While it is almost customary to begin any tale about Australian history with, “As you know, Australia was founded by criminals…”, when it comes to the history of Coffs Harbour, it may actually be true. Some of the first settlers in the region were criminals hiding on Muttonbird island. Some of those criminals had wood cutting skills, and the area began to export timber.
The timber industry attracted plenty of ships to haul the wood to far off ports. In 1861 Coffs Harbour was chosen for the name of the new town. Close to 500 ships a year would stop on Coffs Harbour, until one of them wrecked in 1865. The area then came under a boycott by ship captains who refused to sail into the port without a lighthouse. It took until 1878 for the lighthouse to be built, followed quickly by the jetty in 1892.
Fruit & sugar cane plantations, dairy farming, and gold mining took over as the most popular industries in the early 20th century. In 1881, Fijian bananas were brought to the region, and in the early 1900’s the banana industry boomed. When a plague attacked and destroyed much of the northern banana plantations crops and trees in the 1920’s, the bananas in Coffs Harbour continue to flourish and gained a major share of the market.
It was around this same time that the railway link and connection to Sydney was completed. This led to a boom in a new market, tourism. One hundred years later, tourism would still be a major Coffs Harbour industry.
Life for the Aboriginal people in Coffs Harbour was decidedly different. Coffs Creek was a camp for much of the 20th century. The young men from the camps would come looking for work on the banana plantations in Coffs Harbour. Work was so plentiful that the young men would bring and build families in the area but constructing humpies along the banks of the creeks for shelter. Fish and game were plentiful and the community continued to flourish well into the late 20th century.
The main camps were along the creek near the Fitzroy Oval, close to where the cricket grounds and swimming pool are today. The showground was another place humpies were set up, as was the area around the botanical gardens and cemetery.