Bourke was a port, where goods and passengers travelled by paddlesteamer along the Murray-Darling river system. However, the use of river transport declined when the railway reached Bourke in 1885. The railway closed in 1990 after flooding caused significant damage to the line. The railway station is now used as a tourist information centre.
In 1895 a heatwave killed 47 people in Bourke over a 13 day period. In that time the daily maximum temperature averaged 47°C (116.6°F).
Bourke can be reached by the Mitchell Highway, with additional sealed roads from town to the north (Cunnamulla), east (towards Brewarrina, Moree and Goondiwindi) and south (Cobar). The town is also served by Bourke Airport and has Countrylink bus service to other regional centres, like Dubbo. It was also formerly the largest inland port in the world for exporting wool on the Darling River. The countryside around Bourke is used mainly for sheep farming with some irrigated fruit and cotton crops near the river.
Bourke is considered to represent the edge of the settled agricultural districts and the gateway to the Outback which lies north and west of Bourke. This is reflected in a traditional east coast Australian expression "back o' Bourke", referring to the Outback.
Bourke was mentioned in the trial of Bradley John Murdoch on November 24 2005, as the place where murder victim Peter Falconio was allegedly seen, 8 days after his disappearance from near Barrow Creek, Northern Territory.
Fred Hollows, the famous eye surgeon, was buried in Bourke after his death in 1993. Fred Hollows had worked in Bourke in the early 1970s and had asked to be buried there.
The Telegraph Hotel, established in 1888 beside the Darling River, has been restored and now operates as the Riverside Motel.