Port Douglas, a coastal resort town of about 1000 people, is 60 km north-west of Cairns. It was named after John Douglas, Premier of Queensland (1877-79). Established as a port and then sugar growing area, Port Douglas fell on hard times after the 1911 cyclone. Tourism came to its rescue in the 1980s.
The creation of Port Douglas came about from the need for a convenient port to tranship goods for inland gold fields at Palmer River (1873), north-west of Port Douglas, and on the Hodgkinson River southwards to Kingsborough (1876). Existing tracks to Cooktown and Cairns were hazardous and difficult, and a prominent bushman, Christie Palmerston, found a better track which came out near Island Point. By 1877 entrepreneurs from Cooktown erected a wharf and stores at the new port near Island Point and Palmerston's track was cleared and marked. In October 1877 the port township was surveyed and named Port Douglas.
A Port Douglas roads board was formed in 1878 to maintain the inland track; at sea, 13 km from Port Douglas, a light house was erected on the Low Isles cay. (The original iron clad, timber framed tower was decommissioned in 1994.) In the town itself a school and a courthouse were opened in 1879, along with a hospital. Building of St Mary's Catholic church commenced in 1880 and activity at the port was strengthened with the opening of the Herberton tin field in 1880. When copper was mined at Mount Molloy freight costs for the non-auriferous metals became a key factor, and an inland railway was planned. Mourilyan, Cairns and Port Douglas competed for the privilege and Cairns was chosen (1884), possibly unwisely when the geology of the Barron Gorge was fully understood. Investment in Port Douglas became less enthusiastic.
Minerals were not the only outwards freight from Port Douglas. Settlers came to the Mossman and Daintree River valleys and in 1883 the privately funded Brie-Brie sugar mill opened for Mossman cane growers. Cedar was brought down from the Daintree for Townsville timber merchants. Sugar production faltered in 1885, but grazing increased until the cattle tick outbreak in 1896. Fortuitously Mossman had a second chance with sugar when a new mill was opened in 1897, a central mill with cane growers tied to it through mortgage arrangements. By 1900 there was a tramline from the Port Douglas wharf to Mossman, for passengers and freight. The town was described in 1903 in the Australian Handbook:
In 1911 a severe cyclone hit Port Douglas, destroying many buildings, including a large store, the Exchange Hotel, the Catholic church and presbytery, the Government bond store and the tramway station and engine shed. Rebuilding did not fully regain the town's pre-cyclone building stock. Mossman's population had overtaken Port Douglas' before the cyclone, and the shire offices were moved to the sugar town in the 1920s. The hospital closed in 1935. The opening of the Cook Highway in 1933 from Mossman to Mareeba, creating a through road to Cairns, removed Mossman's dependence on Port Douglas. The primary school closed in 1960, not re-opening until 1989. The town's population descended to around 200 people, remaining at that number until the 1960s.
The one thing that did not change was the Australian Handbook's description of the beach, '... magnificent ... for about five miles along the coast ... sand is white and hard under foot'. Reputedly, in 1968 a still youthful Christopher Skase sat on Four Mile Beach and roughed out a plan for a resort there. The Barrier Reef was nearby, and the creation of the Daintree and Cape Tribulation national parks in the 1980s improved Port Douglas's prospects as a resort destination, as did its relatively easy access from Cairns International Airport. Skase secured a 2.5 km frontage to the beach from the Bjelke-Petersen Government and in 1985 approval for the Mirage resort, with a golf course, 300 room hotel and 400 condominiums. It was a catalyst for further development. During 1986-91 the population of Port Douglas increased 270% to over 3500. The collapse of Skase's Quintex empire still left Port Douglas with a very impressive tourist resort which had to secure new owners.
Old Port Douglas is clustered at Island Point, overlooking Dickson Inlet where the Port Douglas Yacht Club regattas are held. Macrossan Street has a string of eateries and places to stay for both backpackers and the well-heeled. The old courthouse museum, Anzac Park and Flagstaff Hill lookout are reminders of Port Douglas' origins. The courthouse, the Dixie Street wharf and St Mary's by the Sea church in Wharf Street are listed on the Queensland heritage register.
Two golf courses and the Mirage Resort take about two thirds of the beachfront southwards down Four Mile Beach. The resort is low-rise, scarcely visible, surrounded by lavish landscaping. In addition to the Mirage there are about 40 other apartment addresses, two hotels, two motels and two caravan parks. Restaurants and cafes are as numerous as the apartment addresses. There are also a botanic garden, a rainforest habitat display, and the more usual facilities of a coastal town such as churches and a primary school (1989). The Douglas Shire Historical Society has a museum at the old court house, a registered historic building. There is a considerable retirement population, with 12.1% of people aged 65 or more (2001).
The census populations of Port Douglas have been:
Historical souvenir booklet of Port Douglas, Port Douglas, N. Lodge, 1975
Pam Burden, Port's people: local stories of Port Douglas, from 'sleepy fishing village' to 5-star resort, Port Douglas, Douglas Shire Historical Society, 2005
Keith and Valda Prince, Early days of the Douglas Shire, Cairns, Prince Photographics, 1977