History of Fraser Island (K’gari)

The history of Fraser Island and Cooloola has been recorded many times in many ways.  It concerns the fate of the Aborigines following white settlement, the timber industry, the shipping industry, the tourist industry, and the mineral industry.  This chronology is constructed to provide a better integrated understanding of the major events that were occurring.

Part 1 – Pre Eliza Fraser

Part 2 – 1803 – 1900

Part 3 – 1900 – 2015

Fraser Island (K’gari)’s Post-Contact History

The first recorded Europeans to sight the region were Captain Cook and the crew of the “Endeavour” in 1770.

A Portuguese chart published in 1536 showed what is believed to correspond with Fraser Island as an island.  This has been interpreted to identify a sandy island believed to be Fraser Island.

Lead, identified as having come from the Iberian Peninsula has been found in an old buried shoreline near Hook Point on Fraser Island, amongst pumice believed to have been deposited about 1500.  Records of any Portuguese exploration may have been destroyed in the Lisbon earthquake in 1755.

Two clay pipes discovered in middens near Indian Head on Fraser Island were of the type used by 17th century Dutch navigators for trading.  These suggest some Dutch contacts with its Aborigines in the 17th Century.

These suggest some earlier undocumented European exploration of the region prior to Captain Cook’s voyage in the “Endeavour”.

Cook carefully recorded his observations in his journal.  On 19 May 1770, Cook named Double Island Point, “on account of its figure” He recorded:

“The land within this Point itself is of moderate and pretty equal height, but the Point itself is of such an unequal height that it looks like two small islands lying under the land; it likewise may be known by the white cliffs of the north side of it.  Here the land trends to the north-west and forms a large open bay.”

On he journeys past Fraser Island he noted:

“The land hereabouts, which is of moderate height, appears more barren than any we have seen on this coast, and the soil more sandy, there being several large places where nothing else is to be seen.  In other places the woods look to be low and shrubby, nor did we see many signs of inhabitants.”

Sir Joseph Banks, who accompanied Cook as botanist of this voyage, described the Cooloola Sand Patch:

Land this morning very sandy.  We could see through our glasses that the sands which lay in great patches of many acres, each were movable.  Some of them had been lately moved, for trees which stood up in the middle of them were quite green; others of a longer standing had many stumps sticking out of them which had been trees killed by the sand heaping about their roots.”

The Aborigines had travelled along the beach on foot following the passage of the “Endeavour”.  They assembled on Indian Head to get a vantage view.  Cook observed them there and re-named the headland known to the Aborigines as Tuckee, Indian Head after the number of Aborigines (or as he nominated them “indians”) assembled there.  The Aborigines made their own record of that event.  Instead of writing it in a diary, they composed a poetic account to be preserved in corroboree.

“These strangers, where are they going?

Where are they trying to steer;

They must be in that place, Thoorvour*, it is true.

See the smoke coming in from the sea.

These men must be burying themselves like the sand crabs.

They disappeared like the smoke.

*     Thoorvour = Breaksea Spit

Fortunately, Armitage recorded the corroboree before the demise of the tribe and it now remains one of the few Butchalla songs to have survived.

Captain Cook was also responsible for naming Wide Bay, Sandy Cape, Breaksea Spit and Hervey Bay.

Lieutenant Matthew Flinders in 1797 and 1802 also charted the eastern shoreline, naming Woody Island, Arch Cliffs and Great Sandy Peninsula.  Neither Cook nor Flinders established that Fraser Island was separated from the mainland.

The region was also briefly visited in 1822 by William Edwardson who sailed through Great Sandy Strait to establish that Cook’s “Great Sandy Peninsula” that it was an island — the Great Sandy Island.

Escaped convicts from the Moreton Bay settlement visited and settled in the area between 1828 and 1842.  They sought to avoid the tyranny of the penal life by living with the Aborigines.

The Great Sandy Region first attracted national and international attention in 1836, when survivors of the vessel “Stirling Castle” brought news of their encounters with Aborigines of the region following their rescue.  The Stirling Castle was wrecked on the Great Barrier Reef hundreds of kilometres north of the Great Sandy Region.

After six weeks at sea in an open boat trying to reach Moreton Bay, some survivors brought their pinnace ashore near Waddy Point for water and food.  The subsequent alleged murder of James Fraser, captain of the Stirling Castle, and some of the crew by Aborigines, then the rescue of the captain’s wife, Eliza Fraser, near Lake Cootharaba, resulted in the island being named “Fraser Island”, although the name “Great Sandy Island” was still retained on maps.

Andrew Petrie reported on Fraser Island’s superb timber resource in 1842.  Petrie’s exploration led to the settlements at Maryborough and along the Mary River.  However, this European invasion did not intrude significantly into the Great Sandy Region and the lifestyles of the Aborigines until its timber began to be exploited two decades later.

