Regional History

Regional History

Gold rush  |  Tin scratching  |  Timber getters  |  Pearling  |  Beche-de-mer  |  Pastoral


A peaceful, tranquil location inhabited only by nomadic Aboriginals for thousands of years prior it to becoming Cooks Town. Cooktown was later named in 1873 in the honour of Captain James Cook, who in 1770 beached the HMB Endeavour on the Southern banks of which he later called the Endeavour River (Wabalumbaal) to undertake repairs after running aground on one of the many reefs that fringe this coastline.

Despite the developments and industrial activity that took place, today the region in many respects remains as is it was 1000’s of years ago. By the late 1800’s Cooktown was a busy commercial port which underpinned its existence for welcoming supplies and dispatching the regions produce whether it was gold, beef or timber. With the development of roads and alternative transportation regions south of the Cape like Mossman, Port Douglas, Mareeba, Cairns and Atherton out grew Cooktown. By the early 1990’s Cooktown’s economic windfalls had all but disappeared. With time new modern minerals were found and new industries created and our little village sprang to life again to become the capital of Cape York.

Cooktown Historical sights for visitors

  1. Grassy Hill – light house (1885) and look out in Cooktown
  2. James Cook Museum – old St Mary’s Convent Building (1889)
  3. Old Hospital –building (1879) now renovated in new location May St.
  4. Cooktown rail station – (1885) Top section only Charlotte St.
  5. The Historical Society collection of “the early years” located next to the Post Office.
  6. Powder Magazine – (1874) on the foreshore, mouth of Endeavour inlet.
  7. Cemetery – (1875) microcosm of the Cooktown regions history.
  8. The Cairn – marking the spot where Cook beached the Endeavour
  9. Botanic Gardens – established in 1878
  10. Endeavour Park on the Cooktown foreshore.

Regional History


In late 1872 William Hann’s expedition party discovered gold in the Palmer river, which Hann named for the colonial secretary, later premier of Qld. A report appeared early 1873 which attracted the attention of James Venture Mulligan who at the time was based in Etheridge. With his party Mulligan staked a claim mid 1873 and by October the same year had 102 oz of payable gold 1 mile north on the Palmer River. His report later advised that the Palmer would yield 1oz of gold per man per day, the rush was on. On hearing of the rush it was decided by the Queensland government that the site of Cook’s landing on the Endeavour River (Wabalumbaal) would be used as a port for the trek to the Gold fields and would become a busy remote Far Northern seaport.

On October 25th 1873 the steam ship Leichhardt arrived with building materials. Officials and prospectors to establish the township of “Cooks Town”. Prospectors poured in from everywhere and the town grew quickly. The town boasted 65 hotels, 20 eating houses and 32 general stores. By 1885 Cooktown’s population exceeded 35,000 including Irish, English, German and thousands of Chinese.

Cooktown depended on the mining of gold for its survival, and after the removal of 55 tons of alluvial gold, 8 years later production began to decline. By the turn of the century the population was barely 2,000, but with the growing pearling, tin and cattle industries the town managed to survive with its town status. During the Second World War most of the town was evacuated. Cooktown survived once again and today it is the Heart of Cape York and slowly increasing interest as a tourist attraction.

As the gold attracted the prospectors some became attracted to tin. Tin fields were established south of Cooktown at Helenvale, Rossville and Shiptons Flat. With the removal of forest to get to the tin the timber industry boomed alongside the tin. 18 or so tin mines flourished on an area called the Big Tableland a highland rainforest area accessible from Helenvale and Rossville. The most famous was the Lions Den tin mine, 2 50yard shafts from which drew clean payable tin which can also be found lying on the ground in the surrounding forest. Shafts, water cannon and water races were used to extract the tin which one could smelter at low temperatures.


Regional History


Rich in exotic dry country and rainforest timbers this region was frequented by timer getters from the onset of European arrival. Large rainforest giants were felled to provide exotic timbers to the growing country and world. The timber industry thrived until the establishment of World Heritage areas and Wet tropics by the Queensland and Federal governments. Today there are vast tracts of intact virgin rainforest and even larger areas which contain 130 years of re-growth rainforest.


Australia’s pearling industry began hundreds of years ago with Aboriginals harvesting abundant shallow water pearl shell from waters of the north coast of Cape York. By the time of European settlement, the Aboriginals had a well established trading network for pearl shell, both within Australia and with Beach-de-mer fishermen (collectors of sea-slugs) who, since the late 17th and early 18th centuries, visited northern Australia to trade with the indigenous inhabitants of this remote coastline.

Interestingly, in 1812 the first Australian pearls were discovered in Queensland waters by Captain William Campbell. The first recorded harvest of pearl shell from Paumoto Archipelago followed in 1814. Cooktown and most of Cape York once boasted a large fleet of Pearl luggers to service the roaring trade that followed, Beche-de-mer fishing (Sea Cucumber)


The north Queensland coast attracted many Beche-de-mer (sea cucumber) fishermen for 100’s of years. These sea slugs were harvested and dried then shipped to Asia where they are used for cooking. By the 1880’s the trade had really grown. On an island known as Lizard Island 97km north of Cooktown a camp was set up by Captain Robert Watson with his wife, a servant and baby daughter, they built a cottage on Lizard Island. The ruins are still visible today. Captain Watson a Beche-de-mer (sea cucumber) fisherman,  during one of his absences Aborigines from the mainland attacked their cottage. The Aboriginals were used to travelling to Lizard Island to collect Goanna and Lace Monitor lizards for their oil. Mrs. Watson, accompanied by her child and a Chinese servant fled the island attack for the mainland, in a barrel used for boiling Beche-de-mer. The vessel floated away from the coast, they continued away from another island where they saw more natives then onto another small island. All three died of thirst.


The invasion of the pastoral industry to Cape York for the Aboriginal people must have been the biggest shock to their lifestyle after the mining period. Stock driven from the south were brought to Cape York, large stations were established by early European pioneers on crown leases. Fencing went up and large tracts of land we blocked out to its former owners.

The Pastoral industry was tough going for the early pioneers. Heavily debit burdened farmers established stations across Cape York under harsh conditions. Initially attracted by the governments reports of vast plains of grassland and an abundance of water there was little or no mention of the wet season, flooding rivers and plains, English live stock not being able to withstand the conditions and strong-willed Aborigines in any of these reports. All resulting in a number of stations later being abandoned and the Native Police force being established.

Today the cattle industry is a major economic industry for the region for both European and Aboriginal Australians.

The cemetery of Cooktown is the final resting place for many of the diverse nationalities, religions and cultures that inhabited this pioneering frontier region. The stories that unfold bear witness to the tragedies, triumphs and mysteries experienced by the people in times of exploration and adventure. Many of the events and individuals that contributed to the Cooktown regions development are recorded at the cemetery. James Cook Museum (open all year) and the former Council Chambers (Cooktown Historical Societies seasonal display). Learn about the past inhabitants of Cooktown and the surrounds and their exciting adventures. If you are looking for relatives the Historical Centre has an archive room to assist contact them on Tel: +61-7-4069-5888.

During the Endeavour’s voyage, Banks & Solander studied the plant life of the Cooktown region and made detailed notes. Years later, during the gold rush, the plant life was again studied, land set aside by the Queensland government to protect and study the environment enabled one of the oldest botanic gardens in Australia to be established. Today, the Botanic gardens are a lovely collection of Cape York plant life and can be seen with just a short walk from the town centre and from Natures Power House.

Regional History