The town was originally called Samuel's Creek after the discovery of Muddy Creek, by Samuel Germein. In 1846, Port Pirie Creek was named by Governor Robe after the John Pirie, the first vessel to navigate the creek, transported sheep from Bowman's Run near Crystal Brook. In 1848 Matthew Smith and Emanuel Solomon bought 85 acres and subdivided it as a township to be known as Port Pirie.
The government town was surveyed in December 1871 by Charles Hope Harris. The thoroughfares and streets were named after the family of George Goyder, Surveyor General of South Australia, with the streets running parallel and at right angles to the river. In 1873 the land of Solomon and Smith was re-surveyed and named Solomontown. On September 28 1876, Port Pirie was declared a municipality, with a population of 947. Port Pirie was proclaimed a city in 1953, becoming the first provincial city in South Australia.
Smelters were built in 1889 and it became the biggest lead smelter in the world by 1934, primarily due to the presence of the Broken Hill Associated Smelters (BHAS). Originally established in 1915, the smelter processed ore from the Broken Hill lead and zinc.
Port Pirie was declared South Australia's first provincial city in 1953, and today it is South Australia's second largest port and is characterised by a gracious main street and some interesting and unusual historic buildings.
The first railways in Port Pirie were of the narrow [3' 6"] gauge
The original railway station was in Ellen Street, with firstly narrow and then additionally broad gauge, tracks running down the centre of the street from 1875 to 1967.
Between 1960 and 1980, Port Pirie had a bogie exchange between standard and broad gauge tracks.
In 1970, the line from Port Pirie to Broken Hill was converted to standard gauge. The change created new three-gauge stations at Gladstone and Peterborough. In 1982, the line to Adelaide was also converted to standard gauge, and Port Pirie became a single gauge station. Changes to the National railway system made the Port Pirie platform redundant and in 1992 the baggage room was converted to an Art Gallery. In 1994 a major refurbishment was undertaken and the Regional Tourism and Arts Centre was created. It now includes an Art Gallery, an Award winning Tourism centre, a bus terminal, a Training Restaurant housed in an old sleeper car and a model Train track 1 kilometre in length showing the trip from Port Pirie to Broken Hill.
The Great Southern Railway trains, The Ghan and the Indian Pacific still stop at Port Pirie, although at a halt in the suburb of Coonamia, some 5 km outside of the centre of the town, which avoids a reversal of direction. There are two services for each train each week in each direction.
It has significant Italian & Greek communities.
Port Pirie is the main centre for the Mid North area. Many towns in the area rely on Port Pirie for shopping and employment. It also has many educational institutions such as John Pirie Secondary Schools (years 8-12), St Mark's College (Reception-year 12), many preschools and primary schools, Mid North Christian School (years 8-12) and a TAFE Campus (Adult Education).
Port Pirie's main employer is Nyrstar Limited, which has the world's largest lead smelter in the town. It has operated since the 1880s. The Stack, which can be seen miles away is 205 metres tall, and is the tallest structure in the state. Zinifex formed a joint venture with Umicore to form Nyrstar, which will own the smelter, and eventually be spun out of the parent companies.
Flinders Industrial, a new industrial estate, is currently in its second stage and is planned to be home to the new council depot. Plans are to build a sulphuric acid plant here for the benefit of the Nyrstar Smelter. This project is currently shelved and deemed not feasible.
Lead smelters are responsible for several environmental problems, especially raised blood lead levels in some of the town population. The problem is particularly significant in many children who have grown up in the area. There is a government project to address this. Nyrstar plans to progressively reduce lead in blood levels such that ultimately 95% of all children meet the national goal of 10 micrograms per decilitre. This has been known as the ten by 10 project. Community lead in blood levels in children are now at less than half the level that they were in the mid 1980's.
Higher concentrations of lead have been found in the organs of bottlenose dolphins stranded near the lead smelter, compared to dolphins stranded elsewhere in South Australia . Health impacts of these high metal concentrations for the dolphins are unknown.
Port Pirie is part of the state electoral district of Frome, which has been held since 1993 by former Liberal Premier, Rob Kerin. The seat is held by a margin of 6.8%. In federal politics, the city is part of the division of Grey, and has been represented by Liberal MP Rowan Ramsey since 2007. Barker is held with a margin of 8.86% and is considered safe-liberal. The results shown are from the largest polling station in Port Pirie — which is located at the SA TAFE Campus.