The rise and fall of a frontier mining town: Cooktown 1873-85

Ormston, Robert (1996). The rise and fall of a frontier mining town: Cooktown 1873-85 PhD Thesis, School of History, Philosophy, Religion, and Classics, The University of Queensland.

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Author Ormston, Robert
Thesis Title The rise and fall of a frontier mining town: Cooktown 1873-85
School, Centre or Institute School of History, Philosophy, Religion, and Classics
Institution The University of Queensland
Publication date 1996
Thesis type PhD Thesis
Open Access Status File (Publisher version)
Supervisor John Laverty
Ross Johnston
Total pages 389
Language eng
Subjects 8402 Primary Mining and Extraction Processes of Mineral Resources
210303 Australian History (excl. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander History)
Formatted abstract
Cooktown today is a small, somewhat isolated town on the eastern coast of Far North Queensland. Its main functions are as the service centre for a variety of properties and settlements on Cape York Peninsula, and as a tourist gateway both to the Cape and the nearby Great Barrier Reef But in its heyday, in the mid 1870s, Cooktown was a bustling frontier town, providing the entry point and service centre for the Palmer River goldfields. At its peak, it boasted a population of some 4,000 people and was not infrequently touted as the potential capital of Far North Queensland.

This thesis examines why Cooktown failed to live up to its expectations and why, by the mid 1880s, the town had become but a shadow of its former self The hypothesis is that many of Cooktown's early settlers, who were typically small-scale European merchants or artisans, were attracted to the town by the prospect of making a quick fortune from the passing trade of would-be miners en route to the Palmer River goldfields. Once established as part of the Cooktown business community, the more successful businessmen (and there were almost no women) found that their relative prosperity brought with it a degree of social and civic respectability generally far beyond an5rthing they could have aspired to in larger, southern towns.

Very few of the town's early key figures, though, had the entrepreneurial skills or vision to see beyond their own limited achievements or that of Cooktown as the service centre for the Palmer River goldfields. Moreover, early Cooktown's civic leaders tended to be those with the time and social pretensions to be involved, rather than those best able to represent the longer term interests of the town. The result was that few efforts were made to diversify the town's economic base, beyond its commercial links with the Palmer. So once the Palmer slid into decline, in the late 1870s, Cooktown followed.

It is, of course, easy to be wise with the benefit of hindsight, and to be critical of individuals who were no doubt doing what they thought best at the time. It is also true that there were probably only limited diversification opportunities in the 1870s and 1880s for a small coastal settlement like Cooktown. Less easily explained is why the authorities in Brisbane seem generally to have been taken in by the hyperbole coming from 'boosters' in Cooktown, years after the town was already in decline, and why the Government continued to expend money on what proved to be ill-fated ventures, notably the railway line to Laura. The most likely explanation would seem to be that it was because of the 'tyranny of distance', combined with bureaucratic inertia.

In pursuing its central theme, the study also addresses a range of other issues relating to the early development of Cooktown. They include early European contact and subsequent relations with the Aboriginal population of the area; the physical growth of Cooktown and its business community; the sociological formation and development of the town community; the economic nexus between Cooktown and the Palmer River goldfields; and the role played by Cooktown in the wider development of Queensland during the 1870s and early 1880s. In considering such issues, the study does not pretend to provide a comprehensive account of early Cooktown. Rather, it attempts to determine the extent to which the Cooktown experience 'fits' the wider, traditional interpretations of local, regional and Queensland history. It also attempts to identify themes or trends not previously articulated, but which may have relevance beyond Cooktown.

Probably the most significant conclusion to emerge is the under-rated role of the Chinese in the early development of Cooktown. Certainly, there are numerous, popular accounts of Chinese miners flocking to the Palmer River gold-rush. But less well known is that the Chinese at times made up at least one third of the population of Cooktown. And for several critical years, Chinese merchants, shop-keepers and small-businessmen played a key role in the town's commercial life. The study concludes that around 60 per cent of the value of gold mined at the Palmer between 1873 and 1885 ended up in Chinese hands, either in Cooktown or in China itself.

More generally, the study suggests that early Cooktown was typical of many other small coastal towns, both in Queensland and elsewhere in Australia. Indeed, one of the key aims of the study has been to analyse early Cooktown in terms of experiences elsewhere, in order to enable some meaningful comparisons to be made. Moreover, through the use of quantification, the study attempts to provide some benchmarks to support such comparative analyses. Clearly, early Cooktown was only one of a number of settlements contributing to the wider development of Queensland in the 1870s and 1880s. This study hopefully enables its relative importance to be better understood within that larger context.
Keyword Cooktown (Qld.) -- History
Queensland -- History -- 1859-1901
Mines and mineral resources -- Queensland -- History
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