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Cossack, WA

Historic ghost town and one-time port on the Harding River

Cossack is an historic ghost town at the mouth of the Harding River. A thriving port in the 1870s, it was a sleepy ghost town by the 1910s and by the 1970s it was nothing more than a few buildings on the edge of Butchers Inlet - a place which today attracts anglers and curious travellers. It is an interesting collection of buildings which have withstood the violence of the cyclones and stood silently on this lonely shoreline.


Cossack is located 14 km from Roebourne and 1566 km north of Perth. Point Samson is 20 km from Roebourne.


Origin of Name

The first settler in the district was Walter Padbury who named the harbour Tien Tsin after the barque which brought him to the area. In 1871 the name was changed to Cossack which was the name of the vessel which brought the Western Australian Governor, Sir Frederick Weld, to the area. 


Things to See and Do

Cossack Heritage Trail
There is an excellent Cossack Heritage Trail brochure which can be downloaded at http://karratha.wa.gov.au/sites/default/files/uploads/2016Cossack-brochure-web.pdf. Copies are available at the Karratha Visitor Centre.
The Heritage Trail is divided into six places of interest on the Walk Trail and 9 places of interest on the Drive Trail. In total the places of interest are spread over five kilometres and it is possible to walk to most of the main attractions. 

Walk Trail
1. Cossack Wharf 
The stone wharf (c.1870) is a reminder of Cossack's role as an important port on the Pilbara. The stone building is named after Captain Jarman, the pilot of the barque Tien Tsin, which first brought Europeans to the harbour. Today the wharf is surrounded by mangroves which are home to crabs, snakes and mud skippers. At high tide it is possible to see marine turtles in the waters.

2. Customs House and Bond Store
The Bonded Store and Customs House (1895) was designed by George Temple Poole. The supervisor of the restoration of the town has written of this building that "It was built for administrative purposes and its design reflects the still high prominence of the British Empire in Australia. It was built to last."
The stone Customs House is testimony to the period when Cossack served as an important colonial port, prior to the transfer of the port to Point Samson at the outset of the 20th century. It was restored and re-opened in August, 2001 with the following press release: "The port of Cossack, established in 1863, was the first port in the north-west of Western Australia. In a short time it became a very busy port, greatly relied on by settlers for essential supplies, as well as news from Perth, interstate and overseas. Customs played an essential role in the control of imports and exports, and the collection of duty and taxes. It is very fitting that this historic building, which was constructed six years before Federation, has now been restored.
"Achievements since Federation in 1901 are woven into the interpretation of the site. This history is displayed in pictorial form and represented by artefacts of customs and pearling in the Pilbara."

3. Post and Telegraph office
The Post and Telegraph Office was one of the earliest stone buildings in the town. It was constructed using local shell limestone, most probably in the early 1880s. The ground floor was originally a customs house with a chemist and post office upstairs.

4. Police Barracks, Cookhouse and Lockup
Located in Perseverance Street, the old stone police quarters and gaol date from 1898. Today it is modestly priced dormitory accommodation. The first policemen in the town were three water police who arrived in 1866.

5. Court House
The two-storey courthouse, built in 1895, was designed by George Temple Poole, an Italian born, British architect who was, at the time, the WA Superintendant of Public Works. Built of stone from the ballast of ships, its wide veranda and heavy rusticated pillars make it the most prominent building in the town. It is also a monument to Poole's understanding of the heat in the area. It is designed to keep the interior cool. Today the Court House is a free museum with a genuinely fascinating collection which includes an intact old court room complete with benches and the elevated place for the local magistrate or judge. A history of the Asian population in Cossack and a personal history of William Shakespeare Hall, a pioneer explorer and early settler.

6. Galbraith's Store
Galbraith's Store (c.1891) was the first building erected from local bluestone. Galbraith's had started in Scotland. It is a comment on their intentions about establishing stores around the world, and the status of the port at the time, that they chose Cossack as a suitable place to open a store.

Drive Trail
1. North West Mercantile Store
The first building on this site was constructed in 1872 and unroofed by a cyclone in the same year. By 1886 the current impressive building was completed and converted into a store in 1887.

2. Tien Tsin Lookout
Tien Tsin Lookout offers an excellent view of the town and area. Settlers Beach is a safe sandy location for families. The lookout offers a view of the Leprosarium which was located across the inlet and run by the Medical Department from 1913 to 1931.

