Cooktown is at the mouth of the Endeavour River, on Cape York Peninsula in Far North Queensland where James Cook beached his ship, the Endeavour, for repairs in 1770. Both the town and Mount Cook (431 metres or 1,415 feet) which rises up behind the town were named after James Cook.
It is the northernmost town on the east coast of Australia and was founded on 25 October 1873 as a supply port for the goldfields along the Palmer River. It was called 'Cook's Town' until 1 June 1874.
View of Cooktown from Grassy Hill
The site of modern Cooktown was the meeting place of two vastly different cultures when, in June 1770, the local Aboriginal Guugu Yimithirr tribe cautiously watched the crippled sailing ship – His Majesty's Bark Endeavour – limp up the coast seeking a safe harbour after sustaining serious damage to its wooden hull on the Endeavour Reef, south of Cooktown. The Guugu Yimithirr people saw the Endeavour beach in the calm waters near the mouth of their river, which they called "Wahalumbaal".
The captain of the Endeavour, Lieutenant James Cook, wrote: ". . . it was happy for us that a place of refuge was at hand; for we soon found that the ship would not work, and it is remarkable that in the whole course of our voyage we had seen no place that our present circumstances could have afforded us the same relief".
The British crew spent seven weeks on the site of present-day Cooktown, repairing their ship, replenishing food and water supplies, and caring for their sick. The extraordinary scientist, Joseph Banks, and Swedish naturalist Daniel Solander, who accompanied Cook on the expedition, collected, preserved and documented over 200 new species of plants. The young artist Sydney Parkinson illustrating the specimens and he was the first British artist to portray Aboriginal people from direct observation.
After some weeks, Joseph Banks met and spoke with the local people, recording about 50 Guugu Yimithirr words, including the name of the intriguing animal the natives called gangurru (which he transcribed as "Kangaru"). Cook recorded the local name as "Kangooroo, or Kanguru".
The first recorded sighting of kangaroos by Europeans was on Grassy Hill, which rises above the place where the ship was beached. Cook climbed this hill to work out a safe passage for the Endeavour to sail through the surrounding reefs, after it was repaired.
Cook named the river the "Endeavour" after his ship, and, as they sailed north, he hoisted the flag known as the 'Queen Anne Jack' and claimed possession of the whole eastern coast of Australia for Britain. He named Cape York Peninsula after the then-Duke of York and Albany ("The Grand Old Duke of York").
In 1949, another cyclone devastated the town, and Cooktown's population declined further. With the closure of the rail link to Laura in 1961 and the "Peninsula Development Road" opened up to the south, the population declined to just a few hundred people before it gradually began to climb again.
There is an active Aboriginal Community Centre on the main street called Gungarde (from the original Guugu Yimithirr name for the region).
The "Milbi Wall" (or "Story Wall") marks the place of the first encounter between the British seafarers and the local Aborigines. The Milbi ('Story') Wall tells the story of Cooktown and the Endeavour River from the perspective of the Aboriginal people in tiles, and is an outstanding monument to reconciliation.
Cooktown has recently grown in importance again and become a popular tourist destination. The paving of the Mulligan Highway now provides all-weather access by road for the first time. There are two flights a day connecting Cooktown with Cairns. The town now has good communications, more services, better roads, and offers residents a relaxed and healthy lifestyle.
Fewer than 2,000 people live in the town itself while about another 4,000 in the region use it as a service centre. Visitors enjoy the delightful tropical environment, the historical connections, and use it as an access point to the Great Barrier Reef, the Lakefield National Park, and for fishing.
Cooktown has a public library, bowling green, swimming pool, golf and turf clubs, historic cemetery, Chinese shrine, James Cook Museum, Botanic Gardens with walks through to the beaches, the heritage-listed Grassy Hill lighthouse, and a new $3 million Events Centre next to the Cooktown State School, built to double as an emergency cyclone shelter for Cooktown. The Information Centre and an Environment Display are in Nature's Powerhosue in the Cooktown Botanic Garden. Charlotte Street is the main heritage precinct.
Cooktown is of particular interest to botanists since the time of James Cook's visit when extensive collections and illustrations were made of local plants. It is situated at the junction of several vegetation zones including tropical rainforest, sclerophyll forests, sandy dunes and lagoons. Vera Scarth-Johnson, a local resident, gave a priceless collection of her botanical illustrations to the people of Cooktown, which are now housed in a dedicated gallery at Nature's PowerHouse situated in the Botanic Gardens, and features displays of local flora and fauna.
Cooktown is the northern terminus of the Bicentennial Heritage Trail, which, at 5,330 km (3,310 mi), is the longest trail of its type in the world. The southern end of the trail is at Healesville, Victoria, a town 52 kilometres (32 mi) north-east of Melbourne.
The rugged Mount Cook (231 metres or 758 ft), named on 27 June 1818 by Phillip Parker King, forms a backdrop to the town and is now part of the Mount Cook National Park.
Because the area around Cooktown is unusually rich in biodiversity, being close to three major ecozones, it contains a large proportion of the 3,000 plant species and the more than 500 terrestrial vertebrates recorded for Cape York Peninsula. The region contains many rare or unusual species which are of great interest to botanists and zoologists.
When Lt. James Cook beached his ship, HMB Endeavour, at the mouth of the Endeavour River in 1770, Joseph Banks, Daniel Solander, and Sydney Parkinson made good use of the enforced 7-week stay to make and illustrate an extensive collection of the plants of the area, where they collected the vast majority of plants they brought back to England from Australia. The illustrations were later published as the famous Banks' Florilegium.
Since then, Cooktown and the lower Endeavour Valley area have become a major attraction to biologists and illustrators of plants and animals. Vera Scarth-Johnson (1912–1999), spent almost thirty years illustrating the flowering plants of the region and then gave her collection to the people of Cooktown. Following her wishes, a beautiful gallery and nature interpretive centre was built in the Cooktown Botanic Gardens to house her collection and promote the study and appreciation of the flora and fauna of the area, which she named "Nature's Powerhouse."