Unusual and fascinating town near the coast of the Gulf of Carpentaria.
Normanton is a genuinely delightful town with an excess of old world charm. Located 712 km west of Cairns and 681 km west of Townsville it started life as a port for the Gulf of Carpentaria’s cattle industry and grew in importance with the discovery of gold at Croydon in 1885.
The area was first explored by Ludwig Leichhardt on his epic journey from the Darling Downs to Port Essington. The next Europeans through the area were Burke and Wills who made their final dash to the Gulf (or, more correctly, to the mangrove swamps somewhere near the edge of the Gulf) only 26 km west of the town.
The location of Burke and Wills last northern camp is signposted on the main Normanton-Burketown road. It is only a 1.5-km drive into the bush to the spot which is marked by a couple of plaques.
The dedication reads: ‘This monument marks the site of Camp No: 119 of the 1860-61 Burke and Wills expedition occupied on Saturday 9 February 1861 by Robert O’Hara Burke, William John Wills, John King and Charlie Gray. On Sunday 10 February Burke and Wills left on the attempted journey to the Gulf of Carpentaria returning on Tuesday 12 February. All four abandoned the camp the next day for the return journey to Coopers Creek, Depot No: 75, and home to Melbourne. During the return journey all died with the exception of King who survived with the assistance of a friendly Aboriginal tribe. This monument was provided through, and with thanks, to the generous donation of Mr. Douglas Jolly of Brisbane and the historical advice of the State Library of Victoria and was erected in 1978 by the Normanton Lions Club.’
It was Frederick Walker, one of the many explorers who went looking for Burke and Wills, who discovered and named the Norman River after the captain of a ship named Victoria.
In 1867 William Landsborough sailed up the Norman river and chose the site for the settlement of Normanton. Over the next decade it became an important port. The large Burns Philp building at the end of the town’s main street is evidence of its importance at this time. There were even suggestions that it would become a port to rival Darwin as the main centre on the north coast of Australia.
In 1892 a boiling-down works was established on the river and shortly afterwards a meatworks was opened.
The town experienced a major boom with the discovery of gold at Croydon. By 1891 the population had reached 1251. However the gold diggings were short-lived and although the Normanton-Croydon railway line was opened by 1907 the whole area was on the decline. Even the cattle which had been the town’s mainstay started heading south as the railway line was extended out towards Mount Isa. By 1947 the population had dropped to 234.