More permanent contacts were made following the establishment of the settlement of the Mary River district (later in 1842), the opening of Great Sandy Strait as an international shipping lane and the discovery of gold at Gympie (in 1867).

The expansion of European settlement resulted in a rapid degradation and then disintegration of the Aboriginal culture and traditional lifestyle.  It was accompanied by a decimation of the Aboriginal population.  During the first 150 years of European settlement, little anthropological and archaeological data was recorded.  This deficiency resulted in the rapid loss of some invaluable and irreplaceable cultural records.


In 1863, Tom Petrie liaised with the Aborigines to enable William Pettigrew to asses the alleged timber potential of Fraser Island.  With his partner Pettigrew immediately established a sawmill at Dundathu on the banks of the Mary River to exploit of Fraser Island’s kauri pine.  Within a decade Pettigrew and Sims had established a steam tramway system in Cooloola.  Between 1873 and 1884 this took timber from the Broutha Scrub north to Poverty Point on the shores of Tin Can Bay.  Logs were rafted up Tin Can Bay and Great Sandy Strait to their mill which operated for about 50 years.

In 1866, the sawmilling firm, Wilson Hart, began in Maryborough, also drawing timber from Fraser Island.  Another Maryborough firm, Hyne and Son, began taking timber from Fraser Island soon afterwards.  Hyne & Son continues to take half its hardwood timber resource for its Maryborough mill from Fraser Island.  In 1985 the old Wilson Hart sawmill changed names and ownership and was relocated to Hervey Bay where it continues to draw half its log supply from Fraser Island.

Although the whole of the island was gazetted as an Aboriginal Reserve in 1860, this was rescinded after commercial timber-getting began.  The timber was first harvested by “Yankee Jack Piggot¨ who, one year later, was speared by Aborigines on Fraser Island.

Kauri pine, (Agathis robusta) or Dundathu” as it was called by the Aborigines and white beech (Gmelina leichhardtii) were the first targets for exploitation of the region.

Timber operations began in Cooloola in 1869, when a sawmill was established at Mill Point near Elanda Point on the shores of Lake Cootharaba.  This processed Cooloola timber rafted down the Noosa River.  Increased demand for timber particularly resulting from the 1867 Gympie Gold rush led to increased demand for timber from Cooloola which led to the exploitation of hardwood stands of blackbutt (Eucalyptus pilularis) and satinay (Syncarpia hillii).

In 1873, Pettigrew and Sims constructed the first private railway in Queensland in Cooloola.  The locomotive “Mary Ann”, the first ever built in Queensland.  The rails were spotted gum set into slots in cypress pine sleepers held together with wedges.  Bullock teams were used in conjunction with the wooden rail tramway.  Protected by the unburnt damp of a rainforest, the remains of these rails can still be seen today some 10 km from the terminus at Poverty Point.  Some of the cuttings and embankments once used by the railway, a few hundred metres east of Camp Milo, are still in use.  Logs from Cooloola continued to be rafted from Tin Can Bay up Sandy Strait to Maryborough until the 1930’s.

Between 1882 and 1884, some plantation work was undertaken on Fraser Island by the Mitchell brothers.  The first permanent Department of Forestry camp was established in 1913 at Dipuying on Bogimbah Creek.  In 1919, McKenzies’s wharf and sawmill were established on the west coast.  This sawmill operated until 1925.

Tramlines played a major part in transporting timber from the forests to McKenzies Jetty and to other loading points until the 1930’s, when motorized transport took over.  Since the closure of McKenzies’s sawmill all of the logs have been taken to Maryborough by barge.

There are a number of relics of the timber industry still evident in the regions which are significant artefacts in pioneering new technology for modern exploitation.  Relics include log haulers and path ways, old sawmills, tramlines and jetties.

In 1920, the first detailed timber resource survey of Fraser Island was made.  By 1948, 70% of the previously estimated timber reserves had been removed. There have been two detailed inventories since, in 1958 and 1977, and from 1968 the annual removal of forest timber from Fraser Island had averaged 21,000 cubic metres.

Other uses

In 1893, the Australian Association for the Advancement of Science nominated the whole of Fraser Island as one of four outstanding areas of Australia most suitable for national parks.  The pre-eminence of the timber industry prevented this option being pursued for another half century.

In the 1890’s, a gun was sited across the Great Sandy Strait from Balarrgan to repel potential Russian invaders who, it was feared, might attempt to sail up the Mary River.  Balarrgan has been the site of the first mission station, quarantine station, Forestry headquarters and sawmill.  It was the site of the first land rights conflict between Aborigines and Europeans in 1897.

During the second world war, one of Australia’s most famous military commando units, Z Force, trained on Fraser Island.  It also was based at Balarrgan, near the deteriorating McKenzie’s Jetty.  A number of relics from their training are still preserved there.

