The Tweed, A Short History
Twenty million years ago the Tweed area was a huge shield volcano stretching from Byron Bay to Nerang and far out to sea. Over eons of time the volcano became extinct and torrential rains washed away the lava, leaving a large volcanic plug, ‘Mt Warning’ and a caldera, the surrounding mountains, the McPherson and Nightcap Ranges and draining the new valley a river, ‘The Tweed’. Later the valley and its mountains were covered in lush, dense, sub tropical rainforests.
For thousands of years Aboriginal people lived in the Tweed area. They were the Nganduwal dialect tribal group. They lived as hunter-gatherers. Because food was very plentiful and consistently available, their lifestyle was settled compared to many other tribal groups.
Early European Contact
In 1770 Captain James Cook, sailing HMS Endeavour up the eastern coast of Australia, noted the reefs east of Cook Island and hove off the coast. The following morning he saw the sun on the mountain which he named Mt Warning. The Aboriginal name for the mountain is Wollumbin or Rainmaker.
In 1823, John Oxley in the cutter Mermaid, on a voyage from Sydney in search of a place for convict secondary punishment, discovered the river which he named the Tweed after the river on the English / Scottish border.
Five years later, Captain Rous in the frigate Rainbow, journeyed in a ship’s whale boat up the river. In the process he recaptured nine escapees from the Moreton Bay Penal Settlement. Later a military outpost was set up on Point Danger to recapture runaways. After a year the soldiers withdrew because of the hostilities with local indigenous people caused by infringements of their tribal customs.
First European Settlements
In 1844 the cedar-getters arrived searching for timber with which to build the houses of Sydney. They set up camp near deep water at ‘Taranora’ (Aboriginal for little river) on what is now Dry Dock Road in South Tweed Heads. Schooners carried the logs south. Unfortunately many of them were wrecked on the river bar, which remained shallow and full of shoals until the retaining walls were built in the 1890s when the channel in its turn started to continuously silt up.
Closely following the cedar-getters were the boat builders. They built schooners, river boats and clinker-built fishing and row boats to enable the settlers to get around the Tweed on the network of rivers before the development of roads, bridges and ferries were fully constructed in the 1930s.
The Introduction of Sugarcane
The Tweed was gradually opened up to selector farmers from 1866 to 1914. The first settlers tried many crops – corn, arrowroot and even opium – but finally settled on sugar as their staple crop in the late 1870s. The sugar crop generated the need for sugar mills and much labour. Small mills at Bilambil, Tumbulgum and Cudgen were gradually replaced by two large ones: the CSR mill at Condong and the Robb Mill at Cudgen.
The latter was one of the few ‘plantation’ mills in Australia, staffed largely by South Sea Island labour. It did not survive the introduction of the White Australia Policy. The descendants of the Islanders remained in the Valley for many years as a major component of the sugar gangs and the Condong Mill is still the economic mainstay of the Valley.
Transport Brings Growth
The towns of the Valley grew slowly. Tweed Heads began to develop from 1870 onwards after a pilot station was opened there, and later the villages of Murwillumbah, Tumbulgum, Chinderah, Tyalgum and Uki became service centres. The railway from Lismore reached Murwillumbah in 1894 and the rail from Brisbane arrived at Tweed Heads in 1903. They were linked by river ferries until the 1930s.
The primary sector diversified into dairying, banana growing and fishing at the beginning of the 1900s and became major exporters of produce.
Since World War II, tourism has emerged as a major industry which together with a large influx of retirees from southern Australia has made the Tweed Shire one of the fastest growing areas in Australia.
Compiled by: Combined Tweed River Historical Societies
For more Tweed history and culture, visit the Tweed Regional Museum.