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Port History

Page last updated on 02-09-2021.

Port History

Before the Port

Traditional owners and custodians, the Gurambilbarra and Wulgurukaba people, are the first people to have lived in the region where the Townsville Port is located. The Bindal, Juru and Nywaigi group also lived in or near the Townsville region and the Warrgamay people lived to the north in an area around Halifax Bay (Margaret Heuschele, In the Shadow of Castle Hill, Townsville Library Service, 2000).

The Wulgurukaba people call their country Gurambilbarra. Wulgurukaba means ‘canoe people’. An important symbol of the Gurambilbarra and Wulgurukaba people is the carpet snake called ‘Gabul’. 

The story of Gabul is an Aboriginal myth that explains the creation of lands throughout the Townsville region. As Gabul traversed the land, he endowed it with its physical forms, language, law and other cultural properties. Gabul is believed to have travelled down from the North to Palm Island and rested in one of its deep pools.

When the daughter of a Clever Man swam in the pool, Gabul swallowed her before continuing his travels. As the Clever Man searched for his daughter, he followed Gabul’s track around the back of Mt Bentley and down Carpet Snake Creek. When Gabul rested, he created these places along with Barber, Esk, Brisk, Falcon, Havannah, Rattlesnake, Saddle Back, Herald and Magnetic Islands.

The Clever Man finally caught up with Gabul on Magnetic Island and, although he wanted revenge, reached an agreement with Gabul to not kill him. Instead, he used his magic to make the Snake disgorge the girl. When the girl was freed, Gabul then continued up Ross River and the Clever Man and his daughter returned to their family on Great Palm Island.

(Adapted from Draft Magnetic Island Connection Report).

The Need for a Port

Within 70 years of the first European settlement at Port Jackson in New South Wales in 1788, the economic potential of Northern Australia had become apparent. The 1860s was therefore a decade of growth in north and western Queensland. This was the decade that saw the spread of the pastoral and mining industries in the new colony of Queensland, and those industries needed a reliable Port to get their product to market.

Townsville’s port was established at the mouth of Ross Creek in 1864, two years before the settlement of Townsville was established. From its inception, the Port of Townsville has grown to be Northern Australia’s largest multi-cargo Port.

Beginnings (1864 - 1900)

Two names are prominent in the European settlement of the Townsville region; merchant and entrepreneur Robert Towns and the owner of Woodstock Station John Melton-Black.

John Melton-Black and Robert Towns were business partners who both had interests in the Cleveland Bay area. After losing interest in developing a cotton industry around Brisbane, Robert Towns concentrated his business interests in North Queensland, envisaging his own ships carrying his own wool out of his own harbour.

In 1864, John Melton-Black sent Andrew Ball, Mark Watt Reid and a small party of Aboriginals to search for a suitable location for a Port.  The party reached the mouth of what is now named Ross Creek in April of that year, setting up camp below the rocky spur of Melton Hill (near the current location of the Customs House on the Strand). Later in 1864, based on a favourable report from Ball, the first party of European settlers led by William Ross set off from Woodstock Station for Cleveland Bay. Andrew Ball also returned to help create the settlement that would become Townsville, with the project’s financing provided by Robert Towns.

Named the Port of Thuringowa due to its location in the large rural shire, the infant Port’s commercial success depended on reliable transport links. The construction of a road between the Port and the hinterland in 1865 provided a direct route between pastoral properties and Port. This would be followed in later years by rail links to the north, south and west. The establishment of a Port in Cleveland Bay also meant less reliance on Port Denison (Bowen) to the south, and Cardwell to the north as the transport hubs in the region.

A year after establishing the ‘Port of Thuringowa’ (now the Port of Townsville) in 1864, they had established a wool store, wharf and boiling-down works and owned the adjoining land. The colonial Queensland Government named the settlement Townsville.

Having a Port at Ross Creek meant that farmers and miners would not have to rely on the other Ports already in the region – Port Denison (Bowen) and Cardwell. Townsville also had a sustainable supply or rock that could be quarried to build Port infrastructure.

By the late 1800s, breakwaters had been built to protect vessels entering Ross Creek.

The creation of a Harbour Board for Townsville was prompted by Cyclone Sigma in 1896, which caused significant damage to the Port and settlement. The Harbour Board became responsible for overseeing the growth of the Port.

Early Challenges (1900 - 1913)

The first 30 years of growth for the Port of Townsville were followed by a tightening of government finances that halted all Port improvements. Work on concrete wharves for the inner harbour in Ross Creek recommenced in 1905. However, this was abandoned in 1911 in favour of developing a new outer harbour at the mouth of Ross Creek to accommodate larger vessels that were visiting Townsville.

The development of the outer harbour was marked by increased building, dredging and operations that included the construction of a 150-metre concrete pier opposite the original jetty, as well as a large cargo shed in 2013.

