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Shellharbour received its name through references to the abundance of shells along its coastline. The land of the Wodi Wodi tribe was initially settled by graziers and timber getters. As a coastal town, Shellharbour was able to take advantage of the considerable east coast trading routes and built a port to transport the timber and other goods produced locally to Sydney and other port towns.
The late 1800s was a boom time for the area with the extension of the railway line through Shellharbour in 1887 improving transportation routes for the towns burgeoning beef and dairy industries. Following the world wars in the 1950s, Shellharbour industry turned from farming and agricultural pursuits towards manufacturing aided by the opening of the Port Kembla refinery nearby. There was also substantial housing commission development in the town following the 1960s which both increased the population and increased residential development in what was otherwise a rural area quite substantially.
Today manufacturing still accounts for the majority of employment in the town with the retail trade also playing a significant role, no doubt aided by the town’s longstanding position as a favoured seaside holiday destination for Sydneysiders.