McKinlay Shire, an area of 40,885 sq km, is generally 600 km west of Townsville and 200 km east of Mount Isa. The shire is crossed by the Matilda, Flinders and Landsborough Highways.

In 1861-62 John McKinlay, with accomplished bush skills, was commissioned to lead one of several search parties for the lost Burke and Wills expedition. He named the McKinlay River, a many-stranded watercourse that runs into the Flinders River and the Gulf of Carpentaria. McKinlay kept a meticulous journal and charts, written during a season when inland pasture was good. His report, and enthusiastic pastoral entrepreneurs, led to the McKinlay district being settled in 1867 and more actively in the 1870s. McKinlay also noted the presence of copper and the Cloncurry deposits, 100 km to the north-west, were first worked in the 1870s and more intensively in 1884 when a smelter was installed.

A letter-receiving and telegraph facility was opened at the future site of the town of McKinlay in 1883-84, and in 1888 town allotments were surveyed and sold. A hotel was opened possibly in the same year, but certainly by 1890. In 1892 the Mackinlay (note different spelling) local government division was formed, extending westwards to include the prosperous mining settlements of Duchess and Selwyn. Cloncurry was a municipal town and Mount Isa lay undiscovered until 1923. A school was opened in 1897.

The division included Kynuna, the closest place to the Combo waterhole, the setting for Banjo Patterson's Waltzing Matilda. Dagworth, where Patterson was staying in 1895 when he penned the verses, is in the adjoining Winton Shire. North of McKinlay township is Julia Creek, the town where the Townsville to Cloncurry railway line (1907-08) crosses the McKinlay Shire.

The McKinlay township was thereafter overshadowed by Julia Creek, although its race club (c1916), aerodrome (c1922) and Church of England (c1928) were welcome additional facilities. A bush nursing home was opened in 1927, but the change in the shire's economy was signified by the moving of the shire offices to Julia Creek in 1932. The old shire hall was made a Masonic Lodge room. The aerodrome coincided with the first Qantas air flight, which had as its first passenger the pioneer McKinlay pastoralist, Alexander Kennedy (1837-1936).

The spelling of the shire's name was corrected in 1932 to accord with the explorer's surname, McKinlay. In 1949 the shire was described in the Australian Blue Book:

During the 1950s the McKinlay township's population fell so low that the school was closed between 1953 and 1957. It reopened for a further 29 years, closing one year before the McKinlay Hotel was chosen as a film location for Crocodile Dundee. The hotel, renamed Walkabout, has become the town's main feature, attracting tourists travelling the Matilda Highway to the Gulf Country. McKinlay's census populations have been:

Census DatePopulation
1901107
194763
196171
2006
(estimate)
182
2011417

Julia Creek, with just 53 people in 1911, had 632 in 1933. The railway, essential for conveying sheep and cattle to seaboard markets, made the critical difference. Julia Creek census populations are:

census datepopulation
2011634

McKinlay Shire in 1993 had 488,000 sheep and lambs and nearly 232,000 beef cattle. The proportion of cattle has increased since then. Large-scale mining began in 1998 at the BHP-Billiton lead, zinc and silver underground mine at Cannington, 80 km south of McKinlay and south-east of the old Selwyn and Duchess deposits. Mineral concentrates are transported to the port of Townsville.

The Shire's census populations have been:

Census DatePopulation
1911(male) 859
(female) 327
19331899
19612164
19811477
20011387
(including tourists and visitors)
2006898
20111050
Further Reading: 

McKinlay centenary 1888-1988, McKinlay, McKinlay Centenary Committee, 1988

Julia Creek, Duchess and Selwyn entries