Cowra is located approximately above sea level on the banks of the Lachlan River in the picturesque Lachlan Valley. By road it is approximately South-West of the state capital Sydney and North of the nation's capital Canberra. The town is a major transport hub as it is situated at the intersection of three major state highways the Mid-Western Highway, Olympic Highway and the Lachlan Valley Way and is a major gateway to other parts of New South Wales. It is linked by highways north to Canowindra, Orange and Dubbo, south to Young, Melbourne and Canberra, east to Bathurst and Sydney, and west to Grenfell, Forbes and Parkes.
The area was originally inhabited by the Wiradjuri people. The first explorer, George Wilson Evans, entered the Lachlan Valley in 1815. He named the area the Oxley Plains after his superior the surveyor-general, John Oxley. In 1817 he deemed the area "unfit for settlement". A military depot was established not long after at Soldiers Flat near present day Billimari. Arthur Ranken and James Sloan, from Bathurst, were amongst the first white settlers on the Lachlan. They moved to the area in 1831.
The township of "Coura Rocks" had its beginnings in 1844. Around 1847, the township site became known as Cowra, and in 1849, was proclaimed a village.
The origin of the town's name is unclear. Sources claim that the name is aboriginal for "rocks", although the local Wiradjuri language has no words for "rocks".
In the 1850s many gold prospectors passed through headed for gold fields at Lambing Flat (Young) and Grenfell. The first school was established in 1857. The first bridge over the Lachlan River was built in 1870. Gold was discovered at Mount McDonald in the 1880s. The rail head, from Sydney, reached Cowra in 1886. Local government was granted in 1888. The first telephone exchange was established in 1901. The town water supply was established in 1909, the gasworks in 1912 and town supplied electricity was introduced in 1924.
Cowra hosts an annual Festival of International Understanding, featuring a parade, balloons for the kids and events showcasing a particular foreign culture.
The Cowra breakout
During World War II, Cowra was the site of a prisoner of war (POW) camp. Most of the detainees were captured Japanese and Italian military personnel. On 5 August 1944, at least 545 Japanese POWs attempted a mass breakout from the camp. Simultaneously, other Japanese prisoners committed suicide, or were killed by their countrymen, inside the camp.
The actions of the POWs in storming machine gun posts, armed only with improvised weapons, showed what Prime Minister John Curtin described as a "suicidal disregard of life", and had no chance of success.
During the breakout and subsequent recapture of POWs, four Australian guards and 231 Japanese died, and 108 prisoners were wounded. The dead Japanese were buried in Cowra in the specially created Japanese War Cemetery. This is the only such cemetery in Australia, and also holds some of the dead from the WWII air raids on Darwin.