The Society acknowledges the traditional owners of the Irwin Districts, their continuing connection to land, sea and community and pays its respects to elders and their cultures, past and present.

Port Denison Heritage Trail

Port Denison Heritage Walk Trail
developed by
Irwin Districts Historical Society
Produced with support from the Community Assistance Scheme, Shire of Irwin
ISBN 978-0-9804993-8-4

Aerial view of Port Denison 2008 I IRME3171
Photograph by Bob Hope.

The Port Denison Heritage Walk is a roughly one kilometer ramble featuring some of Denison’s historic buildings and landmarks. The walk is linear and can be commenced at any of the historic places. There are opportunities to picnic, swim, take in the views or enjoy a coffee and snack along the route.

The walk features some private homes and walkers are asked to respect the privacy of residents. Persons using the Heritage Walk do so at their own risk.

LIST of PLACES

NoNameDescription
1‘The Lives’ Co-op BuildingPackout Room Pop-up Museum
2Fishing Boat Harbour and Boat PensPublic wharf and jetty
3Denison Fishermen’s Hall (site of)Lawn area
4William Street Jetty ruinsBeach
5Shenton’s Warehouse (site of)Denison Pavilion
6Old Samuel Street Jetty (site of)Beach
7Old Denison Foreshore & TreesParking areas and lawns
8Midden BeachBeach
9Herbert Street Jetty (site of)Beach
10The ObelisksPublic lookout
11Nun’s HousePrivate residence
12Syson’s HousePrivate residences
13Leitch’s Beach HousesPrivate residence
14Moore’s Warehouse (site of)Port Store
15Knowler’s HousePrivate residence
16Pearse’s Warehouse (site of)Southerly’s Tavern
17Russ’ Warehouse (site of)Private residence
18Denison Caravan ParkCaravan park and chalets

Port Denison “Queen of the Batavia Coast”

For thousands of summers the Wattandee people followed the Yarranoo Muraja (Irwin River) to the coast for relief from the heat, to gather seafood, and to follow Wattandee’s beliefs and culture of the Wattarn Borungar (Sea Totem People). The Wattandee tribe called Dongara a place where Australian sea lions meet: “Dhunga” or “Thunga” meaning Australian Sea Lion and “Arra” for a place. (Source: Wattandee elder Thomas Cameron, 2021).

The Bay was first charted in 1844 by Lt John Lort Stokes on HMS Beagle. During this time whalers and sealers worked along the coast, devastating the local seal populations. 

The town was surveyed in 1867 with a long linear layout curving around the crescent shore of the bay and named in honour of retired colonial governor Sir William Denison.  However, the harbour was locally known as Port Irwin until the 1890s, then Port Dongarra or Dongarra Beach until the 1920s, then Denison, and since 1973 as Port Denison.

Port Irwin was a busy coastal port and the key point of entry and departure for the Irwin valley for people and goods, and also an important sandalwood export port in the 1870s.  Port Dongarra was gazetted as a warehousing port under the Customs Act in 1891 but with the opening of the Midland Railway Company line in 1894 the commercial port gradually declined and was virtually inoperative by 1912.

The Railway, however, brought visitors from the Midlands and the Murchison goldfields, and Dongarra Beach or Denison became a seaside resort during the interwar years, hailed as the ‘finest beach north of Cottesloe’.  The modern rock lobster industry gave new life to the port from the 1950s, and the tourism industry further developed in tandem with the fishery.

1 -> ‘The Lives’, Geraldton Fishermen’s Co-op and the Packout Room Pop Up Museum

Dongara’s first crayfish processing factory was built by Yamanis brothers in the late 1950s at the Back Beach, now called Seaspray. When the business went into receivership the newly-arrived Michael Kailis bought the factory and extended it to process frozen tails for the US market. MG Kailis Pty Ltd constructed this building in 2002 to process live crays for the Asian market. It enabled fishermen to land their catch on the conveyor belt, which moved the crayfish directly into the plant where they were graded, packed and transported. The building is now operated by Geraldton Fishermen’s Co-operative. The Pop Up Museum was opened in November 2021 as a joint project between Irwin Districts Historical Society, Dongara Professional Fishermen’s Association and Geraldton Fishermen’s Co-op.

