PORT Stephens has a long, colourful history, but all too often we tend to neglect the past.
Visiting the scenic water wonderland recently I was surprised how quickly important past events and stories about them have disappeared.
Sure, there's a few historic plaques and some buildings to commemorate what went before, but you usually have to hunt around to discover them.
And with the gradual closure of a lot of bookshops, the past sadly seems to be being swept away at a rapid rate.
Mind you, many chronicles of past Port Stephens, giving people a feel of the place they're visiting, often for the first time, are out of print.
The exception to the rule is usually publications by prolific history author and Port Stephens fishing identity John 'Stinker' Clarke. Many of his books, highlighting hidden aspects of the district's past, are steady sellers at newsagents.
And this same John Clarke is now on a different mission: to "sell" Port Stephens and, in particular, the Tomaree Peninsula, to a much wider audience of tourists.
It's an ambitious project (estimated up to $15million) but, if successful, would create a modern museum and be a major tourism drawcard, giving visitors more of an excuse to initially visit and then stay longer to appreciate the region's natural beauty and attractions.
The idea, still in its early concept stages, grew out of a camping trip around other tourist hotspots in NSW.
"Everywhere we went there was a focus on their local district, usually a museum-type place showcasing what individual areas had to offer," says Clarke, of Fingal Bay. "They give these spots a sense of identity. Everyone is doing it, except us. Up here, we have absolutely nothing, really.
"One of the best examples [of tourism branding] we saw was the Eden Killer Whale Museum on the far South Coast. Here, they've even made a feature of the whole skeleton of 'Old Tom', one of the orcas that used to help herd passing whales for the land-based whalers in rowboats," Clarke says.
The purpose-built museum is a popular stopping off point for visitors to linger and then to travel further south to visit the related historic ruins in Boydtown and a stone-built colonial tower meant as a coastal lighthouse but never lit and used instead by early whale-watching crews.
"Then, there's the impressive museum at Huskisson, also down south on the tourism trail, which has a host of interesting objects centred on the large retired Sydney ferry the Lady Denman which is housed in a big shed there. The whole thing is an eye-opener," he says.
Now called Jervis Bay Maritime Museum, the site is a magnet for tourists.
"Then there's a great one down at Cooma showcasing the achievements of the Snowy Mountains Authority. I mean, it's extraordinary. Everywhere's got something, usually with tourist information, arts and crafts, a coffee shop and gift shop," Clarke says.
"And it's usually got something different to lure the visitors, whether it's Grenfell with its Henry Lawson link, or Gundagai 's 'Dog on the Tuckerbox' landmark, encouraging motorists to stop awhile when they mightn't have otherwise done so. These places are talking points.
"But getting back to Port Stephens. Everywhere else have all got something, but with respect, we've got absolutely nothing as a standout. There's the old Inner Light Museum, above Little Beach, but it's too small and being on the top of a hill with a small carpark, there's nowhere for the 'grey nomads' to park their caravans. Those passing people can't go there."
Instead, Clarke has a radical proposal. That's to establish an historic and culturally significant centre at the Tomaree Lodge site at the ocean entrance to Port Stephens, even if it takes years to become a reality.
Clarke says that he understands that under current plans, the Department of Health intends to remove the last of its ageing disability patients by June, although staff say the prime site might be vacated earlier.
"We've got to do something now. The place [established in 1941 for defence purposes] is supposed to remain in public hands, but the developers are already circling. The last thing the locals want is for this land to be converted into a casino," he says.
With that in mind, his Tomaree Museum Committee (TMC) was established in December, separate from the Friends of Tomaree Headland group (FoTH), as it has a specific target in mind.
"But I'm not spearheading the TMC as there's already some very capable and talented people onboard headed by its chairman Ian Farnsworth. No, this time I'm happy to be down the back of the bus letting other people drive the project," Clarke says. "My job is to help get the community involved, building membership and gathering items for future exhibition."
Clarke says the Tomaree-based museum plan aimed to acknowledge the area's Aboriginal culture, its pioneering families from fishermen to timber cutters, and major historical events.
"Let's face it, there's a lot of unrecognised history here. Our waterway is bigger than Sydney Harbour and in the 1940s our oyster industry was considered the biggest in the world."
Clarke says a local family had already donated artefacts and memorabilia, but the committee's priorities were gaining site approval, government funding and enlisting stakeholders.
A major plus in TMC's favour is the historic Tomaree Head site itself. Between 1942 and 1943, more than 22,000 American and Aussie troops were trained locally (at HMAS Assault) when the area's population, mainly at Nelson Bay, was less than 450 people.
Tomaree Head was protected by two mighty six-inch (152mm) Mark 7 coastal guns (since removed), machine gun bunkers, torpedo tubes, search lights and a radar station. Some 80 buildings and many artefacts survive at the former Fort Tomaree.
Another forgotten facet of Port Stephens: in 1899 the NSW government suggested it was an ideal location as the nation's capital.