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Grassy Hill Lighthouse

  • 601241
  • Grassy Hill, Cooktown


State Heritage
Register status
Date entered
8 April 1997
Transport—water: Lighthouse
2.1 Exploiting, utilising and transforming the land: Exploring, surveying and mapping the land
5.4 Moving goods, people and information: Using shipping
Construction period
Historical period
1870s–1890s Late 19th century


Grassy Hill, Cooktown
Cook Shire Council
-15.46073595, 145.25502002


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Criterion AThe place is important in demonstrating the evolution or pattern of Queensland’s history.

Grassy Hill lighthouse has been in continuous use as a navigation aid marking the entrance to the port of Cooktown at the mouth of the Endeavour River since 1886. It is significant for its close association with the growth of Cooktown as an important port in the 1880s, and illustrates the continued importance of maritime traffic to Cooktown, which was not accessible by land until 1937. It has historical significance as an early highway light on the Queensland coast, the site having been chosen by Captain George Poynter Heath, the first Portmaster of Queensland (1862-90) and a significant figure in the development of the Queensland lighthouse service. The place has historical significance also for marking Grassy Hill, the site of Cook's observation of the reef at the mouth of the Endeavour River, in 1770.

Criterion BThe place demonstrates rare, uncommon or endangered aspects of Queensland’s cultural heritage.

The tower remains substantially intact, and survives as a good example of a type of lighthouse construction - a round, timber-framed tower clad with corrugated iron - unique to Queensland and incorporating Queensland materials and building skills.

Only 7 of this specific type of lighthouse were constructed in Queensland in the last quarter of the 19th century, and only 3 remain in use and on their original site.

Grassy Hill lighthouse therefore is significant for its rarity and high degree of innovation.

Criterion DThe place is important in demonstrating the principal characteristics of a particular class of cultural places.

The tower remains substantially intact, and survives as a good example of a type of lighthouse construction - a round, timber-framed tower clad with corrugated iron - unique to Queensland and incorporating Queensland materials and building skills.

Criterion EThe place is important because of its aesthetic significance.

The lighthouse is significant also as a Cooktown landmark, visible from sea and air approaches for many miles. Although a comparatively small structure, the lighthouse has aesthetic value, with the white tower, capped by a bright red dome, isolated against the green foliage of Grassy Hill. It makes a dramatic visual statement in the natural landscape.

Criterion FThe place is important in demonstrating a high degree of creative or technical achievement at a particular period.

The tower remains substantially intact, and survives as a good example of a type of lighthouse construction - a round, timber-framed tower clad with corrugated iron - unique to Queensland and incorporating Queensland materials and building skills. This technology was innovative, and illustrates a unique adaptation of British technology to colonial economic and physical conditions.

Grassy Hill lighthouse therefore is significant for its rarity and high degree of innovation.

Criterion GThe place has a strong or special association with a particular community or cultural group for social, cultural or spiritual reasons.

The place has a strong association for the local and Queensland community with Cooktown history and identity.


Grassy Hill lighthouse was erected for the Queensland Department of Harbours and Rivers in 1886 to mark a safe passage to the port of Cooktown, at the mouth of the Endeavour River.

Cooktown was established in October 1873 as the Endeavour River port and administrative centre to the important Palmer River goldfields. Within six months of its establishment the town contained 20 restaurants, 12 large and 20 smaller stores, 6 butchers, 5 bakers, 3 tinsmiths, and chemists, fancygoods shops, watchmakers, bootmakers and saddlers; 65 publican's licenses had been issued for the Cooktown-Palmer River district, with 30 more applied for by April 1874. There was an estimated 3,000 floating population in the town itself, and thousands of men en route to the goldfields. Two Cooktown newspapers were established in 1874, a state school, customs house, court house, post office and several churches were erected by 1875, and the town was declared a municipality on 5 April 1876. The 1876 census revealed a population of over 9,200 persons on the then extensive Palmer goldfields, and the town of Cooktown had a population of just under 2,200.

In the 1880s Cooktown developed as the principal port of far North Queensland, and local business 'boomed'. Between 1884 and 1888 a railway was constructed from Cooktown to Laura, further opening the port to development. By the late 1880s it was the centre not only of a thriving mining district [boosted by the 1887 discovery of tin along the Annan River], but also of pearling, bêche-de-mer, and pastoral activity. After 1885 Cooktown was also the main port for Queensland trade with New Guinea.