3. School House and Tramway
The first school in Cossack was made of wood and iron and completed in 1883. It was destroyed by a cyclone in 1894 which forced the children to travel by horse drawn tram to Roebourne. This new building was completed in 1896 but was closed periodically. In 1900, for example, the school closed and the students were transported to Roebourne. Conditions were harsh and primitive. In 1897 a student trod on a nail in the playground and subsequently died of tetanus.

4. Steam Lighter and Tram Station
This marker records the remains of the wreck of Cossack's steam lighter, the Silver Star. The steam lighters were used to ferry passengers and goods from ships which were too large to enter the port.

5. Chinese Market Gardens
Numbers of Chinese and Japanese settled in Cossack and this is where the Chinese established their market gardens.

6. Afghan Transit Camp
In the 1870s this area was the winter home for the Asian pearl divers. It was divided into 'Chinatown', 'Japtown' and 'Malaytown' and there is evidence that the separate areas had stores, tailors, bath houses and even brothels. The people referred to as Afghans were often people from the South Pacific Islands and from Middle Eastern countries.

8. Reader Head Lookout
Reader Head is recorded as early as 1863 when Government Surveyor, C.C. Hunt, included it in a map of Tien Tsin Harbour. It is located at the northern end of Butcher's Inlet. The first light beacon for Cossack was a oil or kerosene light which was hung from Reader Head. This predated the lighthouse on Jarman Island. The Head has extensive views up and down the coast including the mouth of the Harding River, the towns of Roebourne, Point Samson and Cape Lambert and the Perserverance Rocks.

9. European and Asian Cemetery
Located along Perserverance Road, the cemetery offers a unique insight into the life of Cossack in the 1870s. At that time the port was the winter home for the Asian pearl divers. It was divided into 'Chinatown', 'Japtown' and 'Malaytown' and there is evidence that the separate areas had stores, tailors, bath houses and even brothels.
The two cemeteries (the European and Japanese) are located on the sand dunes beyond the edge of town. The Japanese cemetery - a total of nine grave sites - is the resting place for Japanese pearl divers who either were lost at sea or drowned while diving.
The European cemetery is the resting place of William Shakespeare Hall, one of the members of F.W. Gregory's party, and of 10-year-old Laura Peirl, the daughter of the local policeman, who died of tetanus after treading on a nail: a stark reminder of the hardships of isolated life. 


Other Attractions in the Area

Jarman Island Lighthouse 
The Jarman Island lighthouse is not accessible unless you have a boat. For many years it has been on the endangered list but there is a new level of commitment from both local residents and the local mining companies. The excellent Lighthouses of Australia website (http://www.lighthouses.org.au/lights/WA/Jarman%20Island/Jarman%20Island.htm) explains - this has been abridged - the history:
"The Jarman Island Lighthouse is a segmented cast iron sea lights which used a newly developed pre-fabricated cast iron tower imported from England.
"Cast iron towers were established as a viable way of getting lights to remote areas. The new design technique was innovative and represented a new era in lighthouse construction. As they were pre-fabricated, they could be constructed in remote areas with much more ease than one of stone. The lighthouse industry had reached the point in 1887 where a complete lighthouse could be packed and shipped from England for erection in Australia. The lighthouse at Jarman was complete except for the lens which seems to have been sent separately. The tower body of the Jarman Island lighthouse is composed of cast iron plated a little more than one inch (28 mm) thick, flanged and bolted on the inside presenting a smooth face to the exterior. This type of construction was developed so that salt laden spray would not cause corrosion at the joints. The lighthouse came complete from England with the tools for its construction and the paint to protect it.
"The Resident Engineer for the North West, W L Owen and Chief Government Architect George Temple Poole were responsible for the design and construction of the new light station.
"The labour for the construction were prisoners from Malaysia, the Philippines, China and Arabian countries, the majority of which were from the pearling fleet which was at that time laid up in Cossack during the cyclone season.
"The rubble and concrete duplex keepers quarters were also erected in 1888 and is typical of other buildings around Roebourne of that era. Pre-cast concrete blocks were used for corners, doors and windows. The unique feature of the 1888 dwelling is the curved concrete shell roof. Unfortunately this did not suit the climate and in 1895 the whole structure was given a new roof and a verandah all around.
"The original light was a flashing second order lantern with a four wick Douglas burner. The fuel was kerosene or paraffin oil. The lamp was replaced in 1910 by a 55 mm incandescent lamp using a vaporised kerosene mantle."
"Between 1922 and 1941, the island was leased to J & T Muramats who are said to have used the place for holidays. In the 1950s the quarters and adjacent buildings were stripped of useful material and abandoned. The lighthouse was turned of for the last time in 1985 when the Cape Lambert lighthouse became operational.
"The size of the island is approximately 16 ha. The lighthouse is painted red and white. Steel ladders and landings provide internal access to the lantern room."
Recently the Shire of Roebourne was awarded $75,000 to conserve and restore the lighthouse.

