Port Pirie SA: A Concise History and Profile

Most of us in South Australia have heard of Port Pirie. You may have driven past it, through it, or spent the day. But have you ever taken a minute to learn about its history, or explored its potential for outdoor activities? After learning a little more about Port Pirie SA, you might even like to consider it for your next weekend getaway. Read on, to learn the basics about this friendly South Australian town.

Town centre image

Pic credit: SATC/Port Pirie Regional Council

Port Pirie SA

Sat upon the coast to the Spencer Gulf, 200 kilometres north of Adelaide, Port Pirie is a small city home to over 14,000 people. It’s population makes it the seventh largest city in South Australia, however it is the second most important seaport in the state. Founded in the year 1848, the city is named after John Pirie – a boat which carried settlers from Europe three years before. Elements of Port Pirie’s past can be found across the city today in museums and galleries.

Fast forward to today, Port Pirie SA has an economy dominated by lead smelters; in fact it is home to one of the world’s largest lead industries. On top of this silver, gold, copper and zinc smelters also process the raw ore brought from Broken Hill. Although Port Pirie has a very much industrial focus, it offers a somewhat impressive and lively main street, with some beautiful colonial buildings.

image to show the coastline of Port Pirie

Pic credit: SATC/Port Pirie Regional Council

Aboriginal History

Prior to European settlement, Port Pirie was occupied by Aboriginal communities, namely here, Nukunu people. The land where Port Pirie now sits was known ‘Tarparrie’, which means ‘Muddy Creek’. The Nukunu people lived upon approximately 2,200 square miles of land in this part of South Australia between the eastern side of Spencer Gulf, up to Port Augusta and out east as far as (what is today known as) Quorn. Nukunu land was a place full of sacred sites, including the longest songline in Australia – the Urumbula songline. The Urumbula songline is said to stretch as far as the Gulf of Carpentaria.

White Settlement History

The first European person to visit Port Pirie was Matthew Flinders in 1802 as he explored the Spencer Gulf by boat. However, later  explorers such as Edward Eyre explored regions around Port August by land. Initially, Port Pirie was named Samuel’s Creek, yet in 1846 Port Pirie was chosen as the name for the new settlement, after John Pirie, the first vessel to bring settlers to the region.

In 1883, Broken Hill was discovered, which came with the discovering of rich ore bearing silver, zinc and lead. Only five years later in 1888, a railway from Port Pirie to Broken Hill brought about great economic change to Port Pirie. A lead smelter was soon built in Port Pirie and workers from other countries – including 500 from Russia – came to work at the smelter. Fascinatingly, at this time, the town had a Russian language school and library due to its Russian inhabitants.

By 1921, the booming of these industrial industries brought the population up to 9801, and Port Pirie SA was declared the state’s first provincial city in 1953. Today, the city is the second largest port in South Australia, after that near Port Adelaide.

Port Pirie coastal image

Pic credit: SATC/Port Pirie Regional Council

Port Pirie SA today

In the current day, Port Pirie is the main city for people living in the Mid North area, north of Adelaide. A number of smaller towns in the area rely on Port Pirie for shopping and also employment. A handful of schools also mean that students visit daily from nearby towns.

For visitors however, there is also a great deal of interest. Port Pirie is home to a large Greek and also Italian population, which adds an interesting layer of culture to the mix. Meanwhile, a year country music festival brings the city to life each September. Of note, Port Pirie is also home to a number of historical places of interest (mentioned later in this article).

Port Pirie’s Climate and Location

Found approximately eight kilometres inland from the Spencer Gulf, Port Pirie sits on the Pirie River; a tidal saltwater inlet which comes from the sea. Only four metres above sea level, the city sits upon what is a coastal plain between the Spencer Gulf and the magnificent Flinders Ranges.

Port Pirie’s location is one of the things that makes the town special too. To the east of the city, beautiful rolling hills and national parks including Mount Remarkable National Park are striking natural zones certainly worth a visit. Meanwhile, less than one hour away, the gorgeous Clare Valley is a gem of a wine region tucked between green hills. What’s more, further north, the highly impressive Flinders Ranges are a must-see for all visitors to South Australia.

For more information regarding day trips from Port Pirie, check out our recent article.

In terms of climate, Port Pirie SA is considered semi-arid. In the summer, average temperatures can be around 32 degrees delicious, meanwhile winder temperatures are a balmy 16.4. Most rainfall – 345 millimetres – falls in winter, meaning that summers are mostly dry and somewhat sunny too!

An image looking over to Mount Remarkable National Park

Pic credit: SATC/Port Pirie Regional Council

Arts and Culture in Port Pirie

Guests to Port Pirie today are impressed by the abundance of culture, arts and history on show. Port Pirie Regional Tourism and Arts Centre is not your ordinary tourist information spot. Here, you can not only find out more about the region, but a handful of attractions such as art galleries, a virtual reality shark cage dive, the locally famous Shakka the Shark replica and the Port Pirie Rail Express are all open to the public.

Port Pirie is also home to the National Trust Historic and Folk Museum and Memorial Park, where you can learn more about the history of the town and explore the Victorian pavilion-style railway station (as well as the Old Police Station).

regional arts centre in Port Pirie image

Pic credit: SATC/Port Pirie Regional Council

What to do in Port Pirie SA

For more information regarding things to do in Port Pirie, whether you’re with kids for the weekend or with friends on a road trip,  check out our Ultimate Guide to Port Pirie. Within the guide, you will find not only things to see and visit, but also places to eat and stay.

SA Weekend Escape’s top hotel pick

If you decide to head to Port Pirie, you’ll certainly want to stay at the most conveniently placed and comfortable hotel. John Pirie Motel Inn offers exactly that. Kitted out with a serene lawn area and outdoor pool, barbecue and on site Angus&Co Restaurant, the hotel caters perfectly to all groups.

John Pirie Motor Inn outdoor pool image

To find out more about the John Pirie Motor Inn, or to book a room and get your weekend getaway started, click here.