Prior to the establishment of the light station at Grassy Hill in 1886, leading lights at the gable ends of the sheds on the Cooktown wharves enabled vessels to enter and leave the port at night. By 1882 a temporary light had been placed on the hill, but George Poynter Heath, Portmaster of Queensland 1862-90 and Chairman of the Queensland Marine Board 1869-90, reported to Parliament in 1883 and again in 1884 that this was very inefficient, and recommended that it be replaced by a proper building and apparatus. In the Estimates of 1884-85, the colonial government provided a £10,000 loan for the construction of a number of coastal lights, including that at Grassy Hill.

In mid-1885 Heath undertook a tour of inspection of Queensland lighthouses, and at Grassy Hill fixed the site for a new light. Grassy Hill already had strong historical significance for the European community. Lieutenant James Cook, camped beneath this hill from 13 June to 4 August 1770 to repair the Endeavour, climbed Grassy Hill to survey the ocean for a passage for his ship between the reefs at Endeavour River Bay. Besides the temporary light, a signal staff erected in May 1874, and a small cottage constructed 1878-79 for the signalman, were extant on Grassy Hill when the position of the new light was fixed.

The Grassy Hill lighthouse was erected in 1886 at a cost of £842/8/7 for the building and £156 for the lighting apparatus - a 4th Order Fixed Dioptric Light 180 made by Chance Bros & Co., Lighthouse Works, near Birmingham. GP Heath supervised the placing of the apparatus in the completed tower in mid-September 1886. It was a manned light, lit by kerosene. [As early as 1864 Heath had introduced the substitution of kerosene for oil, the former burning with greater brilliance.] The lighthouse keeper at Grassy Hill also maintained the signal station.

Grassy Hill lighthouse employs an innovative style of construction unique to Queensland. When separated from New South Wales in 1859, Queensland inherited only one lighthouse - the station at Cape Moreton, erected in 1857. The first lighthouses erected by the Queensland colonial government –Bustard Head in 1868 [QHR 601260] and Sandy Cape in 1870 [QHR 601712] – were constructed of cast-iron plates bolted to iron frames with internal iron staircases, the whole being prefabricated in England. However, for the Lady Elliott Island lighthouse [1872-73], Colonial Architect FDG Stanley designed a structure which utilised readily available local timber, specifying a hardwood frame clad with plated iron sheeting. This reduced the cost of construction substantially, and despite problems of termite infestation and rusting, this type of construction, or its derivative, a wooden frame with corrugated galvanised iron sheeting, became the standard for subsequent 19th century Queensland lighthouses. Between 1873 and 1901, 14 lighthouses were constructed in Queensland using hardwood framing and plated iron sheeting, and another 7 were constructed with hardwood frames and corrugated iron cladding. The latter were associated mostly with harbour entrances, such as at Grassy Hill at the mouth of the Endeavour River.

The lighthouse was maintained as single-man station by a series of lighthouse keepers who served as signalman and keeper. The lighthouse, situated within walking distance of Cooktown, was less isolated than many of Queensland’s other lighthouses. Keepers could participate in Cooktown’s social life, and those with families could send their children to school and access civic services. The position of the lighthouse was also praised by keepers, with the family of keeper Thomas Carter (1912-18) describing it as ‘an ideal spot – 500ft above sea level – got every breeze that blew… On clear days, with the telescope, it was possible to see the surf breaking on the outer edge of the Great Barrier Reef.’[1]

From 1 July 1915, the Commonwealth Government assumed control of Australian coastal lights, and the Grassy Hill light was among 28 Queensland lightstations transferred. At time of transfer, the Grassy Hill station comprised a circular galvanised iron tower on a concrete base, with nearby a flagpole and signal house and store. There was also the lightkeeper's quarters [erected in 1900 - possibly replacing the 1878-79 signalman's cottage] with a detached wooden kitchen, iron bathroom and sundry outhouses. The whole occupied a reserve of 10 acres, and buildings and optical apparatus were valued at £1,219. It was categorised as a 'Class C' station.

Prior to the 1915 transfer, a 1912 report commissioned by the Commonwealth Government, recommended that the Grassy Hill light be converted to an unwatched light. The light-keeper was to remain at the station for signal duties. Although all Queensland coastal light stations were provided with flag staffs and signal flags, at this period Grassy Hill was one of only 12 light stations connected with the State telegraph network. In 1913 a wireless station had been erected on a spur of Grassy Hill to permit radio contact with shipping, superseding the signal flag and heliograph previously used.