Because of poor access and communication, and a lack of appreciation of the aesthetic qualities and wilderness values, tourism on Fraser Island developed very slowly.  A resort developed during the 1930’s at Happy Valley failed due to the economic depression.

In 1963, a new village was surveyed and subdivided at Eurong, Happy Valley was expanded and Orchid Beach Tourist Resort established.  Since then there has been little further urban subdivision.  About this time a number of squatters shacks at Teewah Village at Cooloola were legitimized and some subdivision also occurred there.

Rainbow Beach which was only developed as a township in 1966, when it became the temporary base for the sandmining industry.  It grew rapidly following the release of land and the development of the Fraser Island ferry service from Inskip Point in 1968.  It is now one of the four major service centres for the Great Sandy Region but all of which are outside the defined area of this nomination.

Other service centres are Hervey Bay, Maryborough, and the Noosa heads – Tewantin area.  There are other smaller urban areas adjoining the region.  Bargara, Woodgate and Burrum Heads are recreational seaside centres beside Hervey Bay.  Tin Can Bay, Boonooroo, Poona and Maaroom are mainly fishing villages beside Great Sandy Strait and Tin Can Bay.

In 1970, it was estimated that there were about 5000 visits to Fraser Island.  During 1988 the Fraser Island Recreation Board estimated that there were 250,000 visits to Fraser Island.  This figure is continuing to grow.

In 1982, a study by the Institute of Applied Social Research showed that 125,325 camper nights were spent in Cooloola while 166,529 bed nights were spent in hotels and motels in the Noosa Shire.  This did not include day trippers to Cooloola.  The employment generated by the Cooloola National Park was estimated at 171 persons, almost all of whom live outside the region.

There are about 200 permanent residents within the nominated region.  Of these about half live on Fraser Island.  Most of the rest live in the Teewah area and settlement adjacent to the Noosa River.  The tourist industry is the main source of employment.

In 1948, extensive scout drilling established the existence of commercial rutile and zircon deposits, and mining operations commenced at Teewah Beach in the southern part of Cooloola.  Mining commenced at Inskip Point in 1966, and on Fraser Island in 1971.  As the Fraser Island operations expanded, mining ceased at Inskip Point about 1974.  A small beach mining operation began in the Freshwater Camp area during 1974 and ended in 1976.

As a result of a recommendation of the Fraser Island Environmental Inquiry, the Commonwealth Government restricted export licences for mineral sands from Fraser Island to only sand mined from beach leases.  This meant that sandmining ceased on Fraser Island in December, 1976.  Less than 1,000 hectares were affected by sand mining.

In 1986, the Queensland Government agreed to grant land at Inskip Point for subdivision and residential purposes fin exchange for mining companies relinquishing a number of mining leases from Moreton Island to Central Queensland including Fraser Island.  However, not all of the Fraser Island mining leases were relinquished and over 10,000 hectares of claims were retained.  The land swap does mean that the Inskip Point Peninsula is proposed for very extensive urban development and modification of its environment.  Although not included in the boundaries of the area nominated for World Heritage listing the development will have the effect of providing a major expansion of Rainbow Beach as a service centre for the nominated region.

In 1924, six bores were drilled along Cooloola beaches to depths of 15 – 165 metres searching for oil.  On Fraser Island, seismic surveys were carried out during the 1960s, as part of an oil exploration programme.  A bore hole to 623 metres was drilled by the Queensland Mines Department in 1980, at Sandy Cape, to extract stratigraphic information.  Bores have also been drilled at Cooloola.  Other drilling was carried out to establish the levels of the water tables in the sandmasses.


Sandy Cape light is located at the northern end of Fraser Islandis listed in the Register of the National Estate as light station groups, comprising light station, light keepers’ cottages and ancillary buildings.

The light station at Sandy Cape was prefabricated in England by Hennet and Spinks, shipped to Fraser Island and erected on its present site in 1870.  The 26 metre tower was constructed from cast iron segments set on a concrete base.  The original light source was powered by kerosene.  The light is now a 12-volt electric lamp with a Chance Bros. 250 mm focal radius rotating lens.

Because of the importance of Great Sandy Strait to international shipping during the late 19th Century, a number of light stations were established.  Three staffed light and semaphore stations were operated – Hook Point, Inskip Point and Big Woody Island.  These three stations are not automated.  Navigation lights were established at other points along the straits.

A lightship was moored at the northern end of Breaksea Spit until the 1970’s.


There have been a large number of shipwrecks in the vicinity of Great Sandy Region especially on the sandy shoals of the treacherous Wide Bay Bar and Breaksea Spit.  The remains of some of these wrecks are in evidence along the coasts of Cooloola (Cherry Venture 1973) and Fraser Island (Marloo 1914, Maheno 1935).

Several ships were deliberately scuttled on the western side of Fraser Island and more recently on an artificial reef established on the northern end of Great Sandy Strait to enhance the fish habitat.

List of Shipwrecks