Sorting cray tails at the old Kailis processing factory, c1985 I IRME3170

Geraldton Fishermen’s Cooperative ‘Lives’ building, 2021 I IRME3166

2 -> Fishing Boat Harbour and Boat Pens  

The Port Denison Fishing Boat Harbour was constructed between 1976 and 1979 primarily to provide safe anchorage to the boats in the crayfishing industry. The harbour was formed by building two breakwaters which extend seaward from Leander Point (west breakwater) and from the beach (east breakwater). They are constructed of large stones quarried from the ridge near Pell Bridge, south east of Dongara, and granite from near Walkaway. For many years the Dongara Professional Fishermen’s Association agitated strongly for the development of a pen system leading to construction of the boat pens in 2001. The harbour moors about 70 professional and recreational craft.

3 -> Government Bond Store (site of)
Other names: Denison Goods Shed, Iron Shed, Dongarra Beach Hall, Denison Fishermen’s Hall. Now lawn area north of Denison Pavilion.

The former Customs and Excise Shed (Bond Store) was built of timber and iron for the Colonial Government in 1894 to hold imported goods until customs duties were paid. It was connected to William Street Jetty with a horse drawn tramway.  In the 1890s the commercial port began to decline with the opening of the Midland Railway and the building fell into disrepair. Irwin Road Board took control of the building in 1921, and by 1928 the Dongarra Beach Committee began renovating the hall which was used for a myriad of social events, including housing Midland Railway Company workers and their families for beach holidays. The Dongara Professional Fishermen’s Association leased the building in the 1970s, undertook major renovations and renamed it Denison Fishermen’s Hall. The hall was demolished in 2019.

Government Bond Store and jetty c1920 I IRME0646

Fishermen’s Hall, with Bond Store roof, 2019 I IRME3166-1

4 -> William Street Jetty ruins
Other names: Dongarra Jetty, Old Jetty, Second Jetty, Jetty Ruins, Jetty Pylons.

Only the pylons remain of the jetty that was built at the foot of William Street in 1867 by Perth businessman Benjamin Mason. Both free and convict workers were employed, and the cost was £1,350. By 1870 three stone warehouses and storage depots were built adjacent to the jetty which was extended several times to attain a final length of 366 metres in about 6 metres of water. By 1880 the number of ships visiting the port had doubled and it was not unusual for three ships to be tied up at the jetty at one time. A horse-drawn tramway conveyed cargo to and from the jetty and the Bond Store (site No 3).  Lights on the jetty, William Street and the Sandhills Obelisk (Site No 10) could be aligned for passage through the reefs.  As trade declined, the jetty fell into disuse and was damaged by a fire in 1932 and storms in 1934. During World War II a section was destroyed to foil enemy invasion, and when the jetty was deemed unsafe it was substantially destroyed with explosives in 1961. The hand sawn timbers and use of wooden pegs to hold them together can be seen on the ruins.

School swimming classes by the jetty, 1913 I IRME1838

Jetty ruins, 2021 I IRME3166-2

5 -> Shenton’s Warehouse (site)
Now Denison Pavilion

Merchant George Shenton built a limestone warehouse on this site in about 1867 (see site no 9). It was used mainly for storage of sandalwood, and wool, wheat, flour and other agricultural products from the district awaiting shipment. Copper ore from the ‘Wheal Arrino’ and other small mines was also stored in the warehouse. Shenton was the first elected MP for the district and was knighted in 1893.  In the 1920s bush shelter sheds of local timber and tea tree branches were built next to the warehouse, which held water tanks for the use of holidaymakers before it was demolished about 1940.  The Denison Pavilion, originally Spanish styled and locally known as the Hacienda, was built in 1968 on the warehouse site to replace an earlier tea-tree shelter shed.  Archaeological evidence of the warehouse probably survives in the vicinity.  The serpentine sea wall was built with the pavilion and was the first seawall built on the shore of Arurine Bay.

Three swimmers at Denison Beach, Shenton’s Warehouse in background c1935 I IRME1020

Denison Pavilion and sea walls, on site of Shenton’s Warehouse, 2021 I IRME3166-3

6 -> Old Samuel Street Jetty (site) 
Other names: Leitch Street Jetty, Third Jetty, New Jetty.