Staircase to the Moon at Point Samson
Between March and October, on an average of three times a month, the remarkably beautiful natural phenomenon named "Staircase to the Moon" occurs. The phenomenon is created when a full moon shines on the exposed mudflats at very low tide. The result is an illusion which looks like stairs reaching to the moon. It can be observed at Onslow, Dampier, Point Samson, Hearson Cove, Cossack, Port Hedland and Broome. Check out http://www.visitbroome.com.au/discover/facts-figures/staircase-to-the-moon for dates and times.



* Prior to the arrival of Europeans the area was home to people from the Jaburrara First Nations language group.

* Cossack was established in 1863 when Walter Padbury, the first settler in the region, charted the harbour and named it Tien Tsin after the barque which had brought him to the area. In the early days it was also known as Port Walcott, North District and The Landing.

* From 1866 Cossack was a centre for pearl divers. 

* Cossack became the port for the pastoral industry which, by 1869, had over 39,000 sheep in the Pilbara.

* By the 1870s over 80 boats were operating out of the port and divers from Japan, the Philippines, Malaysia and China were working in the area.

* In 1871 the name was changed to Cossack in honour of the warship which carried the Western Australian Governor, Sir Frederick Weld, to the area. 

* The townsite was officially declared in 1872. 

* By 1887 a horse drawn tramway had been built connecting the port with the town of Roebourne.

* The Jarman Island lighthouse was erected in 1888.

* Hundreds of prospectors arrived at the port when gold was discovered in the Pilbara in the 1880s. 

* On 4 April, 1898 a major cyclone destroyed much of the town.

* By 1899 a traveller reached the port and wrote of it: "With the exception of three good-sized buildings, all of the inevitable galvanised-iron types, and a cluster of disreputable shanties made chiefly of empty beer-cases and flattened kerosene cans, I saw nothing to warrant the name of a town. 'Heavens!' said I to myself, 'this surely can't be Cossack!'' Another writer noted that the area was so prone to cyclones that "all the houses, hotels and stores along the waterfront were chained to the ground with large ships' chains".

* By 1900 the pearling fleet had moved north to Broome to take advantage of the pearl beds in the area. 

* By 1910 the harbour had silted up and Cossack had become virtually a ghost town. 

* In 1910 the municipality was dissolved. Point Samson became the main port for Roebourne.

* People continued to live in Cossack until after World War II.

* By 1950 it had become a ghost town. 

* In 1976 a committee was formed to restore the town as a kind of museum.

* In 1985 the Jarman Island lighthouse was turned off.

* Recently the Federal Government has given $75,000 to restore the Jarman Island lighthouse as a possible tourist attraction.


Visitor Information

There is no Visitor Centre in town. Information is available at Karratha Visitor Centre, Lot 4548, De Witt Road, tel: (08) 9144 4600.



The Old Police Barracks offers budget accommodation. Contact Cossack Budget Accommodation on (08) 9182 1190 or 0408 937 677.



There is a cafe which is open in the winter months (May to September).


Useful Websites

There is a lot of useful information at https://www.australiasnorthwest.com/explore/pilbara/cossack.

Got something to add?

Have we missed something or got a top tip for this town? Have your say below.

12 suggestions
  • Hoping more history.
    My ancestors were Galbraith family who built the Galbraith Trading Store after moving to Australia from Scotland! With thanx for any further information.

    Dawn Murphy
  • I visited Cossack frequently during 1970 and 1971. The court house had been restored and the Bond Store – Customs House was still in good condition. Looters had been in the area excavating the old tip to collect old bottles etc. and smashing the remains. I bought a small book back then written by one of the town’s earlier inhabitants. It described the locations of the various buildings such as the Weld Hotel and life in Cossack during it’s heyday.
    In the 190s you had to pick the tide before going there as the high tide covered the access at the causeway. Perhaps that has been fixed by now?

    William McEwan
  • We visited Cossack today after being there around 8 years ago . It was a real treasure to see the great improvements to the area in this small amount of time. It’s a thriving tourist destination worth seeing and enjoying the restored buildings gardens and the excellent Cafe with awsome coffee and cakes to enjoy.

