History of Port Campbell

Port Campbell's History

As with most places, there are many layers to Port Campbell’s past – layers which tend to extrude into the present.

The oldest layer – the eternal ocean – defines Port Campbell.

There is a geological past which buried and compressed the layers of ancient Carboniferous forests, giving rise to the recent oil and gas exploration which has made its mark on the landscape from Port Campbell to Adelaide.

There is the tectonic upheaval of the ocean bed (containing Paleozoic and Mesozoic fossils) and surface limestone from Cobden to the coast, and the craggy headlands and eroded ‘apostles’ which form Australia’s most internationally recognisable landscape and tourism ‘icon’.

Rivers –the Moyne, the Hopkins, the Curdies, the Gellibrand and one time Campbells Creek – carved that limestone into the few bays and ports which relieve the ramparts of the coastal cliffs.

Along these clifftops, numerous shell middens quietly whisper the story of the aboriginal inhabitants now gone, outlived by the hardy flora and fauna which inspired and sustained their tribal civilisation.

Then came the itinerant whalers and sealers of the early 1800s, Americans amongst the Europeans, with their coastal oil stations and landing points providing improvised refuge from the stormy sea. The first recorded shipwreck along Mathew Flinders ‘fearful coast’ was an unnamed whaleboat, in 1836.

There are 638 known shipwrecks along Victoria’s coast, with around 240 being located and registered. These include The Thistle (1837), The Children (1839), Lydia and Socrates (1843), and The Enterprise (1850). With the migration following the opening of Victoria’s Gold Rush, more and more ships came, the ill-fated yielding up their human cargo to the sea on the very cusp of their long journey’s end. This terrible history was instrumental in shaping the development of the Port Campbell.

There is yet another ‘old Port Campbell’ which some local families still hold in their affections. That was the little clutch of modest fibro houses and ‘holiday shacks’ huddled into the shiny leaf. All abuzz in summer, with beach and sunburn, boy meets girl, fishing and swimming, and windswept and desolate through the winter, left to the locals and the hardy fishermen who hauled up their boats and waited out the winter until the opening of the next cray season.

These days Port Campbell is given over to a more regular and decidedly international visitation pattern, with an economy based on services to a portion of the some two million annual tourists who visit the Twelve Apostles and the Port Campbell National Park each year. Housing development and rising land values now make Port Campbell a somewhat exclusive address, desired more openly than it always was. 

Extracted from Port Campbell Action Plan 2013 to 2023.