In the foothills of the Dandenong Ranges, 48 km east of central Melbourne, lies the township of Cockatoo. In the 1850s prospectors searching for gold bestowed the name Cockatoo Creek, supposedly because of large numbers of cockatoos there. When land was selected in the 1870s the name was retained. The country was hilly and heavily timbered, making clearing difficult. A store was opened in 1895 to serve the scattered community.
In the late 1890s a narrow gauge railway was constructed from Ferntree Gully, 34 km east of Melbourne, to Gembrook, a further 6 km east of Cockatoo. Three sawmills were soon established in the Cockatoo area, transporting their timber out by rail. The Belfry Mill built a wooden tramline to the Cockatoo railway siding.
Around the turn of the century the locality was known as Devon. In July 1901 the original name, Cockatoo Creek, was restored due to pressure from local residents. The Railways Department shortened this to Cockatoo and it gradually came into general use.
A school was opened in 1907, and another store, post office, hall, church and boarding house followed. The railway ran special passenger services on the weekends and Cockatoo became popular with tourists who camped along the creek, enjoying fishing and walking in the forest.
This popularity prompted a spate of land subdivisions and construction of holiday houses. During the 1930s Cockatoo was also a refuge for unemployed people, camping or living in shacks in the bush. From about 1935 Italian farmers came to the area, growing potatoes, onions and strawberries in the rich red soil. Guest houses enjoyed good patronage while car ownership was relatively low. But competition from road transport gradually curtailed the rail service and landslides on the track in the early 1950s led to the closure of the line. It has been revived as the Puffing Billy railway.
From the 1960s the character of Cockatoo began to change. Although still the centre for nearby farming areas, the town became much more suburban. Many people retired to the peaceful rural village. Although there were still holiday houses, stricter building regulations now required substantial dwellings. Improved roads and transport allowed residents to commute to work in Dandenong or Melbourne.
On 16 February 1983 the town was devastated by the Ash Wednesday bushfires. Seven people died and nearly 300 homes were destroyed. Nevertheless, many residents returned, rebuilding their houses. The township became increasingly urbanised with a full range of community services, social groups and sporting clubs but has retained the charms of its bush setting.
There are a large forest reserve in the west, with walking trails and a picnic area, a linear park along Cockatoo Creek, a community health centre, a primary school (231 pupils, 2014) and Montessori school.
Cockatoo's census populations have been:
Berwick-Pakenham Historical Society, In the wake of the pack tracks: a history of the Shire of Berwick, now the City of Berwick and the Shire of Pakenham, 1982
H. Coulson, Story of the Dandenongs 1838-1958, 1959
From bullock tracks to bitumen: a brief history of the Shire of Berwick, 1962
E. Mundie, Cockatoo, Ash Wednesday, 1983: the people's story, 1983