Port History

Born out of the pastoral industries’ need to have close and obstacle free access to a harbour, the Port of Townsville has a rich and deep history of delivering leading returns for its stakeholders.

From Harbour Board, to Port Authority, to Port of Townsville Limited, our organisational focus has always been to provide innovative and effective port services through the sound management of an efficient and customer-focused port.

Below is a summary of key milestones in the more than 140-year history of the Port of Townsville.


John Melton Black, employed by Robert Towns at Woodstock Station, despatches Andrew Ball, Mark Watt Reid and a small party of Aboriginals to search for a site where a suitable port could be established.

Ball's party reached the mouth of Ross Creek in April 1864, setting up camp below the rocky spur of Melton Hill (near the present Customs House on The Strand). After further exploration of the surrounding area, Ball returned to Woodstock Station and reported the discovery of a favourable site for settlement.

The first party of settlers, led by W.A. Ross, arrived at Cleveland Bay from Woodstock Station on 5 November. Andrew Ball also returned to help establish the settlement that would become Townsville.


The first road to the hinterland was opened. This road provided pastoral properties in the hinterland with direct access to the Port.


Cyclone Sigma struck Townsville on 26 November, causing significant damage to the port and prompting the formation of the Townsville Harbour Board.


The port’s initial period of growth following the establishment of the Harbour Board ends when tightening government finances bring all port improvements to a halt.

Development work, including concrete wharves for the inner harbour, recommences in 1905 but is then abandoned in favour of developing a new outer harbour to accommodate the larger vessels visiting Townsville.

The move to the new outer harbour saw a marked increase in building, dredging, and operations, including the construction of a 150 metre concrete pier opposite the original jetty and a large cargo shed in 1913.


The First World War was followed by a period of industrial unrest in the region, and both events caused a huge drop off in port trade from 1915 until 1921.

In 1924, the last of the small coastal steamers which plied trade between Townsville and Cooktown ceased operating, and with it, the last of the activity in the inner harbour.

The massive mineral reserves at Mount Isa were first tapped in the late 1920’s, and Townsville became the single export point for all produce. The Eastern Jetty was extended by 220 metres, rail tracks laid along it, and a 20-tonne electric crane commissioned specifically to transport the Mount Isa Mines (now Xstrata) products.

In 1929, Shell and Vacuum Oil Pty. Ltd. began the first bulk oil trade into the city. This area of port operations continued to grow and by the 1960's Mobil, Caltex, BP, Ampol, Amco, and HC Sleigh were all using the port to import oil and petroleum products.

A depot to store up to 10,000 tonnes of zinc concentrate was constructed in 1936, and while the character of the port was becoming increasingly industrial, luxury interstate and international liners continued to visit Townsville.


Townsville’s strategically critical location see port activity greatly increased during WWII, with more than 1 million tonnes of war supplies and some 300,000 tonnes of fuel passing through the port up to 1943.

The war-time focus comes with issues of congestion, however, and many ships spend considerable time at anchor in Cleveland Bay despite double shifts and two extra dredges at work to deepen the Platypus Channel.

Following WWII, the Harbour Board replaces its tug the Alert, which had served the port since 1908, but materials shortages delay other major building and development work until 1951.


During the 1950’s, the Eastern Breakwater was widened using rock blasted from Pilot Hill and Mount Isa Mines significantly grew the size of its zinc concentrate depot, adding a discharging ramp and roofing to the structure.

The largest single project undertaken in the decade was the construction of the Townsville Bulk Sugar Terminal.

The terminal was completed in 1959 and operated until 1963 when, in May, a fire destroyed the facility – belying the belief that raw sugar could not burn. The facility was rebuilt in 1963 and a second bulk sugar shed was added in 1965.

That year also saw the commissioning of a dedicated oil tanker berth (Berth 1), closely followed by bulk zinc concentrate loading facilities in 1966 (Berth 7).


Reclamation of an additional 170 acres in 1967 provided space for the expansion of oil facilities, development of prawn and fish processing works, an LPG terminal, and a bulk steel store.

The face of the Port of Townsville changed dramatically in 1969 with the introduction of the region’s first roll-on/roll-off terminal for containers and vehicles.


Cyclone Althea on Christmas Eve 1971 disabled port operations for days, with power cut, all navigation beacons wrecked, many vessels damaged and the Port Control Building completely destroyed. While much of the damage was quickly repaired, the new Port Control Building took more than a year to rebuild.

The Mount Isa Mines loading facilities were again upgraded in 1972 to accommodate product in containers and unit loads. The Harbour Board installed a giant container crane with a net lifting capacity of 55 tons in 1974.


The reclamation of 9.1 hectares adjacent to the Eastern Breakwater commenced in 1980 allowing land for a new container terminal, LPG terminals, and an aqua ammonia terminal. At the same time, a second public boat ramp increased recreational access to the port and Cleveland Bay for the Townsville public.

The 1980’s brought major redevelopment and expansion with a major upgrade of the bulk sugar terminal, a new bulk minerals handling facility for Mount Isa Mines, the relocation of the growing commercial fishing fleet to new moorings in Ross Creek, and construction of a new Eastern Breakwater.

On 1 January 1987, the Townsville Harbour Board became the Townsville Port Authority. By this time, oil, sugar, and minerals accounted for more than 95 per cent of port throughput, and trade records were consistently being rewritten.

Port facilities were also extended and expanded to cater for Panamax class cargo vessels and more than $2 million was spent lengthening Berth 9 for this purpose. The port could accommodate up to four ships of this type simultaneously.


By December 1997 BHP World Minerals had constructed Berth 11, Townsville’s first outer harbour berth, to handle mineral concentrates from Cannington mine in northwest Queensland.

New administration offices for the Townsville Port Authority opened at 21 Walker Street on 14 August 1997, while in October 1998 construction began on the Sun Metals Corporation zinc refinery at Stuart.
In late 1999, a new $1.22 million Townsville Port Authority Administration building was constructed in the port precinct, a move which consolidated operations from the city heart to the port environs.


In September 2003, a newly-constructed 400,000 tonne capacity bulk sugar storage shed accepted its first raw sugar supplies from Giru’s Invicta mill bound for Japan. The construction of the $50 million shed took 17 months to complete, and involved around 23,000 cubic metres of reinforced concrete, and 2,000 tonnes of structural steel.

Measuring 376 metres by 100 metres and 30 metres high, the shed has 1,800 tonne per hour in-loading design, and 2,800 tonne per hour reclaim to the ship-loader. It also features a multi-million dollar, state of the art fire safety system – the first of its kind in Queensland.

On 1 July 2004, new security measures were introduced at the Port of Townsville in compliance with Maritime Security Legislation to safeguard maritime transport and protect ships, ports, and port facilities.