An appreciation of history often changes the way we think about the present and the future. On the weekend, Natalie took her 14-year-old daughter for a stroll back through time, guided by the Douglas Shire Historical Society’s “Port Douglas Village” self-guided map.
The Port Douglas Village Walk is one of three mapped walks available from the Historical Society, enabling visitors to explore, predominantly on foot, Port Douglas, Mossman, and Daintree Village.
It’s incredible how much one realises they don’t know about the place they live – even after twenty years. Having studied history throughout high school and university, I am fascinated about how things came to be and how we can use our past to both appreciate the present and consider the future.
Beginning at the former Court House, which today houses’ the Historical Society Museum, we started our pilgrimage to learn about our town’s roots which took hold in 1877.
Of course, “Port” wasn’t always “Port”. It began life as Port Owen and went by Terrigal, Owenville, White Island Point and Salisbury before settling on Port Douglas after the Queensland Premier at the time – John Douglas.
Although I had walked past the pathway to the former Flagstaff Hill Lighthouse, I had never meandered down there and was blown away by the stunning view out to Low Isles and Snapper Island. There’s even a little bench to sit on and admire the expansive seascape of the Coral Sea. Wandering back along the track to continue the walk, we were given a glimpse of the fancy houses and could certainly see the attraction of owning a property on the hill with that view!
The original flagstaff used to signal shipping arrivals and incoming cyclones, stands proudly on top of the hill. The 140-year-old flagstaff was saved by the Historical Society after being removed in 2012 by the Cairns Regional Council due to termite damage and sat idle under the Court House Museum before a local shipwright restored it in line with heritage requirements. The Conservation project won a high commendation in the 2019 National Trust Queensland Heritage Awards.
The popular Flagstaff Hill walking trail has an entrance from near the flagstaff, offering promotion of the hill walk on another day. However, it is the famous view of Four Mile Beach that always stops me in my tracks – and reminds me just why it is I have chosen to call this special place home.
Trundling down Murphy street, behind the golden canes, you get a glimpse of one of the two oldest surviving buildings in town – State School 334. The first pupil enrolled in November 1879, and if you let your mind wander, the mostly original exterior will transport you back in time.
Continuing our amble down Macrossan Street, it becomes increasingly apparent how much of the town was destroyed by the March 16, 1911 cyclone which dumped 406 mm of rain in 24 hours – a mere five weeks after a previous storm had hit the township. The town was virtually wiped out, with only seven residences and four commercial properties remaining. In 1878 there had been 21 pubs in town, the only one not damaged or destroyed in 1911 was the Caledonian (now Seabean). However, its fate was sealed in 1918 when it burnt to the ground.
It was strange to imagine everything we were walking past and reading about disappeared in 1911. The town had truly bustled, with a school, churches, a bank, government buildings, a hospital, cemetery, thriving wharf precinct, two newspapers, a tramway, shops, several pubs, a convicted murderer (perhaps wrongly!) and even a race meeting on Four Mile Beach! But on that day in March 1911, it all ground to a halt. Years later, with the Cairns to Mareeba train line complete and the success of the sugar industry in Mossman, Port went to sleep, with a population of merely 100 in the 1960s.
Wandering down to the foreshore, we gazed upon the restored St Mary’s by the Sea. The replacement for the original Catholic Church destroyed in 1911 was relocated waterside in 1988 and restored by the Port Douglas Restoration Society. The light was beautiful over the old Church and turning around, our eyes settled on the aptly named Sugar Wharf. Now a venue for weddings, parties, anything, the wharf had initially been a stone jetty, replaced in 1905 to accommodate coastal steamers and later the storage and export of bagged sugar from Mossman.
Ducking down the “back streets,” we stopped at what I only ever knew as “that old train.” Well, that old girl, known as the Faugh-a-Ballagh, carried over 23 000 passengers in 1900 alone and ran the track from Mossman to Port until 1957. They just don’t build them like they used to!
Last on our list (admittedly we didn’t do it in order), was one of my favourite buildings – “The Clink” theatre. Having tread the boards myself over the years, I love that it was a courtroom and lockup back in the day. I wish I’d been there to see it being transported on the back of a truck from its original home in Mossman, down the highway and delicately placed where it is today. This building, like St Mary’s by the Sea, is an excellent example of the spirit of the Shire – don’t give up, work out a way to deal with adversity, embrace our history and create something unique for the future.
With our wander through time complete, a treat was in order. So, with an energetic spring in our step and a head full of history, we trotted back to the main street for some homemade, local, and luscious Capannina gelato. Good thing we had already walked it off in advance!
If tackling the Port Douglas Village walk entirely on foot, allow three hours. We cheated and used the car to drive up to the Flagstaff Lookout and out to the Port Douglas Cemetery, completing the walk in two hours, plus a little bit extra for the cheeky ice cream at Capannina.
For more information, contact Douglas Shire Historical Society
📷 1. Natalie Johnson
📷 2. Natalie Johnson
📷 3. Douglas Shire Historical Society