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Burke trail

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Photo of a place on Burke trail

The small settlement of Burketown is located on the Albert River which connects to the Gulf of Carpentaria. It has a fascinating history.

The region was explored in 1841 by John Lort Stokes aboard HMS ‘Beagle’. (The ‘Beagle’ is better known as the ship that carried geologist Charles Darwin to South America, New Zealand and Sydney between 1831 and 1836. His observations formed the nucleus of his theory of evolution.) Stokes named the region the ‘Plains of Promise’ because of its grazing potential. In 1861, William Landsborough, in search of Burke and Wills, anchored the small brig Firefly in the Albert River. The town of Burketown was later established nearby. Burketown was established in 1865, with Landsborough as Police Magistrate and Commissioner for Crown Lands. When Queensland was proclaimed in 1859, its western border was gazetted at the 141st meridian. The border was extended to the 138th meridian in 1862 to include the ‘Plains of Promise’.

The Edkins brothers built a boiling down works in 1866, and by 1867 they had perfected a beef curing technique which allowed for beef to be exported via the ‘port of Burketown’, with its jetty on the Albert River.

During 1866, Burketown residents were struck down with a mystery fever, thought to be typhoid. Many moved to nearby Sweers Island. Burketown declined and Normanton became a port in 1868.

Burketown’s cattle industry was revived in the mid-1870s when it supplied meat to the Palmer River goldfields. By 1884, the district reportedly grazed 400,000 head of cattle. The remnants of the 1882 ‘Westmoreland’ homestead, once part of a large grazing run, remain near the Northern Territory border.

Burketown was resurveyed in 1884, in the expectation of the international telegraph line passing through. Public services were reinstated and a new local government formed: the Burke Divisional Board. Eventually, the international telegraph contract went to South Australia, and Burketown had to be content with a Queensland telegraph line, which arrived via Normanton in October 1886.

In 1884, Burketown had a mixed population of Europeans, Chinese, Malays and Aboriginals. There were three hotels, a cordial manufacturer, a chemist, a Chinese-operated bakery and butchery, a Burns Philp’s store, a police magistrate and five officers. A branch of the Queensland National Bank opened in 1885. The town was devastated by a cyclone in March 1887 which unroofed the new post and telegraph office and damaged every building in town, apart from the Customs House and Police Barracks.

A new meatworks was established in 1892. The Federation drought caused its closure in 1903. The railway to Cloncurry was completed in 1907 and once the seasons improved, cattle could be railed to the Townsville meatworks. Burketown remained an operational port and a new customs house was built in 1902. This was closed in the early 20th century and converted into a pub in the 1950s. The post office was relocated and now serves as the local tourism office.

About 200km to the south-west of Burketown is the Boodjamull (Lawn Hill) National Park, which includes the beautiful Lawn Hill Gorge and World Heritage listed Riversleigh Fossil Field.


Listing 3 places within this trail.

Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)
Last reviewed
1 July 2022
Last updated
28 February 2023