Yunbenun, as Magnetic Island was known by the island’s traditional inhabitants, had a transient population well before Europeans explored the area. They were known to have seasonal camps at a number of bays and traveled between the island and mainland using canoes. Shell middens, stone tools and art sites are some of the physical reminders of their strong connection with the island. The Wulgurukaba people have stories, such as the Big Carpet Snake story linking Magnetic and Palm Islands and the mainland, which tell of the creation of this landscape during the Dreamtime.

The Wulgurukaba people were able to maintain their traditional lifestyle until the mid 1890s when the Townsville port was established. As more European people moved into the area the Wulgurukaba people were forced to move off their traditional lands, and confrontations with settlers, loss of traditional food sources and disease took their toll. They remained on the island until the 1920s and 30s but were eventually forced to live in missions on the mainland. A small group of Wulgurukaba people remain on or have returned to the island.


In 1770 Cpt James Cook was navigating the Australian coast line when he believed the island’s granite boulders possessed a magnetic force that interfered with the compass on his ship the “Endeavour”. Cook named this island Magnetical Isle. Many have tried but no-one has proven Cook’s theory on the magnetic interference although many of us who live here do believe there is a magnetic attraction.

During the 1800s, Magnetic Island became a popular picnic area and by the late 1890s the first resort was established in Picnic Bay. Tourism prospered during the early 1900s as Townsville grew to be the major city in north Queensland. 

The settlement of European people on the mainland brought industry to the island. The landscape of coral reefs, granite boulders and thick forests that today attracts tourists was viewed differently during the late 1800s. 

Coral, stone and timber (hoop pine) were collected as a source of building materials for Townsville. Even substantial quantities of gold were mined in 1886! In 1875 Magnetic Island was set aside as a quarantine station, although buildings were not constructed at West Point until 1885.


From 1942, Townsville became a major base for the military and its harbour, Cleveland Bay, an important assembly point for shipping. During 1942-43, a Signal Station and Coastal Battery were built on Magnetic Island for control of shipping and defence of the harbour.

Two 3,000,000 candle power searchlights capable of spotting aircraft at 30,000 feet were located at Horseshoe and Florence Bays and a radar screen was located high in the hills above Arthur Bay. 

The Forts complex, now a popular walking track with panoramic views and opportunity for koala spotting, was operated from 1943 until the end of the Pacific War in 1945 by the Australian Coast Artillery Units. Today the Forts ruins are protected under the Queensland Heritage Act 1992.


Picnic Bay was named after its popularity as a picnic spot for European tourists from the mainland during the 19th century, before Magnetic Island was first inhabited by Europeans. In the mid-19th century the island became a popular location for the collection of stone and coral needed for development on the mainland. Pine trees on Magnetic Island were harvested in the 1870s, but the first permanent European resident is thought to have been Harry Butler probably in the late 1870s. His daughter Ellen, born 1872, was known as Nellie, and it was after her that Nelly Bay was named. She remained on the island to manage a guest house. Not far from the Butler guest house, Robert Hayles erected a hotel at Picnic Bay in 1899. He added a jetty and a dance hall and his business developed as Hayles launch and cruising service.

By the 1920s Magnetic Island was both popular and populated. Residents carried out mixed farming, fruit growing (especially pineapples) and dairying. A Townsville tourist guide (1924) described the island as ideal for surf bathing and a picnic resort, ‘nestling in the bosom of Cleveland Bay … where brain fog is quickly dispelled and highly-strung nerves are soothed’.

Both Picnic Bay and Nelly Bay had dance pavilions, the latter including the thatched Mandalay guest house (1912) and Dutch-design cottages. Alma Bay at Arcadia was a favoured swimming spot. All three places had jetties. A school was at Picnic Bay and another was   opened in an old kiosk at Mandalay, Nelly Bay in 1924. A tiny building, it later served as an Anglican church. Picnic Bay’s school (1921) closed in 1970 and later became a craft shop. It is heritage-listed. The Picnic Bay surf life-saving club began in 1927.Horseshoe Bay, the island’s longest beach on the northern shore, was first settled by Europeans in 1912, but only for a few years. The next settlement was a nearby defence fort built in 1942 to protect Townsville. It is on the Australian heritage register.