Who Were the First Gold Coasters?

The Gold Coast wasn’t always the vibrant international city it is now. So who were the first Gold Coasters, and how did they build the city that we now inhabit? Shiloh Payne gives us the back story.

It took a while for the Gold Coast to become the vibrant and bubbly metropolis that we know and love today. But our city has fascinating beginnings. The area was first recognised as the Town of South Coast, around 140 years ago. Tourism was yet to exist; so the early Gold Coasters had to sport a robust entrepreneurial spirit to create a life for themselves away from the growing economic powerhouse of Brisbane.

A good portion of the early Gold Coasters were convict escapees, who had fled Brisbane for the south as early as 1827. They found agricultural work and jobs in the timber industry in the small townships south of Brisbane. Southport, Surfers Paradise, Nerang, Burleigh Heads and Coolangatta are all historical centres which were established to support agriculture and timber. It was a tough proposition though, and some towns were unsuccessful in these industries, and had to evolve other industries to thrive.


The South Coast railway fired up in 1889, and it brought with it tourists who were looking for sun and fun at the Broadwater. Southport soon became the Gold Coast’s Central Business District, and a seaside getaway. It was close to Brisbane and appealed to people looking for the “lifestyle” that the Gold Coast is so famous for. Residents managed to make a good living from the spending power that these early tourists had, and built successful businesses and schools. The Southport School was opened in 1901 followed by Goy Te Lea in 1905, now known as St Hilda’s School. 

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Surfers Paradise

All great places once had a very unsexy name, and Surfers Paradise is no exception. Previously known as Elston, Surfers Paradise gained its appeal with the help of Meyer’s Hotel in the late nineteenth century. It was the first time that visitors could have a drink and go to the beach. This appealed to young people and it became an exciting getaway for them. 

In 1920, Brisbane hotelier Jim Cavill acquired 25 acres of land in Elston – now known as Surfers Paradise. In 1925 he opened the first hotel, called, of course, Surfers Paradise Hotel. It morphed and changed to appeal to its customers over the years, even operating as a zoo before becoming a beer garden. Locals eventually called it ‘the human zoo.’ Requiring no more than a swimsuit for entry, travellers and locals gathered to hear live entertainment, to drink and to dance.


Elston was officially recognised as Surfers Paradise in 1933. And with a more marketable, sexy name, the town flourished. It was all happening: food outlets, clothing stores and tea shops. 

The first high-rise appeared in Surfers Paradise in 1959. It was named Kinkabool and it still stands today. From there, there was no looking back. Surfers Paradise was forevermore seen as a place for young people to party their hearts out. Meter Maids appeared in 1965, and Schoolies blasted off in 1970. And we all know how much fun schoolies is… many of us went back for second and third helpings. 



Nerang first sprung into life in 1865, as people made a living from farming sugar and corn. The original sugar mill is still standing today, at the entrance of Botanical Gardens in Benowa. 


In 1903 the South Coast Railway expanded from Beenleigh to Tweed Heads, stopping at Nerang. Now that people could get in and out of Nerang, it became established as a residential suburb. However, the railway closed in 1964 because people bought cars in increasing numbers.  

Burleigh Heads

Burleigh was a popular location for indigenous land owners, the Kombumerri, to catch food, because it had access to both fresh water and the ocean. The headland was set aside in 1886 as a Reserve for the Public which officially became a national park in 1947. Ex-convicts and other labourers found themselves in Burleigh as well. Attracted by the cedar forests, timber workers set up temporary camps. These camps eventually became settlements, and the rest is history. 

Originally named Burley by European settlers, the site grew popular when travellers would stop on coaches from Southport to Tweed Heads. Burleigh’s famous Norfolk Pine trees were planted in 1934 and they still sand today, a Burleigh Heads icon.  


In 1770, Captain James Cook slid though the waters in the Coolangatta area, and named Point Danger to warn other seafarers about the dangerous reefs beneath the surface of the beautiful sea. 

Coolangatta was named after a ship that was wrecked off the Kirra coast. The area has always made a living from tourism. Visitors would travel down on the South Coast Rail to bathe in the protected beaches. Attracting up to one thousand tourists in a day, the Greenmount Guesthouse was developed in 1904 as one of the first Coolangatta hotels. One of the Gold Coast’s primary tourist attractions was the Snapper Rocks Sea Baths.  It was created in the 1950s by Jack Evans, who capitalised on his porpoise pools. The attraction was later moved south into Tweed Heads, but remnants of the Snapper Rocks Sea baths remain today.


The Future

The Gold Coast will continue to evolve and change, as regeneration projects continue. Residents will continue to see rapid growth in their city. With population growth ranging from 1.79% to 3.75%, Australia’s largest non-capital city is expected to continue to boom. And it will always, always be about “the lifestyle.”

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