Blast from the Past: Hopto flash­back

Get your­self a drink and sit back as Ron Horner tells how a rusty Hopto ex­ca­va­tor re­minded him of how he got his big break in the earth­mov­ing in­dus­try.

Earthmovers & Excavators - - Con­tents -

Not too long ago, dur­ing one of ‘Ron­nie’s Road Trips’ through Frankston in Victoria, I came across an old ma­chine that had seen much bet­ter days sit­ting in an old quarry. We have all had those life-defin­ing mo­ments, and this old girl took me back to one of mine.

I was be­ing a stick­y­beak, catch­ing a look at a work­ing quarry and ad­mir­ing all the new screen­ing plants, crush­ers, plant and equip­ment when I came across the old Hopto 550 ex­ca­va­tor, which was ly­ing idle in a state of dis­re­pair.

I was no longer in­ter­ested in the new gear, and in­stead made a bee­line to the old girl.


My thoughts im­me­di­ately went back to my old Moomba to Sydney Pipe­line days in the1970s.

You see, back then I was strug­gling to get a good long-term con­struc­tion job. The Builders Labour­ers Fed­er­a­tion (BLF) union was run­ning ram­pant and we spent a good time on strike.

Times were hard and, with many weeks on the side­line, money was tight.

I was work­ing on the con­struc­tion of the Waller­awang Power Sta­tion, freshly mar­ried but with lit­tle cash, when I heard from a few mates out Co­bar way that they were look­ing for blokes to work on the con­struc­tion of the pipe­line.

The re­mu­ner­a­tion was claimed to be ex­cel­lent, but days were long with 12-hour shifts, six weeks on and 10 days off … get your own way there and back.

For a young bloke in des­per­ate need of cash, I could see no rea­son why I shouldn’t give it a go. Af­ter all, I used to be a pro­fes­sional roo shooter out that way and I knew that coun­try well.

At this time I was liv­ing in the Waller­awang Car­a­van Park, play­ing foot­ball with Lith­gow Work­mans Club.

I had good mates from both sides … one in par­tic­u­lar was Bobby Jake­man, who just hap­pened to be my neigh­bour and work­mate (even though he was the cur­rent first-grade Lith­gow Sham­rocks half­back). We were in the same po­si­tion, so over a cou­ple of beers we de­cided to have a crack at this Moomba job.


Be­ing pretty cocky and bul­let­proof, we had no hes­i­ta­tion in driv­ing out to a con­struc­tion camp out near Mt Hope, about 150km south of Co­bar.

Saipem were the con­struc­tors of this sec­tion of pipe­line and, to our dis­may, they told us there were no va­can­cies. But they also sug­gested we try the Aus­tralian Pipe­line Con­struc­tion (APC) camp lo­cated down on the Lachlan River at Booberoi some many kilo­me­tres to the east.

We didn’t come pre­pared to camp out for the long term. My old EH Holden suf­ficed as ac­com­mo­da­tion with a tarp wedged in the off­side doors and pulled across to form an awning held up with rope and mulga branches.

We also had an old Esky with no ice, sleep­ing bags, matches, a fry­ing pan, cast-iron pot, billy can, can­vas wa­ter bot­tle, some army serv­ing plates, no spare fuel, and my old 303.25 ri­fle to shoot some fresh meat (just as an emer­gency).

Af­ter all … we were young and ready to work. Should only take about two days and we would be set. Fa­mous last words!

We even­tu­ally found the APC camp and an­nounced we were there to an­swer all of

their prayers, but to our dis­may we were given the ‘bum’s rush’ and told to go to Sydney to sub­mit our job ap­pli­ca­tions … no one was to be en­gaged from site. What the…?

We left the camp dis­heart­ened and drove out un­til I found a suitable camp­site where we set up to suit a longer-than-ex­pected stay. We had no in­ten­tion of driv­ing to Sydney but a will­ing­ness to give it a shot ev­ery time we saw a fore­man’s ute drive back into that APC camp.


The days passed so slowly, food ran out, wa­ter was gone, fuel was so low but we kept go­ing back to the camp and en­quir­ing about work only to be met with the same an­swer.

I did, how­ever, make con­tact with a few of my old Co­bar mates (Patty Jermyn and Onkers Brown), who put a good word in for me to the Yank bosses in charge.

The floods of ’74 were se­vere and con­struc­tion de­lays at that time were heavy, caus­ing some men to seek al­ter­na­tive em­ploy­ment – so we were hop­ing our luck may get bet­ter.

I was for­tu­nate enough to knock over a rab­bit and a roo which I cooked up, sup­ple­mented by food, wa­ter and fruit pinched from the mess by my mates. This meant we were able to hang in for seven days out on the track.

Early one morn­ing, a Toy­ota ute drove in to our camp and a lanky old Texan hopped out and in­tro­duced him­self as Ditch Boss PJ Hall.

Hall claimed he hadn’t seen fel­las live in such poor con­di­tions for years, said we had “lots of spunk”, and of­fered us a job as a cou­ple of blokes hadn’t re­turned from their leave breaks.

Bobby Jake­man and I were in, signed up the next morn­ing. Fresh beds, show­ers, heaps of good tucker and, most im­por­tantly, we were on the pay­roll. You bloody beauty!


We were both en­gaged on the Ditch Crew which was re­spon­si­ble for the suitable and timely ex­ca­va­tion of the 500km trench and worked along­side a team of Vic­to­rian oper­a­tors run­ning Cleve­land bucket wheel ditch­ing ma­chines (see and the Warner and Swasey brand of Hopto 700A ex­ca­va­tors, all of which were imported from the US.

Hopto, by the way, is an acro­nym for hy­drauli­cally op­er­ated power take-off.

These Hopto ex­ca­va­tors weighed in at about 35 tonnes or so, were run by a scream­ing GM mo­tor, and had more levers – both hand and foot con­trols – than a fleet of old Bucyrus cable draglines (see­steam).

They were state of the art at the time, though Kato ex­ca­va­tors were mak­ing a big in­road into the Aus­tralian mar­ket through Thiess Bros.

Need­less to say I fell in love with them and of­ten won­dered what they could be used for be­sides ex­ca­vat­ing pipe­line trenches.

Never hav­ing op­er­ated any ma­chin­ery be­fore, I pushed hard to get into the Hopto crew and even­tu­ally ‘suck­holed’ my way in as a grade checker or swampy.

The job it­self was easy as my role was to en­sure enough trench was pegged straight, the trench was dug to ex­act­ing depths, and any high trench due to rock was clearly iden­ti­fied for the blast­ing crew to deal with.

These Hopto ex­ca­va­tors weighed in at about 35 tonnes or so, were run by a scream­ing GM mo­tor and had more levers — both hand and foot con­trols — than a fleet of old Bucyrus cable draglines.

2 1. Ron Horner with the old Hopto 550 ex­ca­va­tor sit­ting in a Vic­to­rian quarry 2. A Warner and Swasey Hopto 700 ex­ca­va­tor as used on the Moomba to Sydney Pipe­line dur­ing the 1970s 3. Ron Horner look­ing like a kid with a new toy at the con­trols of the...



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