Bowen, a coastal town, is about midway between Mackay and Townsville and 990 km north of Brisbane. Its economy draws principally on mining and agriculture with some spin-off from the Whitsunday Islands.
In early 1860 George Dalrymple returned to Brisbane with an optimistic description of the country between Rockhampton and Bowen, and John Mackay reported on his discovery of good pastoral country in the Pioneer Valley, Mackay. The Queensland Government, encouraged by these reports, commissioned a coastal exploratory party to investigate possible harbours beyond Rockhampton. It already knew of the identification in 1859 of Port Denison by Captain Henry Sinclair, who described it as screened by islands and evocative of the Bay of Naples. The Government's exploratory party, commanded by Lieutenant J.W. Smith in the Spitfire, confirmed Sinclair's report and decided to establish a township on the Port Denison harbour. Named Bowen after the Governor of Queensland, it was the first township north of Rockhampton. Dalrymple travelled overland with over a dozen prospective squatters and Sinclair returned with a party of settlers: in April 1861 the two parties came together for the proclamation of the township.
Bowen became the base for the pastoral conquest of north Queensland. By 1865 its European population exceeded 1000 people as the port transhipped supplies to the new outback stations. Its merchants established a trading depot at the village of Dalrymple on the upper Burdekin, a sensible solution to the seasonal isolation of Bowen from its hinterland when there were floods.
In 1863 Bowen was proclaimed a municipality and in 1865-66 at Port Denison a jetty with a tramway was built out to 12 feet of water (low tide). In 1869 Bowen was connected by telegraph to Townsville, a potential new port which had been founded in 1864. Townsville was languishing as a pastoral outpost, and in 1865 some of its more eager inhabitants offered a reward for the discovery of gold that would turn their port into a transhipment centre and promote their pastoral output. After some hopeful finds, the discovery of gold at Ravenswood and Charters Towers, 100 km south-west of Townsville, provided the answer. A port at Townsville also proved to be a better option than crossing the often swollen Burdekin to Port Denison.
By the end of the 1860s Bowen had a Church of England, a Freemasons' lodge, a Catholic church and convent, the Bowen Sugar Company and an embryonic cotton-growing industry. The Sisters of St Joseph established St Mary's School in 1873, the first Catholic school in the Townsville diocese. All these auguries, however, amounted to less than they seemed when the sugar company failed - rainfall was insufficient - and the end of the American civil war ended Australia's market for cotton. In 1875 the jetty was found to be worm-ridden. A description of Bowen, overlooking these difficulties, appeared in the Australian Handbook in 1876:
In the 1880s the jetty was rebuilt and kept accessible by dredging. A meatworks was opened on Poole Island, but failed within a few years. Damaged in 1884 by a cyclone that flattened the town, the meatworks was kept going by further investment but given up after poor trading returns. Another hopeful enterprise was promoted by the Bowen River Coal Association (1875) which had R. Logan Jack commissioned to survey coal deposits at Pelican Creek. In the 1880s a railway line to the Bowen coalfield was promised (Townsville had an inland line in 1882 and Mackay a sugar line to Eton in 1886), but Bowen's railway fund was dissipated on a coastal connection between Townsville and Ayr, to Bowen's north.
In 1902 Bowen and the Wangaratta divisional board formed a joint venture for a tramway, hoping to capture sugar trade from Proserpine. The Bowen-Proserpine tramway, with government assistance, was opened in 1910 and incorporated into the North Coast line in 1918. A second attempt at a meatworks succeeded at Merinda (1897), 8 km west of Bowen, which for a short time also had a railway service. Bowen's population in the early 1900s numbered not much over 1000 - close to the number in 1865. It had a school of arts, a hospital, a commodious pier and a swing basin dredged to 22 feet deep. The harbour was rated as one of the best on the east coast, secure in all weathers.
In 1913 the North Coast railway was complete except for Proserpine to Mackay and the bridging of the Burdekin River, the flood-prone stream that had cut off Bowen from its pastoral destiny. Later that year the bridge over the Burdekin to Townsville opened, giving the Merinda meatworks a larger share of the cattle industry.
Expansion of the north Queensland railways revealed the shortage of local coal supplies. The Queensland government, aided by Bowen business people who formed the Bowen River Coal Prospecting Syndicate (1912), revisited Logan Jack's exploratory boreholes at Pelican Creek. Private explorations indicated a complex web of coal deposits. In 1915 the Labor government introduced policies for State-owned collieries and an iron and steel works. Both were promised for Bowen, but a lack of loan funds prevented the iron and steel works being realised. The coal deposits were the foundation of Collinsville, 90 km to the south-west, which was linked to Bowen by rail in 1922.
Plans for Bowen also included exporting coal to China, which would require a concrete pier and an electric transporter crane. Unfortunately the coal contract did not eventuate, and the Bowen harbour board was left heavily in debt. Despite repeated setbacks Bowen's industry and population grew. Its equable climate proved ideal for growing mangoes and vegetables, particularly tomatoes for a lucrative southern market. Commercial fisheries harvested prawns, mud crabs and reef fish. An evaporative saltworks comprising 170 ha of solar ponds, west of the town, was established in 1925.
Between 1915 and 1926 the Queensland Government published several editions of a tourist booklet for Bowen and the Whitsunday Islands. The tourist bonanza fell the way of the Whitsundays, Airlie Beach and Mackay, despite Bowen having Queens Beach on sheltered Edgecombe Bay, and Horseshoe Bay, Rose Bay and Kings Beach facing the ocean. Inland from Queens Beach is Bowen's agricultural export industry, the fruit and vegetable produce area. The main crops are tomatoes, capsicum, beans, sweet corn, rockmelons and cucumber, numbering over 7.75 million cartons in 1995.
The Bowen township, a nine by seven block grid, has its commercial and civic sectors in Herbert Street which runs down to the Port Denison pier. A short journey north leads to Queens Beach. The pier was the hub of the coal trade until a purpose-built port was opened at Abbot Point, north of Bowen, in the mid-1980s. The original port now caters for fishing boats, while the cruising yacht club occupies the harbour between the pier and the Flagstaff Hill lookout on Point Dalrymple. Bowen's court house (1880s) and the harbour board's offices (1921) are listed on the Queensland heritage register.
On the town's outskirts are the aerodrome, the racecourse and sports complex, the showground, the high school (1961), the drive-in Centre Point shopping centre, a TAFE, and Davidson Park which incorporates a lagoon. The bowling club is in the town, and the golf course is at Queens Beach. The Queens Beach neighbourhood has two caravan parks, a surf life-saving club, a hotel, a bowling club, a swimming enclosure and a State primary school (1940). The northern part of the town grid includes Bowen Hill with the reservoirs and the hospital. To the south of Bowen there is the Big Mango tourist information centre.
In 2007 Bowen was used to portray Darwin in the 1930s in Baz Luhrmann's epic Australia, starring Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman.
R.M. Steen, History of the port of Bowen, Bowen, Bowen Independent, 1972
'Bowen (north Queensland)', Queensland Agricultural Journal, July 1911, p. 18, September 1911, p. 109