PORT ADELAIDE WAS PREFERRED AS THE CAPITAL CITY SITE by the colony’s first governor John Hindmarsh.
The Port River was a small creek surrounded by mangrove swamps and tidal mid flats when Captain Henry Jones explored it in 1834. Solid land didn’t start until what is now the suburb of Alberton.
Surveyor general Colonel William Light decided that “the port creek” was suitable for a harbour but that the city centre should be at a site chosen inland. This was strongly opposed by the governor and naval captain Hindmarsh, some merchants and George Stevenson in his South Australian Gazette and Colonial Register. But Light's choice of the present city site eventually won out.
Under harbourmaster Thomas Lipson, the port began operating in 1837, battling problems such as lack of fresh water, mosquito plagues and flooding, earning it the nickname “Port Misery”.
Light’s plan for a canal between the port and the city of Adelaide was never built because of the cost. A canal for loading sailing ships was constructed in 1838 to overcome the mud banks and sandbars that had claimed migrant ship the Tam O’Shanter.
The site of the port was settled by the second governor George Gawler who, eager to cut costs, allowed the South Australian Company to build a private wharf (McLaren Wharf), completed in 1840.
The port area was eventually reclaimed with silt from dredging work but in the 1850s the plain between the port and Adelaide was still derided as “Mudholia” or “Dustholia”. The 1880s brought a turnaround with the harbour expanding and the growing town generating its own electricity from a powerhouse in Nile Street.
An array of commercial and institutional buildings from that era has survived in a state heritage area. That heritage is now a focal point for the port's revival.