Located about 1595km north west of Brisbane and 228km south east of Mount Isa, McKinlay got its name corrected from MacKinlay to McKinlay in 1932 so that it will be in line with one of the great Australian explorer John McKinlay, from whom the name was after. You can find the silhouette sculpture of John McKinlay in town. This sculpture was unveiled in 2012 to celebrate 150 years after McKinlay passed through the area. Visitors can tap into the early history of McKinlay and surrounding areas and also about John McKinlay himself by visiting Centenary Park, located across from the silhouette sculpture of John McKinlay. Centenary Park has storyboards which share some historical information of interest.
Gold was discovered on the McKinlay-Cloncurry road in 1872. In 1997, BHP opens a mine site located about 87 kilometres south of McKinlay, the Cannington mine. Cannington mine is Australia's largest silver and lead mine and was the supplier of silver for the Olympic Games medals in Sydney in 2000 and again for the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
McKinlay Shire covers an area of 40,880.3 square and has existed as a local government entity since 1891. Because of the change in the McKinlay shire's economy, they moved the shire offices to Julia Creek in 1932. The old shire hall was made a Masonic Lodge room.