    Carolyn Thomas
  • I thought Shakespeare Hall was documented as being the first white man in Cossack and not Walter Padbury but I could be wrong. Battye Library has his diaries. He rescued the Withnells when the ship they were on capsized.

    Robyn Mcsweeney
  • I remember years ago going to the WA State Library to study Cossack, and learnt of a cannery which existed at Cossack, and the item that was canned was surprising. Unfortunately I can’t remember what it was and I have since been unable to find reference to it. I know it was not shellfish meat or seafood.

  • Hi. We visited Cossack in 1972 as kids. I have a framed print in my Perth house of Cossack buildings. I also have a heavy wood table on my decking which was apparently made from the jetty timbers of Cape Lambert when the new out load facility was built. Any history available on this jetty. I’m refurbishing the table now as it sat on a Scarborough balcony for many years and put there by a previous owner who was in the early iron ore days. Cheers. Andrew

    Andrew Whitlock
  • I spent two years at the Burmah Oil facility on the edge of Point Sampson 1967-1969 where we had our camp and helicopter base for the oil drilling program out at Ashmore Reef.. I had access to our 24 foot company ‘tinny’ and in my time off used to visit Cossack before any restoration work had been done. I was quite fascinated by the several beautiful stone buildings that had survived the ravages of time and occasional cyclones. Along the sea-shore between Point Samson and Cossack one was always assured of a good feed of rock-oysters. I have visited Cossack several times after I retired in 2000. Yes indeed, Cossack has a sad legacy of its treatment of the Aboriginal inhabitants as do many other towns throughout Australia. However I was delighted to see the breath of life being breathed into an historic town that has such a colourful backstory that hints of Tien Tsin’s (Tea and Sin) reputation as being Australia’s ‘Pirate Hideaway. When I first approached it coming in via the Harding River I was fascinated with its intact 19th century stone wharf and striking stone buildings. Surely it would have to fire the imagination of a movie director looking for a 19th century port for a seafaring adventure movie.

  • My wife and I were caretakers at Cossack for 3 years. It was a privilege to be a part of the ongoing history of the town. Whilst significant restoration of the buildings has taken place, significant ongoing funding, just to maintain what has been restored, has been difficult to obtain. There has always been some pressure to open Cossack to more consumer-friendly tourism, which I do not object to, but it has to be within the constraints of maintaining the heritage values and not over-taxing the limited resources (the power supply and water connection to Cossack, in our day at least, would not support any additional infrastructure.)
    I see from the photos that some of the trees, that I planted during our tenure, have survived and appear to be thriving. A very heartening sight, indeed, given the harsh climate of the area.

    Russell Heaton
  • My Great Great Parents The Bruce family had Lot 1 at Cossack. I only wish it was mine now. It was approx 150m due north of Nanny Goat Hill.
    I am so disappointed that some of my relations are buried in the Cossack Cemetry and NO ONE can tell me where thier grave sites are within the cemery bouindaries as they are not marked. Historical history is important for this area as they were also in Roebourne and Pt Samson area as well.

    Graeme Robert Bruce
    • Hi Graeme, I am descended through Francis Teresa Bruce who married Bertie Purser. They are my grandparents. Would you be interested in sharing any family history that we might have?
      Shelly Beckett

      Shelly Beckett
  • During the 1970s, I had cleaning contracts in Roebourne and Wickham, and also had a craft shop (Feetche’s & Creem).
    I had a lot to do with Kath Koehler and her husband who lived at Cossack and did a huge amount of restoration. I am trying to remember their names (John and Kath?), as she used her maiden name for her art.
    Last heard from, Kath was wanting to buy back a statue she made for me to exhibit with her work in New York. It is of an aboriginal woman and child.
    I helped organise a bush dance at the Custom House with Mucky Duck Bush Band. We held art exhibitions there as well. Local JP Ron Hold held court once at the restored Court House. We organised a fun run from Wickham to Cossack with about 90 competitors.
    Kath was still there when I left the area in 1982.
    Can anyone add to their history

    Brian Thomas
  • I visited Cossack in the 1970’s and at the time my mother told me that my great grandfather, (John Sherlock Brooking who was the Deputy Surveyor General of WA under Sir John Forrest) was responsible for siting the town of Cossack at the mouth of the River.
    She said that it was always a bit of a family embarrassment as no thought was given to the longevity of the Port and after a cyclone the river silted up and the town became redundant.
    I do not know if this was completely true as I cannot find much supporting evidence but it would be nice to know if my mother was at least close to the truth.