Burnett Heads, a coastal town, is on the south side of the mouth of the Burnett River, 13 km north-east of Bundaberg. The river was discovered and named after James Charles Burnett, colonial surveyor, who was commissioned by New South Wales' Governor FitzRoy to identify navigable rivers for the emerging Queensland pastoral industry. Burnett's investigation (1847) led to Maryborough being established on the Mary River.
The fertile land between Bundaberg and Burnett Heads was selected in the 1870s and a pilot service along the Burnett River was established in 1871 for access to the port at Bundaberg. A timber lighthouse was constructed at the river entrance, near Burnett Heads, in 1873, with a telegraph link to Bundaberg (1875). A town reserve – named Wallace Town – was surveyed at Burnett Heads, but was renamed the Barolin Marine Township during the speculative 1880s. The Lighthouse Hotel (1882) and, considerably later, harbour and wharf facilities eventuated. A school (1888), a Methodist church (1903) and a Catholic church (c1920) were opened.
The Marine Township's promoter, Barolin Land Syndicate, lobbied for a railway. All that was built was a short line to the Millaquin Sugar refinery (1894), but in 1913 the Woongarra Shire Council and the Railways opened an extension to the seaside resort of Sandhills (renamed Bargarra). Although not touching Burnett Heads, the line brought Bundaberg residents closer to the river mouth and the Lighthouse Hotel.
The port of Bundaberg was on the Burnett River near the town's centre. Flooding and silt build-up in 1942 cut it off, and thoughts turned to a deep-water port downstream near Burnett Heads. Another closure of the river mouth in 1952 sped up the new port project. Completed in 1962, 5 km from Burnett Heads, the port has an oil terminal, a molasses terminal (1963), two bulk sugar sheds by 1965 and a bulk fertiliser facility. In the 1980s a marina was built, west of the lighthouse at South Head.
Burnett Heads has a hotel-motel, a caravan park, local shops, a primary school and a sports oval. Its census populations have been: