Port Arthur nestled on the southern tip of Tasmania's isolated Tasman peninsula around 60 kilometres from Hobart, is home to about 500. The allure for cruise ships is not to visit the tiny town but, instead, to see one of the world's largest and best preserved 19th-century penal colonies. As one of the Port Arthur Historic Sites, this impressive open-air museum comprises 30 buildings, ruins and restored period houses and is encircled by brooding hills on a cove that leads out to a large harbour and the chilly waters of the Southern Ocean beyond. The settlement has undergone a major restoration and facelift and has become a UNESCO World Heritage Site; it's also one of Australia's most significant places of heritage and one of Tasmania's top attractions.
Port Arthur is undoubtedly a spooky place with a long reputation for horror, not only as a penal colony, but also for an infamous modern-day massacre. On April 28, 1996, a single gunman arrived at the site and started shooting, killing 35 and injuring 23. Port Arthur was originally named for George Arthur, the lieutenant governor of Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania), and the town dates to 1830 when it started as a small timber station. It quickly became important within the penal system of the colonies, a settlement hacked out of the bush and built on convicts' backs. Men, women and even children, many hailing from rural areas or the big city slums of Great Britain who had been convicted more than once for crimes including stealing were punished by being unceremoniously transported to the Australian colonies. Ironically, these unfortunates were probably better fed and clothed in Port Arthur than where they'd come from. But it was a hard, isolated life, and they were prisoners set to work as loggers or housemaids.
In the first decade of its existence, Port Arthur was a hive of industry, including ship building, shoe making, smithing, brick making and timber. Then, in the 1840s, when the convict population passed 1,100, there was a consolidation of these industries with the penal nature of the facility. In 1842, a huge flour mill and granary and a hospital were added to the lineup of buildings. In 1848, the first stone was laid for the "Separate Prison," where repeat offenders were housed. This marked a shift in punishment philosophy from the notoriously harsh corporal punishment to psychological and physical isolation. Over time, the settlement expanded geographically, too, as its boundaries and convicts pushed out into the encircling hills to extract more valuable timber.
Relocation of convicts ended in 1853, which eventually led to fewer transportees arriving at Port Arthur, but the settlement remained one of the few secondary punishment stations in Tasmania and continued to receive men sentenced to prison. In 1857, the old flour mill and granary was converted into a large penitentiary and 1864 saw the beginning of construction on the last great project at the site -- the Asylum. The settlement's turbulent and colourful life began to wind down in the 1870s as the number of convicts dwindled, and those left behind were too old, sick or insane to work; it finally closed in 1877. The Port Arthur Historic Site Management Authority has overseen the settlement since 1987, along with the Coal Mines Historic Site, near Saltwater River about a half hour's drive from Port Arthur, and the Cascades Female Factory Site in South Hobart. Today, the Port Arthur site has beautifully restored buildings, English trees and manicured gardens, giving it a picturesque quality.