When the crayfishing industry began to boom in the 1950s, the lack of a functional jetty forced the fishermen to run their dinghies ashore through swirling seaweed and surf to deposit their catch on the beach. A new karri and jarrah jetty was built in 1959 and for many years was the main fishing facility in the port. After the harbour was built in 1979, the jetty condition gradually deteriorated, and it was closed to the public. Despite a strong local public campaign to save it, the jetty was demolished in 2000. The present concrete jetty (New Samuel Street Jetty, or Fourth Jetty) and recreational boat ramps were built in 2000 slightly to the south of the old jetty site to separate recreational and commercial boating and fishing facilities within the harbour.

Fishing off the Samuel Street jetty, change room in background, c1960 I IRME3164

7 -> Old Denison Foreshore Precinct and Trees

The Old Denison foreshore precinct was first set as a reserve for public recreation in 1912, stretching from Leander Point to the river mouth around the crescent curve of Arurine Bay. The foreshore was the site of bush shelter sheds, camping and caravan sites and recreational sporting facilities such as tennis courts built in 1922. Bough sheds were built in the 1920s of local timber and tea tree foliage, and picnic tables could be booked at McIntyre’s shop. Local tourist operators sought a ban on netting fish in the bay in 1931 to prevent over-fishing, but local fishermen objected. As visitors increased, horses were banned from the beach in 1921 then all livestock in 1938 and in 1949 the use of firearms on the foreshore was banned.  The key surviving historic elements are the mature Moreton Bay fig trees (Ficus macrophylla) lining Point Leander Drive which were planted by Irwin Roads Board in 1932 and 1936 and contribute to the ‘boulevard’ character of the street. The parkland between Samuel and Leitch streets, originally set aside for church purposes, was added to the public foreshore reserve in 1941 for the development of a playground.  The area was used for many years as a jinker park for boat trailers.

Shelter sheds on the south end of the foreshore, c1938 I IRME1714

8 -> Midden Beach

This is the last section of surviving and mostly regenerated natural foreshore vegetation, mainly coastal spinifex (Spinifex sericeus), within the Harbour. Midden Beach is one of many probable sites along the coast of pre-colonial shell middens. The middens – now buried – contain remains of shellfish and marine molluscs discarded by Wattandee fishers after eating, and are the result of repeated use of a particular location over thousands of years.  The location of the adjoining Flat Ledge reef, which is exposed at low tide, provides a reason for the middens to be found here. 

The Wattandee people had permanent habitations along the Irwin valley and in the summer they would follow the river to the coast to get relief from the heat and to follow Wattandee’s beliefs and culture of the Wattarn Borungar (Sea Totem People). The Wattandee people called Dongara a place where sea lions meet: “Dhunga” or “Thunga” meaning Australian Sea Lions and “Arra” for a place. (Source: Wattandee elder Thomas Cameron, 2016).

Other nearby midden sites are known around Leander Point and behind South Beach.  Visitors should not dig into or otherwise disturb any such sites they might encounter but are encouraged to imagine the old people and their lifestyles that created the middens and understand the changes that came with colonisation.

Wattandee elders Thomas Cameron and Annette Bynder, Leander Point, 2021 I IRME3167

9 -> The Landing Place 
Other names: Herbert Street Jetty, First Jetty, The Basin, The Cove.

Port Irwin’s first jetty was built in 1865 by Ben Mason at the end of Herbert Street. This temporary structure was used while the William Street Jetty was under construction. It allowed the shipping of sandalwood, stock and the the annual harvest to continue. Permission had to be sought from merchant George Shenton for access to the cove as he had taken a lease on the whole south end of the beach front.  Shenton later surrendered the land in exchange for commercial lots near the William Street Jetty and on the Geraldton waterfront.  The cove is sheltered from the southerly winds in the lee of Leander Point, and was a favoured anchorage for cray boats before the construction of the Harbour.  In recent years the historic landing place topography has become obscured by the construction of a stone rubble sea wall.

The Landing Place, site of the Herbert Street jetty, 2021 I IRME3166-5

10 -> The Obelisks
Other names: Denison Beacons, Fishermen’s Memorial.

Port Irwin’s first navigation lights were barrel beacons along the coast near the river mouth and a short way upstream to guide ships through the offshore reefs. The loss of the Swan in 1869 resulted in a petition to Governor Weld from the local colonists for a lighthouse and obelisk to be erected. The following year expiree Richard Sparks and convict workers constructed two obelisks, one on Leander Point and one about one kilometre inland on a sandhill ridge, which ships could align to safely enter the port through the reef. After the opening of the Harbour in 1979, the Point Leander Obelisk was dedicated as a Memorial to Fishermen Lost at Sea in November 1979 and hosts a plaque listing the fishers lost between 1916 and 1977.

