ...And apart from any distinct charge of corruption this man has exhibited such gross blundering or something worse, in his management of great public works it is no exaggeration to say that he has robbed the taxpayer of this state of many millions of money...This crocodile imposter has been backed up in all his reckless extravagant juggling with public funds, in all his nefarious machinations behind the scenes by the kindred-souled editor of the The West Australian. —(Evans 2001:219) "
The government conducted an inquiry into the scheme and found no basis for the press accusations of corruption or misdemeanours on the part of O'Connor.
The lake created by Mundaring Weir is now known as Lake O'Connor, and provides drinking water for the towns along the pipeline to Kalgoorlie, Western Australia.
O'Connor took his own life on 10 March 1902 by shooting himself, while riding his horse into the water at a beach south of Fremantle
The beach where O'Connor died was named after him and there is also a statue sculpted by Tony Jones, of him in the water there.
It is located close to the site of Robbs Jetty, End of Rollinson Rd, South Fremantle
The C. Y. O'Connor College of TAFE in Western Australia bears his name.
Division of O'Connor, named after O'Connor, is an Australian Electoral Division in the state of Western Australia. It encircles the area around Perth, and runs from the Indian Ocean coast to the Southern Ocean coast. And it includes the cities of Geraldton and Albany, and much of the Midlands, Wheatbelt and Great Southern regions of Western Australia.
A bronze statue of O'Connor by Pietro Porcelli stands in front of the Fremantle Port Authority buildings, commemorating O'Connor's achievements.
It is located on Phillimore Street & faces north-east towards Fremantle Harbour