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The Gold Rush

Little happened after Cooks initial landing until William Hann set out on his overland journey of exploration in 1872. The discovery of payable alluvial gold deposits at the Palmer river in 1873 by James Venture Mulligan, sparked a huge gold rush, drawing prospectors not only from Australia, but also from around the world.

The Queensland Government sent a representative to the Endeavour river to examine it as a potential site for the gold-field port.   Mr. G.E. Dalrymple arrived on October 24th, 1873 and camped in the exact spot Cook had selected 100 years prior. Although he had been sent by the Government to make a report on the port setting, the desperate need for facilities prompted the Government to forgo the report and they dispatched the A.S.N. Coysteamer 'Leichhardt' to convey Government staff to the Endeavour River.

Arriving one day after Dalrymple himself, they immediately started setting up the operation.  Among the staff about the 'Leichhardt' was the Gold Commissioner, an Engineer of Roads (sent to find the best route between the Palmer and Endeavour rivers), a lieutenant to survey the estuary, and a police party to keep law and order. Over seventy prospectors and miners also disembarked, all with dreams of becoming rich in these new gold fields.

The population of 'Cooks-town', as it was then known, was close to 4000 people by the middle of the following year.  The towns name was later changed to its present moniker of 'Cooktown' in June of 1874.

Gold flowed as freely as the water it was found in, and the population continued it's increase, and by the turn of the century it was the second largest township in Queensland.  The population had reached in excess of 30,000 people, and the town was serviced by no less than 65 registered hotels, 20 eating houses, 32 general stores and a multitude of other businesses and outlets. People were drawn from far and wide, by the lure of gold, making a rich and complex tapestry of peoples.

Of the 2940 people reported to live in Cooktown by the 1883 census, 480 were Chinese.  The residents of Maytown (centre of the Goldfields) were listed at 481, and the maximum number of land-holders (people with legal title) during the rush was 1009.

Two Newspapers kept the people informed, three Banks supported the financial needs of the area and a bridge connected the township to rich pastoral and mineral lands to the north.  Gold was not the only alluvial deposit found, tin was also discovered south of the township and settlements began to spread even further afield.

Queensland's most northern township had to cope with large movements of freight and people, to which five wharves serviced the transport vessels and a police station handled all local and overseas shipping. Custom's House, the Quarantine Station and Immigration Hostel all helped control the movement of both freight and passengers, in and out of Cooktown.

The pearling fleet and beche-de-mer fishermen plied their trade between Bloomfield, Cooktown and Thursday Island.  By the late 1880's when the Cook Monument was erected, transport services also included 250 bullock teams and over 200 pack horse teams to carry supplies, building materials, mining equipment and the Royal Mail.   These services all ran between Cooktown, Rossville, Maytown, Laura, Coen and the Wenlock River to the North.

Unfortunatly by the late 1880's many of the established gold claims began to fail, which resulted in the return of many Chinese to their beloved homeland.

No Gold, No Men

With the gold deposits steadily falling, so did the population, services and facilities.  Many men, both young and old were drawn into the ranks of the Australian Army, and other armed services during the First World War. This had a devastating effect on the already failing township.  To further add insult to injury, with the close of the First World War in 1918, Cooktown was dealt another blow, with a number of commercial buildings in the main street burning to the ground.

Some say that the fire was a result of a long standing dispute between retailers, but no-one knows for sure. The town wells were quite limited for water and the pressure was too low for fire fighters to connect their hoses to.  So they dragged the fire truck to the edge of the river and tried to get the water pumping.  Although the pressure from the river was far greater than the wells, it proved too high and the hoses were all split in two.  There was no alternative but to let the buildings burn themselves out.  This tragedy lasted for several days, and the vacant sites remain a  reminder of what was even today.