The Sandhills Obelisk was seriously damaged in c1978 with explosives, but the ruins remain in situ with the pyramid stones in a roughly linear pattern. It is visible on the skyline looking eastwards from the Point Leander Obelisk, and also looking along the alignment of William Street to the sandhills skyline. Sometime after its construction, the Sandhills Obelisk was encased in a thick stone shell to increase its size and visibility.  The two obelisks have high historic value as evidence of the convict labour employed in constructing the 1860s maritime infrastructure of Port Denison, and of Denison’s history as an important trading port along the WA coast and with Singapore. 

Jean Leitch and cousins in front of the Sandhills Obelisk, with the original structure revealed beneath the later shell, 1940 I IRME2835

Leander Point Obelisk and Fishermen’s Memorial, 2019 I IRME3166-6

11 -> The Nuns’ House
Private Residence. Other names: Dominican Retreat, Dominican Sisters’ Seaside Cottage.

The house was built in the 1936 as a coastal retreat for the Dominican Nuns who served throughout the Catholic Diocese of Geraldton and remote inland parts of Western Australia. The cottage was built by Mr T Crothers of Northampton for the Bishop of Geraldton, exclusively for the use of the Dominicans while they remained active in the Diocese. It was officially blessed by the Bishop, assisted by local clergymen, on New Year’s Day 1937.  It was primarily a retreat for the Dominican sisters of St Dominic’s Priory and Dominican Ladies College where they could rest and swim with modesty at South Beach. Point Leander Drive between George Street and the Obelisk (known then as Marine Terrace) was built in 1937 to give the sisters’ vehicle access to their seaside getaway.  The pyramid roof shape complements the nearby obelisk and was “greatly admired” when first built.  The retreat has historic significance for its connection with the Dominican Order and is a rare example of a coastal retreat used by a female religious order.

The Nuns’ House, viewed from the Obelisk with South Beach in the distance, 2006 I IRME3166-7

12 -> Syson’s House
20 Point Leander Drive. Private Residence. Other names: Patella’s Hut.

Mr JW Syson was given approval to build this house in 1949, and at the same time the Road Board agreed to extend the footpath southwards past the new house.  The cottage was actually built much earlier on the foreshore and was known as Patella’s Hut after fisherman Joe Putala. Putala was interned during World War II and assigned to work on the Syson’s farm at Latham, where he became good friends with the Sysons.  After the war, the hut was moved to this site and adapted as a beach cottage for the Sysons and Putala.  The Sysons spent summer and other holidays in the cottage, and in 1952 it was reported in the Dalwallinu’s North Eastern Courier newspaper that Mr JW Latham was “catching boat-loads of fish at Dongarra, I’d like to be giving them a hand”!  Eventually the Sysons moved to Port Denison to live.  Syson’s House is a surviving example of the farming family beach cottages of this period and a rare example of the cottages formerly built on the foreshore and later relocated into the town proper.

Syson’s House, 2017 I IRME3166-8

13 ->Leitch’s Houses
36A and 36B Point Leander Drive. Private residence

These two semi-detached houses, with a touch of interwar Tudor revival style still discernable, were built by Alec Leitch in 1935 for rental accommodation in the summer holidays.  Stone was re-used from the demolished Waldeck residence at the East End, as well as cement blocks.  Alec was a local builder, and his wife Winnie Leitch (formerly Nairn, née Hughes) operated the Denison Guesthouse and Store, and was for many years a champion of Denison’s charms.  Port Denison was a popular holiday resort with the inland farmers as well as the Midland Railway workers who were given free travel passes. The semi-detached houses are a good, and rare surviving example, of commercial holiday accommodation in Port Denison built prior to World War II, and the only example of inter-war semi-detached holiday housing in the shire.

Denison foreshore as holiday destination, 1950 I IRME3164

14 -> Moore’s warehouse (site) 
Other names: Denison Guest House. Now Port Store.

