In the late 1820s, new fertile grazing lands were needed to accommodate the growing population of the new colony. In 1828 Captain Henry John Rous identified the mouth of the Richmond river, crossed the bar and sailed about 20 miles up river. The banks were thickly covered with mangrove swamps and jungle and at times he had to cut the foliage from the mast of the ‘Rainbow’ before he could proceed up the river. He named the river after the fifth Duke of Richmond. Later that year the explorer Allan Cunningham reached the river by land.
Soon after the first white settlers arrived in the 1830-40s, they discovered the abundant supply of Australian Red Cedar and immediately began logging. The river was vital in the transportation of this resource to the ever-hungry Sydney market. The clearing of timber in these areas created more land for pastoralists.
Squatters began arriving by land, occupying large areas of Crown land. They were required to pay a licence of 10 pounds per annum to lease the land from the NSW Government, plus a fee for the number and type of stock grazed on the land.
The early cedar cutters arrived by sea in December 1842, the first white men to cross the Richmond river bar since Captain Rous in 1828. The arrival of Steve King and others in the schooner Sally heralded the beginning of the cedar cutting industry on the Richmond River with the first cedar being cut at Coraki. The cedar cutters required a licence, costing $8 per year, to fell trees on unallocated Crown land. However, the licence only gave them the right to cut and export timber and not to settle nor build permanent homes on the land.
Initially the cedar was felled close to the river and the logs floated downstream on the flood. As the land close to the water was stripped of timber, bullock teams were brought in to transport the logs to the river.
The first permanent settler into the area was William Yabsley who, in 1849, obtained a lease to Brook Station on the junction of the Richmond and Wilson Rivers and began building sailing ships to transport the timber to Sydney. He built a small trading store to supply basic provisions including sugar, flour and tea, and some clothing, which was shipped from Sydney on the return leg of the timber trade.
With the passing in 1861 of the Robertson Land Act, much of the land around Coraki was opened up for free selection. Selectors could take up land in the unsettled district paying a deposit of 5/- an acre and 5% interest, on the condition that they lived on the selection and made improvements to it. The squatter could buy any part of the land he held on leasehold at the same price, £1 an acre full price, unless his land was surveyed as a village reserve.
New settlers began arriving by the hundreds and the village of Coraki grew rapidly. By the 1860s Coraki was the major port on the Richmond River and was far more substantial than Lismore. The river became shallower upstream, so all cargo and passengers had to be transferred from ocean going vessels to smaller boats to be able to reach the up-river townships. The bustling wharves became the hub of all business activity.
All shipping at this stage was still wind powered and the treacherous bar at the mouth of the river would continue to claim cargo and lives for many decades. The shifting sand bars, which required careful navigation by experienced and talented captains, continued to dog the traders with many ships being held up for months or worse, shipwrecked trying to cross into the river or out to the ocean.
Among the new arrivals was an enterprising young man from Canada, William Yeager. He began trading goods up and down the river and by 1863 he had purchased the first steam tug to work in the district, changing the nature of river navigation and making bar crossings safer. He purchased land across the river at Oakland and established a trading depot and wharves.
William Yabsley erected a huge ship-building shed at the junction which became a landmark for all river traffic. He began building steam-powered ships and tugs.
Three years later the Reverend John Thom brought the first sugar cane cuttings to the area thus beginning one of the district’s major agricultural activities. [By 1875 there were 75 sugar mills operating on the banks of the Richmond River but by 1891 this had dropped to 9].
Land was now eagerly taken up by free settlers who undertook subsistence farming. It soon became apparent that the subtropical climate was totally unsuited to sheep grazing and consequently stock losses due to fluke, footrot, catarrh and other diseases led to the diversification of agriculture including sugar, maize, corn and the pasturing of the first dairy cattle.
A street plan for the village of Coraki was drawn up in 1866 with a mile-long river frontage called Richmond Terrace leading down to two large wharves. Thus followed the erection of a general store, the first hotel, a small church and a small cedar school building. The town continued to prosper throughout the 1870s with large numbers of wind and steam-powered ships making the trip from the heads at Ballina up the river to collect the supplies from the wharves. The timber industry was still thriving with both Yabsley and Yeager each erecting large sawmills to supply the colony with sawn timber, rather than logs.
The latter part of the 19th century saw rapid progress with a new post office, police station, churches, schools, five hotels, a School of Arts and many opulent trading stores. The North Coast Steam Navigation Company established its head office at Coraki and the appearance of the new local newspaper, the ‘Richmond River Herald’ touted a new era for the town.The first municipal council was formed in 1891 and, on the back of the thriving dairy industry, a new butter factory was opened in 1898. Coraki was the most important river port and the most prosperous town in the district at the turn of the century.
It looked as though Coraki would dominate the local business region but as the twentieth century evolved, and as river transport declined owing to better roads and rail, Coraki adapted to become a more community-based town.