The lighthouse had been unsupervised from time to time; after keeper Thomas Carter died on Christmas Eve 1918, the light was unwatched until a new keeper was appointed in 1920.[2] Later in 1920, however, it was announced that the lighthouse would be made an unattended light, due to improved tidal conditions and reduced shipping at Cooktown.[3] The last keeper, Harry Geater, transferred from Grassy Hill with his family in May 1927, and the light was converted to automatic operation in June and July.[4] The prisms were glazed, allowing the light to be seen from Cooktown,[5] and the apparatus replaced with an open flame acetylene gas burner. The flagstaff was also removed.[6]

Although Cooktown was not accessible by land until 1937, by 1929 there was little traffic into the port. By 1959 this was limited to small tourist and supply vessels operating from Cairns. The Grassy Hill lighthouse had been maintained regularly by the Commonwealth Works Department during the 1930s and 1940s, with yearly inspections and maintenance. The Grassy Hill light which had been a significant landmark for the shipping which made Cooktown a bustling and prosperous port during the heyday of the Palmer River goldfields in the late 19th century, became a popular tourist attraction in the second half of the 20th century. In 1970 a sandstone cairn was placed on the crest of Grassy Hill, on the lighthouse reserve just above the lighthouse, to commemorate the bi-centenary of Cook's survey from the summit.

In November 1987 control of the Grassy Hill lighthouse was transferred from the Commonwealth back to the Queensland Government. Subsequently the lighthouse reserve was transferred unofficially to the Cook Shire Council as trustees, with the Queensland Department of Transport retaining responsibility for maintaining the light, and local community groups maintaining the tower. The light was converted to solar power c1993, and is maintained principally for the benefit of small craft and fishing vessels.


The lighthouse is sited a few metres below the summit of Grassy Hill 170m above sea level and 1km northeast of Cooktown, within a 3.766ha Reserve [R.134] for Lighthouse Purposes. The tower is visible from sea during the day for many miles to the north and northeast, and is a prominent Cooktown landmark from the air.

A few metres above the lighthouse, at the summit of Grassy Hill, is a level viewing platform with interpretative signage and a sandstone cairn marking the bi-centenary of Lieutenant James Cook's visual survey of the reef at the mouth of the Endeavour River in 1770. This vantage point offers spectacular views of Cooktown and hinterland, and of the Endeavour River estuary and the reefs and ocean beyond. A graded road circumnavigates the summit, permitting vehicular access to the lighthouse and viewing platform.

The lighthouse tower, located at the side of the access road, is 6 metres high and has a truncated conical base approximately 3metres in diameter at the concrete ground floor level. The base has a timber frame with corrugated iron cladding and small rectangular windows situated on the south and east sides.

A small corrugated iron-clad, timber-framed entry with a convex corrugated iron roof is situated on the west side. The entry has tongue and groove timber double doors.

A surrounding walkway which is supported on timber brackets sits above the conical base and has a lightweight tubular balustrade. The cylindrical lantern with a hemispherical dome sits above the base and has a glazed top half divided octagonally on plan with cast iron skirt below.

Internal access to the light is via a timber stair. There are a number of large gas cylinders inside the tower, relics of the unmanned acetylene gas apparatus which functioned from 1927 to c1993.

Of the 7 timber-framed, corrugated iron-clad lighthouses erected by the Queensland colonial government in the late 19th century, only those on Grassy Hill [1886], Little Sea Hill [1886] and Goode Island [1886-87] remain in use and in situ. Caloundra Head [1896] has been decommissioned, removed to Golden Beach, and is now maintained by the Caloundra City Council. The lighthouse at Bay Rock [erected 1886 near Townsville] has been removed to the Townsville Maritime Museum and re-erected on a steel frame. Two other timber-framed, corrugated iron clad lighthouses - North Point Hummock [1894] on Moreton Island and Gatcombe Head [1900] near Gladstone - have been demolished.


[1] Joseph Henry Carter, Australian Lighthouses… My early years (unpublished memoirs), 1969; Joseph Carter, Queensland Lighthouse history of a family named Carter (unpublished paper), p2; The Week 2 August 1912 p4.
[2] Joseph Henry Carter, Australian Lighthouses… My early years (unpublished memoirs), 1969; Joseph Carter, Queensland Lighthouse history of a family named Carter (unpublished paper), pp2-3; Daily Mail 19 November 1920 p5; Commonwealth of Australia Gazette, 18 October 1920, Issue 88, p1497; and 11 November 1920, Issue 96, p2068.
[3] Daily Mail 19 November 1920 p5.
[4] Townsville Daily Bulletin 30 May 1927 p5, 15 June 1927 p8 and 16 July 1927 p13; Brisbane Courier 29 June 1927 p18.
[5] Townsville Daily Bulletin 30 May 1927 p5.
[6] Townsville Daily Bulletin 16 July 1927 p13.

Image gallery


Location of Grassy Hill Lighthouse within Queensland
Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)
Last reviewed
1 July 2022
Last updated
20 February 2022
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