War and resurgence (1913-1930)

Word War 1 (1914-1918) was a social and economic watershed not only in Europe, but also in Australia. The war itself, and a period of industrial unrest from 1915 to 1921, led to a huge reduction in Port trade.

The economic decline was exacerbated by the end of coastal steamer operations between Townsville and Cooktown in 1924. This was the end of shipping in the inner harbour.

A resurgence in the fortunes of Townsville and its Port came from the small but growing mining town of Mount Isa, some 900km inland. The copper, silver, lead and zinc deposits at Mount Isa had begun to be tapped in the late 1920s, and Townsville was chosen as the preferred single export point for all product.

The surge in mineral exports required changes at the Port, including the extension of the Eastern Jetty by 220 metres, complete with rail tracks along it and a 20-tonne electric crane commissioned to move the Mount Isa Mines product. A depot to store up to 10,000 tonnes of zinc concentrate was built in 1936.

The Port continues to play a key role in the supply chain for Queensland’s North West minerals province.

In a sign of the times of the growth in vehicles and machinery powered with fuel, Shell and Vacuum Oil Pty Ltd began the first bulk oil trade into Townsville in 1929. Over the next 40 years, Mobil, Caltex, BP, Ampol, Amco and HC Sleigh began importing oil and petroleum products through Townsville.

Even though the character of the Port was becoming increasingly industrial,

Townsville still saw visits from many luxury interstate and international cruise lines through this period.

World War 2 (1939 - 1945)

Townsville’s strategic location in Australia’s north was a major reason for greatly increased activity in the Port during the second world war, with more than 1 million tonnes of war supplies (including 300,000 tonnes of fuel) passing through the Port up to 1943. During the war, Townsville and the surrounding region were the base for large numbers of Australian and American forces.

Congestion in the Port was a significant problem during the war, despite double-shifts and two extra dredges working to deepen the Platypus shipping channel. It was not uncommon to see many ships at anchor in Cleveland Bay waiting their turn to enter the Port.

Following the war, the Harbour Board replaced its tug ‘Alert’ which had served the Port since 1908. Material shortages and delays in building and development work continued until 1951.

Infrastructure Expansion (1950 - 1969)

Rock blasted from Pilot Hill was used to widen the Eastern Breakwater during the 1950s. Mount Isa Mines increased the size of its zinc concentrate depot by adding a discharging ramp and roofing to the structure.

The largest single project undertaken at the Port during the 1950s was the construction of the Townsville Bulk Sugar Terminal which was completed in 1959. The terminal operated for only four years before it was destroyed by fire.

This disastrous fire in 1963, which lasted for five days, required the assistance of fire fighters as far away as Cairns, Innisfail, Proserpine, nearby sugar mills, the Australian Defence Force and the visiting US destroyer USS Somers before it was extinguished. The cost of the fire was estimated to be £6 million, with 77,500 tonnes of sugar lost. 

After the sugar terminal disaster, fire authorities throughout Queensland worked towards standardising all fire equipment in the state. Firefighting equipment was also installed in sugar storage terminals to mitigate the risk of the disaster being repeated.

The rebuilding of the sugar terminal was followed by the construction of a second bulk sugar shed 1965. The same year, a dedicated oil tanker berth (Berth 1) was also commissioned. This was closely followed by the addition of bulk zinc concentrate loading facilities (Berth 7) in 1966.

Reclamation of an additional 69 hectares in 1967 provided space for expanded oil facilities, the development of prawn and fish processing works, an LPG terminal and bulk steel store.

A dramatic change for the Port occurred in 1969 with the introduction of the region’s first roll on / roll off terminal for containers and vehicles. 

Cyclones & Recovery (1971 - 1974)

The Christmas Eve 1971, Cyclone Althea caused devastation in Townsville and the surrounding region. Operations at the Port were disabled, power was cut, all navigation beacons wrecked, and the Port Control Building destroyed. While much of the damage was quickly repaired, the new Port Control Building took more than a year to rebuild.

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

A Time for Change (1980 - 2000)

The reclamation of over 9 hectares of land adjacent to the Eastern Breakwater commenced in 1980, allowing land for a new container terminal, LPG terminals and an aqua ammonia terminal. A second public boat ramp in Ross Creek increased access for recreational boats to the Port and Cleveland Bay.

More changes at the Port included an upgrade to the bulk sugar terminal, a new bulk mineral handling facility for Mount Isa Mines, the relocation of the growing commercial fishing fleet to new moorings in Ross Creek and the construction of a new Easter Breakwater.

After 91 years, the Townsville Harbour Board became the Townsville Port Authority on 1 January 1987. By this time, oil, sugar and minerals accounted for more than 95 percent of Port business, and trade records were being constantly re-written.

Port facilities were also expanded to cater for Panamax class cargo vessels, with more than $2 million expended to lengthen Berth 9 for this purpose. This meant that the Port could simultaneously accommodate four vessels of this type.

