Area history

Northern side of Port Stephens, image sourced from Google satellite maps

Worimi Nation

North Arm Cove and the wider region of Port Stephens is the traditional land of the Worimi Aboriginal people. Proceeding colonial settlement, the Worimi Nation consisted of many nurra (clans) who spoke dialects of the Gathang language. The Gooreenggai Nurra lived in the North Arm Cove area, along the northern side of Port Stephens from the Karuah River to Tea Gardens. Evidence of Worimi history can be found in the occupational sites and artefacts, such as scar trees and shell middens. The Gathang name for North Arm Cove point is Weepi
Located in the middle of North Arm Cove is the Gooreenggai Aboriginal Site. This is a traditional men's ceremonial site, with twelve human-constructed stone arrangements roughly similar in shape, forming an oval or horseshoe shape with a clear opening. Local Aboriginal people continue to use this site to pass on the knowledge of its significance. Gooreenggai can be accessed via the bush-walking trails near Gunyah, please be respectful and considerate around this scared site. Little Gibber/Dark Point and Bulahdelah Mountain are other nearby significant Aboriginal Places. These sites are activated and cared for by Karuah Local Aboriginal Land Council.   

North Arm Cove, photo by Kath Fries

Colonial history

Captain James Cook named Port Stephens when he sailed past in May 1770. Several escaped convicts lived here amongst the Worimi people in the 1790s. Cedar loggers first began visiting the area in 1816, bringing disease and conflict to the Worimi. Then in 1827 Robert Dawson, of the Australian Agricultural Company, arrived in Tahlee with 200 convicts, 2000 cattle and 700 sheep. He was greeted and assisted by the Worimi, it is unlikely these early settlers would have survived without the assistance of the local people. The Tahlee settlement grew to a population of 500 in 1830. Over the next ten years, as more settlers arrived and took up land grants in the area, the Worimi people lost land, sacred sites and hunting grounds. By the 1840s the Worimi people's natural food supplies were almost exhausted; due to setters' timber logging, shooting wildlife and cattle grazing. Conflicts between settlers and Worimi over stolen stock resulted in horrific massacres and harsh legislations. The Worimi were driven off their lands and forced to work for merge rations. In the late 1890s the Aboriginal Protection Board compelled all Aboriginal people to move to reserves. The Karuah Reserve was set up in 1898, language and traditional cultural practices were banned, and the government systematically separated children from their parents (more info). In 1924 the North Coast Aboriginal tribes formed the Australian Aboriginal Progressive Association to protest the loss of lands, farms and children, and to lobby for equal civil rights, it wasn't until the 1967 referendum that full citizenship rights were given to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Today, Worimi culture and history is gradually being acknowledged and respected, for example the road entering North Arm Cove from the Pacific Hwy was named Gooreengi Road in 2006 (more info). There are numerous ceremonial, hunting and gathering sites in the North Arm Cove, Karuah, Tahlee, and Carrington areas, several of which are still used. Language and culture are now being revitalised through the oral traditions and training of young local Aboriginal people by their elders (link).

Walter Burley Griffin, Port Stephens City, 1918

Dividing up the land 

In 1899, the government considered North Arm Cove as a potential site for the nation’s capital, but in 1908 the Canberra site was decided on instead. Despite this, Walter Burley Griffin's 'great city plan' - transforming North Arm Cove into Port Stephens City (the New York of Australia!), was approved by the Stroud Shire Council in 1918. Port Stephens City was intended to become a main international seaport; Griffin's ambitious plan shows two railway stations, a business district, Federal and State office sites, a factory district, car parks, wharves, parks and playgrounds. Initially many land lots were sold but enthusiasm gradually petered out as the government focused on the Port of Newcastle as the region's industrial centre and funds ran low in the 1930s Great Depression. The following decades were very quiet in this forgotten backwater and the ambitious aspirations for developing North Arm Cove dried up. By the early 1960s the Great Lakes Council closed most of the roads planned in Griffin's subdivision, setting aside a small area for residential expansion, and zoning the rest as non-urban. In the late 1970s the waterfront land that had been retained by government for public use was gradually sold off. North Arm Cove village is today concentrated in these waterfront areas along three sealed roads, with the central bushland area zoned as non-urban and subsequently remaining undeveloped (more info). However, most of Griffin's original streets from 1918 remain as dirt roads - although they look real enough on most maps - and can easily be explored on foot when bushwalking. 

The 'ghost' roads of North Arm Cove on Google Maps
(please note that most of these roads can only be accessed by foot)

Other reference links:

Recommended reading - Aboriginal Women's Heritage: Port Stephens
(Kath Schilling, Sharon Veale, Sabine Parti: NSW Department of Environment and Conservation, 2004)