The rich Bega River flats and nearby coastal areas developed in the 1800s. With poor roads, no rail and irregular punts used to cross the Bega River, a jetty at Tathra was built to provide access for the shipping of local goods to Sydney. The Bega Valley produced pigs, beef and skins, butter, cream and cheese, and wattle bark.

In 1862 a platform was constructed over the jetty. In 1866 a single-storey cargo shed was added and the newly-formed Illawarra Steamship Company (locally known as the Pig & Whistle Line) provided a regular transport service by steamer, beginning a near century partnership with the district's farmers.

The wharf and buildings continued to be extended during the late 1800s with a more solid construction of cattle and pig yards being added in 1901. The wharf was extended in 1903, and the present two-storey building (currently occupied by the Tathra Wharf Museum) was constructed in 1908 to store cargo. Spring-loaded buffers were introduced to assist in the berthing of larger vessels in the difficult north-easterly seas to which the wharf was exposed. This was in conjunction with a mooring buoy to the north-east of the jetty. Between 1907 and 1912 the wharf underwent major extensions in eight definable stages, including a sub-deck, jib crane, the addition of the cattle race, loading ramp and passenger shelter. In 1919 the passenger shelter was replaced by a more substantial construction abutting the two-storey cargo shed.

The last passenger steamship, the SS Cobargo, departed in 1952. In 1954, the SS Tathra, was the last cargo steamer to leave the wharf. Up to 1954 the real working wharf was the lifeblood of the district, providing work for the locals, an outlet for produce and a port for incoming goods desperately needed by the growing communities.

Management of NSW wharves was delegated to local shire councils. The financial burden was huge; mass deterioration resulted and invariably each fell into disrepair, a number meeting their end by fire. The now historical Tathra Wharf was the only such structure saved, all due to a concerted community effort. In 2006 piers, bearers and the platform were replaced using spotted gum and turpentine timbers as originally built. The cargo shed roof was renovated. Further remedial work was undertaken following a severe storm in 2016.