A Brief History of Port Douglas

Port Douglas was established as a township in 1877. It was named after the then premier of Queensland, John Douglas, and people flocked here to make their fortunes in the nearby goldfields. By the 1880s there was a school, a church, a hospital, two newspapers, 23 licenced hotels and a population of 12,000. (That’s about 8500 more people than are resident today.) But when the railway line from Brisbane was halted at Cairns, the town’s fortunes changed. The population dwindled, then the 1911 cyclone demolished all but a handful of its buildings. Its main purpose became a sugar port, and by the 1960s, Port Douglas was no more than a fishing village, with a population of just 100. But fate was about to take another turn, when developers including the late Christopher Skase spotted its potential as a holiday resort in the 1970 and ’80s. And the rest, as they say…

You can explore the colourful history of Port Douglas at a number of sites around town, all within walking distance of Freestyle Resort.

Wander down Macrossan Street to Anzac Park and you’ll find St Mary’s by the Sea. This multi-denominational church was built in 1914. It was saved from the demolishers by a local campaign, refurbished and relocated to its waterfront location in 1988. Head east from here and you’ll pass the Port Douglas War Memorial – commemorating the soldiers of Port Douglas and district who served and fell in the Great War – before you come to the original Port Douglas Court House. Built in 1879, it’s now a museum that stages the story of local woman Ellen Thomson, the only female ever to be hanged in Queensland. Across Wharf Street, you might like to stop for a refresher at the Court House Hotel, the oldest hotel in Port Douglas, which harks back to 1878 (rebuilt after the cyclone in 1911).

Back on Wharf Street, head up the hill and keep your eyes open for the signpost to Flagstaff Hill Lighthouse. What it lacks in stature, it makes up for in views.

History buffs may also be interested in a trip up Davidson Street (heading out of town) to the Pioneer Cemetery, where the earliest headstone is dated 1878. It is also the final resting place of William Thompson who ‘met his death by cruel and treacherous murder’ at the hands of his wife (see above). Investigations subsequent to their deaths suggest this may not actually have been the case.


Did you know?

  • Former US president Bill Clinton was at the Central Hotel on Macrossan Street on September 11 2001, when he was informed of the 9/11 attacks.
  • The video clip for Kylie Minogue’s 1988 single It’s No Secret was filmed in Port Douglas.
  • Steve Irwin was making a documentary at Batt Reef off Port Douglas in September 2006 when he was killed by the barb of a stingray.
  • Port Douglas has served as the location for a number of high profile films, including Paradise Road (1997), The Thin Red Line (1998), Fools Gold (2008) and the Netflix series, Dive Club (2021).

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