Originally inhabited by the Wodi Wodi Aborigines the first Europeans to pass through the area, in 1797, were the survivors of the wreck of the Sydney Cove. Shortly afterwards George Bass travelled down the coast looking for other survivors. He discovered coal near Stanwell Park at Coalcliff.
Governor Lachlan Macquarie was an early visitor who remarked upon the beauty of the spectacle in 1822:
'On our arrival at the summit of the mountain, we were gratified with a very magnificent bird's eye view of the ocean, the 5 Islands, and of the greater part of the low country of Illawarra...After feasting our eyes with this grand prospect, we commenced descending the mountain...The whole face...is clothed with the largest and finest forest trees I have ever seen in the colony.'
There are a number of ways of approaching this magnificent section of the coast. The journey through the Royal National Park along Lady Wakehurst Drive brings the visitor suddenly and dramatically out at Stanwell Tops with the coastline spreading southwards. Another approach is to follow the old Princes Highway then turn left into Lawrence Hargrave Drive.
The village grew when the railway connecting Sydney with the Illawarra was opened in the late 1880s. The track has never been entirely successful. The sections around the cliffs have caused serious subsidence, resulting in a fatal accident in the late 1980s.
Indicative of the problems is the remarkable curved viaduct over Stanwell Creek Gorge. It was built in the 1910s when subsidence along the old route dictated the construction of a new track higher up the mountain. Standing 65 m above a creek bed surrounded by profuse rainforest vegetation and containing an estimated five million bricks it is reputedly the largest railway viaduct in Australia. It is fascinating to reflect that the railway (now electrified), which takes commuters to Sydney every day, was initially constructed to haul coal from these small mining towns to the port at Wollongong.
Stanwell Park is famous for its connections with the early history of human flight. This beach resort was once the home of Lawrence Hargrave, the inventor of the box kite and one of the founding fathers of modern aviation. He moved to Hillcrest House in 1893, now the caretaker's house to what is surely one of the earliest postwar retirement villages in Australia. It is located on the road up to the Stanwell Park Railway Station.
Hargrave inherited the house from his brother Ralph. The family had extensive holdings in the Illawarra and Hargrave, who had been an explorer and worked as an astronomical observer at the Sydney Observatory, was able to retire and spend all his time developing his theories about flight. He carried out many of his experiments, particularly those with box kites (they are now on display in the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney) on Bald Hill above Hillcrest House.