A warehouse was built on this site in about 1868 as a warehouse for Samuel Fortescue Moore, merchant and first chairman of Irwin Roads Board. Moore had a large store at the East End from which he ran his retail, financial and pastoral interests and exported sandalwood to Fremantle and Singapore from the port in the 1870s. In about 1930 the building was purchased by Thomas Hughes and it passed to his daughter Winnie Leitch who with her husband Alec operated it as Denison Guest House. An over-street verandah was added in 1931 and renovations in 1937 added ceilings and refrigeration to the guest house with a shop in the west façade. The building was used as a general store, restaurant and guest house until it was demolished in 1996.  The present Port Store complex occupies much the same footprint as the old building. The arcade inside the complex hosts a display case made from the timbers of the old warehouse exhibiting historic photos of Port Denison.  

Group in front of Winnie Leitch’s shop and guesthouse c1930 I IRME1319

15 -> Knowler’s House
Private residence. Other names: The Old Shop.

This stone house was built in the 1930s by local builder, brick maker and well sinker George Knowler. It was built as a house and shop and operated by the Knowler family, and subsequently was run as a fish and chip shop by May Batty. It was the residence of well-known fisherman Sydney Knowler until 1974. It has historic significance for its connection to the Knowler family who were well known identities in Port Denison and is the only building in Port Denison retaining its original, although partly re-built, traditional verandah over the footpath.  The cement roughcast render and window finishes were applied in the mid-1970s.

Syd Knowler outside his house, c1940 I IRME1968

Knowler House, 1970s I IRME2297

16 -> Pearse’s Warehouse (site)
Other names: Beach Tea Rooms, Dolly’s Shop, Port Denison Post Office. Now Southerlys

This was originally the site of Edward Newman and Francis Pearse’s warehouse, a weatherboard and shingle building constructed in 1868. Their General Merchants and Shipping Agents business was bought out by Pearse and was the base of the sandalwood export section of the business. In 1927 lighthouse keeper Jack McIntyre purchased the building and with his wife Harriet ran tearooms, the Denison Post Office and newsagents. Denison’s first public telephone box operated from the footpath in front of the shop.  The business passed to their daughter and local character Dolly in the 1940s who operated it with her husband Jack Sloper. A masonry stepped façade replaced the original timber façade to the shop in the 1950s, creating a vaguely Dutch skyline later repeated in the Hall facing it. The McIntyres and Slopers took bookings for beach shelters, tennis courts and camping sites; sold hot water for teas; and hired fishing rods.  The building was demolished about 1990, and the present Southerlys Tavern now occupies the site.

McIntyre’s Shop 1920 I IRME0801

17 -> Russ’ Warehouse (site)
84 Point Leander Drive, now Carr’s House. Private residence.

A small timber cottage was built on this site by Absolom Russ c1880 as a warehouse and quarters for use when his cutter Clementina called atPort Irwin. In later years it was used by the Russ family for holidays. The cottage/warehouse was later demolished, and a small cottage built by local beekeeper Oliver Richards.  This cottage was later acquired and enlarged in 1965 by prominent local fisherman and identity Richard Earl (Dicky) Carr.  He added the blonde brick façade to the building, featuring an under-window panel with inlaid coral.  The coral was brought over from the Southern Group of the Abrolhos Islands.  The property remains in the Carr family.

Absolom Russ’s Warehouse (left), oil painting by Tom Reynolds c1910 I IRME3168-1

18 -> Dongara Denison Beach Holiday Park
Other names: Denison Caravan Park, Denison Café (site).

This was the first formal caravan park established in Port Denison. Following the closure of the Denison foreshore to casual camping, the Irwin Shire opened up the beachfront along what was the northern end of Hampton Street (now Ocean Drive) and built a beachside caravan park. It was officially opened in August 1961 by the Hon Les Logan, MLC. A popular café was built in the 1960s to service the caravan park, initially operated by Clarrie and Margaret Schulze.   A succession of café lessees operated the business well into the 1980s.  The caravan park was extensively redeveloped in the late 1980s, and the café building was demolished.  The original blonde brick manager’s residence and office remain in the park.  Grannies Beach developed below the café site as a sheltered swimming spot after the opening of the harbour in 1979, while the north end of the park adjoins Surf Beach

Denison Café, c1970 I IRME3012

Dongara State School pupils at opening of the caravan park in 1961 | IRME1783

Thank you for walking the Port Denison Heritage Trail.

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