|Port Denison with a fig tree
Dongara (including Port Denison)
Charming and pretty fishing village
Dongara is located 359 km north of Perth on the Brand Highway and 428 km via the Midlands Road. It is a genuinely charming fishing village (the ubiquitous Batavia Coast rock lobster is the main catch) and holiday resort characterised by some beautiful historic buildings and a main street which has some of the finest stands of Moreton Bay fig trees anywhere in Australia. Interestingly the trees were planted in 1906 for a total cost of 16 shillings and four pence.
Like most of the coastline of the Central West the mouth of the Irwin River undoubtedly was passed numerous times by the Dutch merchant ships which sailed across the Indian Ocean on the Roaring Forties and then headed north to the trading post at Batavia (now Jakarta). However no ships were wrecked near Dongara and so it wasn't until Lieutenant George Grey's ill-fated expedition of 1839 was forced to walk from Gantheaume Bay (near Kalbarri) to Perth that the area was in any sense explored by Europeans.
In early April 1839 Grey crossed a river which he named the Irwin after a friend, Major Frederick Chidley Irwin (1788-1860) who, at the time, was commandant of the Swan River settlement.
Grey's journey and his subsequent reports of good land did enough to engender interest and in 1846 the Gregory brothers (Augustus Charles, Francis and Henry Churchman) travelled north from Perth and found both good grazing land and the Irwin River coal seam in the Mingenew area to the east of the coast. The area was explored further in the late 1840s by Lieutenant Helpmann who followed the Irwin River to its source. He reached the present day sites of both Dongara and Port Denison.
The first settlers arrived near Dongara in 1850 and two years later a townsite named Dhungarra (supposedly meaning 'a meeting place for seals' in the language of the local Aborigines) was surveyed.
By 1865 the wheat harvest in the area was sufficiently successful to warrant the building of a flour mill. The following year a jetty was built and a road from Dongara to Mingenew was completed. The port, known at the time as Port Irwin and later to be renamed Port Denison, was sufficiently active at this time that obelisks were erected (they still stand at the southern end of the port) and lanterns were lit at night to guide ships through the dangerous off-shore reefs.
But Dongara is more than just a collection of old buildings. It is, by any measure, a truly beautiful little seaside town. Apart from the residences which look out across the ocean there are a number of lovely old houses which lie beyond the Police Station in Hunt's Road. There are also some superb churches and rectories. All these buildings bear witness to the affluence of the early settlers.
The town was also the birthplace of Sir David Brand who, as leader of the Liberal Party, was State Premier from 1959-1971 making him Western Australia's longest serving Premier. Unfortunately his birthplace, Nurse O'Connor's Maternity Hospital, was destroyed by the floods which followed Cyclone Mavis in 1971.
Things to see:
Dongara Heritage Trail
The visitor wishing to inspect the buildings of historic importance in Dongara should obtain a copy of the Dongara Heritage Trail from the Old Police Station and Court House Building (now the Dongara–Denison Tourist Centre) in Waldeck Street. The Heritage Trail is particularly good covering seventeen points of interest in Dongara. The highlights include Priory Lodge, the Royal Steam Roller Flour Mill, Russ Cottage, the Old Police Station and Court House, the Church of St John the Baptist and the gracious houses in Hunts Road.
Priory Lodge, a magnificent old building with a very chequered history which was built as an inn in 1881, sold to the Dominican Sisters in 1901, became a boarding college in 1926 is now, through some ironic twist of fate, once again a private hotel.
|The Royal Steam Flour Mill
Royal Steam Roller Flour Mill
On the outskirts of town (and clearly visible from the Brand Highway) is the Royal Steam Roller Flour Mill which was built in 1894 and served the local wheat growing community until its closure in 1935.
Russ Cottage, on Point Leander Drive, is a charming old cottage which was constructed in 1868. It was built by Titus Russ, a labourer for Edward Hamersley, and is regarded as a fine example of worker housing from the period. Unfortunately it is only open on Sundays and public holidays between 2.00 p.m. and 4.00 p.m. However visitors at other times can walk around the beautifully maintained gardens.
|Russ Cottage built in 1870
Old Police Station and Court House
The Old Police Station and Court House was constructed in 1870 out of local limestone and jarrah timber which had been shipped in from the south. Its construction cost was £1260. The policeman at the time, a certain Constable Watson, was responsible for the ticket–of–leave men in the area who were working for the local wheat farmers.
The old cells are open for inspection (they were still in use as recently as 1981) and the Courtroom is an awesome construction with a 5.5 metre ceiling. The Courtroom replaced the local Irwin Arms as the seat of justice in the area. The first case was heard in 1871 and involved an ex-convict, Thomas Barker, who was fined five shillings for 'making use of obscene language at the cricket ground at Dongarra on 10th April, 1871'. Note that somewhere in the last 120 years the town has lost an 'r'.
Church of St John the Baptist
The Church of St John the Baptist on the corner of Waldeck and Church streets was built in 1884 out of locally quarried limestone. It is said that the church bell came from Fremantle Gaol and was originally used to call ticket-of-leave men back to the gaol at night. The pews were made from the driftwood from shipwrecks.
To the south of Dongara is Port Denison - an attractive port for fishermen (especially crayfishermen) with a good marina and harbour. Originally known as Port Irwin the settlement really came to life with the construction of a jetty at the bottom of William Street (the ruins are still to be seen) in 1867. The jetty was built by a Perth businessman, Benjamin Mason, who used both convict and free labour. The total cost was £1350. A second jetty was built in 1959 and a third one was completed, as part of the marina, in 1979. The Port Denison marina has a capacity of about 130 vessels and, as such, is one of the largest marinas on the Western Australian coast.
Modern day Port Denison still has a number of buildings to remind visitors of its importance as a port for the Central West during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. There's Pearse's Warehouse (on the corner of William Street and Point Leander Drive) which was built in 1867. Further along Point Leander Drive is Moore's Warehouse which was completed in 1869 and on the foreshore, near the original jetty, is the Government Bond Store which was built in 1894.