In 1839, Lieutenant George Grey embarked on a journey, passing through this area and naming one of the rivers he came across “Irwin River’, in honour of his friend Major Irwin who was then Commandant of the Swan River Colony. Grey had been shipwrecked at Gantheaume Bay (near Kalbarri), while exploring the coast at the mouth of the Murchison River.
A team of men under the leadership of the Gregory brothers rediscovered Irwin River in 1845. Their sighting took place further east, where they happen to come upon a seam of coal in the river bed.
Excited by this and the large areas of pastoral land around, they sent a glowing report back to Perth. As a result, three men set out with cattle and sheep to settle in the region of the Irwin River. Thus in 1850 the first settlers arrived.
In 1852 a town site was surveyed and named Thungarra- a name given to the area by the local Indigenous people which meant ‘a meeting place of seals’. Anglising of this name gives Dongara its present name.
The Irwin River mouth with its lagoon estuary and offshore reefs was an ideal home for many birds and animals including Australian sea lions and fur seals.
In 1854, 367 people populated the region.
The first flour mill was built in 1859. A few years later it became the stately residence of the town’s first doctor, Dr. Bartlett. The building is now known as Denison House, owned by the Shire of Irwin and houses local art groups.
In 1864, the tiny Irwin settlement received its first mail service carried up the stock route from Perth via horse. Horse races were held in that same year. One hundred years later on the exact same spot, the presence of oil and gas was discovered.
A jetty was built at Port Irwin (now known as Port Denison) in 1867, as several ships visited the port on a weekly basis, bringing in supplies and taking away products of the district such as wheat, flour, wool and sandalwood. In the same year, Joseph Walton applied for a licence to run an Inn. The Inn was built and has since been added onto to which is now known as the Dongara Hotel Motel.
Between 1870-71, the Irwin Road Board formed and several shops, a school, police station and Court House were built.
William Criddle built the town’s second hotel in 1881. It was acquired by the Dominican Sisters in 1902 and they added a second storey to the building. Then in 1926 the college was added. In the following 44 years it was open, hundreds of girls received their education within its walls. It is now known as the Priory Hotel.
The Irwin River was crossed in shallow areas until 1888-89 when the bridge was built between Dongara & Port Denison.
The Moreton Bay Fig trees that line Moreton Terrace were planted in 1906 by Mr. Robert Russ, these magnificent trees are now heritage listed.
As early as 1912, the foreshore became a popular place for picnics and bathing. The Irwin Road Board built shelter sheds with seats which have been replaced over the years.
The ‘Denison’ town site is proclaimed and gazetted in 1921.
The first electric lights in town were turned on in 1939, run by Mr. J Brennand.
Following World War 2 when roads and vehicles had improved and petrol rationing had ceased, more and more families took their summer holidays and swimming lessons at the beach.
The new Dongara- Denison bridge is opened by Sir David Brand in 1964.
Over the years camping conditions have improved with the introduction of caravans. The camping areas were all around the point, past South Beach, until the 1970’s when the new caravan park was established near the surf beach. Now you can camp at any one of the four caravan parks but no longer on the beach.
The Russ Cottage was opened in 1971 by the Premier of Western Australia, Sir David Brand. The Russ Cottage was acquired by the Shire of Irwin from the Russ family 100 years after it was built. The Irwin District Historical Society leased the cottage and its volunteers restored the building as it was badly deteriorated. The Russ Cottage is a fine example of a rural worker’s home of over 145 years ago.
The name Port Denison was officially gazetted in 1973.
A centenary celebration for the Moreton Bay Fig trees were held in 2003, they became heritage listed.
*information supplied by the Irwin District Historical Society
The Shire of Irwin’s Oral History project worked with the Dongara District High School Year 6 students to produce thirteen videos on historic sites with audio layover from our interviewees.
Image credit: Chris Veehuis