In 1993 a location in Cleveland Bay, approximately 15km from the mainland, was approved for the placement of maintenance dredge material. The area, known as the Dredge Material Placement Area, was selected in consultation with the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, James Cook University, the Australian Institute of Marine Science and government regulators.

In 1997, new offices for the Port Authority opened at 21 Walker Street in Townsville’s CBD. The following year, Sun Metals Corporation’s zinc refinery began construction at Stuart, making the company another of the Port’s major customers.

The same year, BHP World Minerals began construction of a fit-for-purpose berth at the entrance to the harbour to handle its exports of mineral concentrates from Cannington Mine near Julia Creek. Berth 11, as it is known, was commissioned in 1999.

In late 1999, a new $1.22 million Townsville Port Authority administration building was constructed within the Port precinct. This relocation of the Port’s administration offices from the Townsville CBD consolidated the Port Authority’s operations within the Port.

Entering a New Century (2000 - 2020)

The first two decades of the 21st Century have been marked by major infrastructure changes and an expansion of the Port’s footprint through reclamation as well as the incorporation of the Port of Lucinda into the Port of Townsville.

In September 2003, the newly constructed 400,000 tonne capacity bulk sugar storage shed accepted its first raw sugar supplies from Giru’s Invicta Mill, bound for Japan.

A Master Plan for the Port was commissioned in 2007 to examine trade forecasts to 2030. The Master Plan was based on a prediction that the Port would need to expand in order to facilitate North Queensland’s future trade requirements.

In 2009 the Port created an 8-hectare Environment Park in South Townsville to act as a nature-buffer between residents and the Port. In 2017, a noise abatement fence was built along the boundary of the park to future reduce noise impacts on residents.

On 1 July 2009, the management of the Port of Lucinda transferred from Ports Corporation of Queensland (now known as North Queensland Bulk Ports Corporation) to the Port of Townsville. The Port of Lucinda, located 100km north of Townsville, handles sugar exports from the Hinchinbrook region.

Upgrades were made to berths 4, 8 and 10 at the Port of Townsville, whilst berth 6/7 was demolished in 2016 to create more space for vessel movement in the inner harbour.

The Townsville Marine Precinct (TMP), completed in 2013, was constructed at the mouth of the Ross River. The TMP provides a purpose-built base for Townsville’s commercial fishing fleet, marine fabrication and repair industries. It also provides facilities for marine research facilities and other marine operators.

The completion of the Quayside Terminal as a specialised facility for white (cruise) and grey (Navy) ships at Berth 10 in 2014 resulted in increased visitation by these types of vessels. The growing number of cruise ships calling at the Port has also represented an important contribution towards the local economy.

In response to the changing nature of global security, the Port introduced new measures in compliance with Maritime Security Legislation to safeguard maritime transport and to protect ships, Ports, and Port facilities.

In a period where awareness of climate change and environmental sustainability have been a global focus, the Port has made environmental management a key priority for its land-based and marine activities.  For over 20 years, the Port has committed to comprehensive monitoring programs in and around the Port and Cleveland Bay. In 2007, the Port’s Environmental Management System received International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO) 14001:2015 accreditation. 

As part of the Channel Upgrade project, an investment of $17 million for the monitoring of marine water quality, corals, seagrass, inshore dolphins, megafauna and shore birds in Cleveland Bay will see environmental monitoring expand significantly. All water-related environmental data collected by the Port is also shared with the Dry Tropics Partnerships for Healthy Waters; a body that was created in 2018.

The Port's Future (2020 >)

Since its foundation in 1864, the Port has continually evolved in line with the growth of the region it services.

Port Vision 2050 is the Port of Townsville Limited’s strategic plan which has been devised to ensure that the Port continues to meet the growing demands of North Queensland, with a strong focus on care for the marine and land environment.

The Port also recognises the importance of its connection with the Townsville community. A focus of future developments will incorporate ways to give the community greater access to the Port.

The three-decade Port Expansion Project will ensure that the Port meets the growing demands of North Queensland, with the capacity for up to six extra berths in the outer harbour. The first stage of this $1.6 billion project is the $251 million Channel Upgrade project that will deliver a wider shipping channel for Townsville, as well as a 62-hectare reclamation area.

The Channel Upgrade project is a joint project of the Queensland and Australian Governments, and Port of Townsville, and forms part of the Townsville City Deal, signed in 2016. The project was approved in 2018, with funding provided by the Federal Government ($75 million), the Queensland Government ($105 million) and Port of Townsville Limited ($71 million).

The Channel Upgrade is scheduled for completion in early 2024, when vessels up to 300 metres in length will be able to safely access the Port, instead of bypassing Townsville. Before channel widening, the vessel length limit was 238 metres.


You can find out more about the Port’s history by visiting the Maritime Museum of Townsville.