The site of Port Adelaide, first sighted by Captain Collet Barker in 1831, and discovered by Captain John Jones in 1834, was officially proclaimed a harbour on 6 January 1837 when Harbour Master Captain Thomas Lipson took up residence on the shore of the Port Creek. One of the first ships to use the harbour and discharge its migrants was the John Renwick on 23 February 1837.
Although the colony's surveyor, William Light believed it would make a good harbour, he was not prepared to make it the site for the capital for South Australia. Passengers and goods were landed, but not to the satisfaction of anybody and it very soon became known as Port Misery.
Port Misery officially became Port Adelaide on 23 May 1837 but it was not until 1839 that a new site was agreed on and McLaren Wharf built. Added to this were a crane to unload ships of up to five hundred tons, a storehouse and a road across the swamp which surrounded it. All were completed during late 1840. Finding the harbour was still a problem though. In March 1840 it was reported that 'There are buoys laid down to mark the channel, of which the outer or beacon buoy is easily seen in moderate weather. The harbour or the entrance to it is masked by mangroves, so that it is difficult for strangers to judge when they are abreast of it. There is however a flag staff on the beach about five miles to the north of Holdfast Bay'.
Unfortunately some people used the buoys for amusement or other purposes and in 1869, R.H. Ferguson, President of the Marine Board made it known that, 'any person or persons found on, riding by, making fast to, or running foul of any buoy or beacon, in any of the ports of this province, will be proceeded against, under the provisions of the Marine Board Act'.
In 1838 Port Adelaide held its first regatta to commemorate South Australia's first anniversary. Surrounded by water, it lacked fresh drinking water which was later supplied by James Chambers who had gained the first government contract to supply the residents with drinking water.
Water has been a problem in the port for a long time. There may have been a shortage of it some times, mostly there was too much of it. On several occasions a large part of the town was flooded. At other times it was the sewage which caused the problems. There have also been many drownings over the years. In January 1866 both Jane Jamieson and Janet Samuel, who worked for Mrs Sinclair, drowned while bathing in the river.
For several years it remained a long, and sometimes dangerous, walk for newly arrived migrants to reach Adelaide. In March 1838 Captain Burns of the Giraffe was attacked and speared while on his way to Adelaide. On 24 July 1840, Daniel Gatway wrote to his brother in England that upon landing at Port Adelaide, his walk to Adelaide had tired him out completely. It being dark, very few of his friends reached town without some mishap, such as getting lost. Some did not arrive untill the next morning.
Naturally those who had some money had their goods transported by bullocks, those without it carried their own or used wheelbarrows. After completion of port facilities and a proper road, Port Adelaide grew quickly and within only a short time became the lifeline to the capital and its hinterland. It was proclaimed a corporate town in 1855 when it handled about three hundred ships per annum and its population numbered about 1,500 people. By the year 1900, more than a thousand ships called in at the port wharves every year.
Until the 1940s, almost everybody and everything arrived or left South Australia via the Port. Naturally many villages were established along the twelve kilometre long, and very wide, Port Road. It was planned to be wide enough to have room for a canal, towpath and a railway. As early as 1840, a Company was formed in England to build a railway between the port and Adelaide.
When copper rescued South Australia from ruin, it was Port Adelaide that provided the increased profitability for the mines by building smelters in 1848. Here the English and Australian Copper Company reduced the copper ore, from mines as far away as the Blinman in the northern Flinders Ranges, and improve the value of the exported minerals. It was to do this until well into the twentieth century. The company was managed by James Hamilton until his death in July 1871. In 1856 South Australia's second railway line, but the first to use steam locomotives, was completed between the Port and the Capital and opened on 19 April. It was the first government built steam operated railway in the British Empire.
In August 1850 the Port had its very own newspaper. A year later it had a Mechanics' Institute and offered private education at several establishments. Already blessed with a good police force, which had a very busy time when ships were tied up and sailors idle, it gained its own water police in 1854. Sailors kept the hotels, courts and police busy. In January 1855 James Steele, second mate of the Coromandel appeared before the court for having refused to attend to his duty. He pleaded being unwell from the effects of drinking spirits but was committed for a month with hard labour anyway, as were several others. Drinking, and the number of hotels at the port often gave cause to many complaints and in 1906 fifteen out of the forty-five hotels lost their licences.
In 1855 Port Adelaide had a telegraph connection with Adelaide. This private enterprise venture had been set up by James MacGeorge. Because of government opposition he was forced to erect his line through backwoods and private property. A few months after the arrival of Charles Todd, the government opened its own line early in 1856. MacGeorge was bought out by the government in January 1857.
Much of all this early progress was destroyed during the 'Great Fire of Port Adelaide' on 12 November 1857. It did not deter its residents, neither fires nor the floods of 1865 could stop the progress at the Port. On 10 October 1859 the Port Adelaide Institute was opened, in 1876 the South Australian Stevedoring and Dumping Company was formed and in 1883 the Port even had its own telephone exchange. In 1886 the Maritime Labor Council was established and in 1899 South Australia's first power station began operating in Port Adelaide. Within a few years it also supplied the capital and its suburbs with electricity