early cairns history

The first European to discover the site of what is now called Cairns was Captain James Cook who sailed up the coast of northeast Australia in June, 1770.

The journey of his ship the HM Bark Endeavour was not easy as the Great Barrier Reef is difficult to navigate. At 30m long, Cook’s ship was quite small and it sustained serious damage when it ran aground on a coral reef.

Captain Cook and his crew managed to gain the coast and holed up in what became the Endeavour River, near Cooktown, north of Cairns.

The region was rugged, difficult to explore and didn’t do much to cheer Cook and his crew as can be seen in the names he dotted about … Cape Tribulation, Hope Island and Weary Bay.

After successfully repairing the Endeavour, Cook headed north and after a number of adventures in Papua New Guinea and Java, finally returned to England. Captain James Cook died on his third voyage to the region when natives of the Hawaiian Islands killed him in 1779.

Despite Cook’s discovery of the Cairns area and the naming of the bay Trinity Bay – thanks to the calendar – it was another 100 years before Europeans returned to the region and settled the area.

When gold was discovered at the Palmer River, east of Cooktown in 1872, thousands of miners arrived beginning a rush that would see Cairns eventually established in 1876.

Settlers in the region took some convincing to move from established settlements to the north and south of Trinity Bay to create the current site of the city of Cairns.

What was basically a sandy beach lined with mangroves, swamp and rainforest was redeemed by the sheltered port of Trinity Bay and the relatively flat land to the north and west.

Originally known by a variety of names – Thornton, after William Thornton the Collector of Customs in Brisbane; Dickson, after the colonial treasurer of the times; Newport, by the people of Cooktown or Trinity Bay – the name Cairns was chosen to honour Queensland’s first Irish-born Governor, Sir William Wellington Cairns.

city of cairns develops

In October 1876, the Esplanade was the first surveyed street in the new town. Originally named Troughton Esplanade after Captain Fred Troughton, travelling superintendent of the Australian Steam Navigation Company, the name was reduced after documents were lost.

Beginning as a tent city, the first major structures to go up were wharves and storage sheds. Despite initial success, the slowing of the gold rush saw the town at risk of disappearing due to lack of income until it was chosen as the starting point for a railway line that was to service the Atherton Tableland.

The actual building of the line was a feat of engineering as up to 1500 workers were hired to build the 75.1km of railway line by hand.

Construction was separated into three contracts, one and three being relatively straightforward, but the middle section was extremely dangerous due to the steep sides of the mountains, the dense rainforest and the indigenous population defending their territory.

Beginning near what is now the suburb of Redlynch at 5.5m above sea level and continued to Myola with an altitude of 327.1m, the section included 15 tunnels, 93 curves and dozens of difficult bridges built meters above ravines and waterfalls.

The entire project was built by hand with workers using buckets, bare hands and dynamite. The amount of dirt removed added up to just over 2.3 million cubic metres. Naturally a number of deaths were also recorded during construction and its peak there were about 1500 men – mainly Irish and Italian – involved in the project.

cairns in the 20th century

With the establishment of large agricultural concerns on the Atherton Tableland and further development of the lands around Cairns, the town continued to grow during the early 20th century.

Sugar cane became a major export crop for the Cairns region with the dairy industry growing at an equally fast pace on the Atherton Tableland. Today the remnants of massive sugar plantations can be seen along the coast of the Cairns region with going concerns still operating in Mossman, north of Cairns, and around the Innisfail and Tully areas, south of Cairns.

The Atherton Tableland continues to be dotted with dairy farms and the areas around Mareeba on the northwest tableland have swapped from tobacco growing to large coffee plantations and other drier weather crops.

Down on the plains, Cairns continued to develop viable industries with fishing, market gardens and continued timber logging helping to turn the small settlement into an incorporated town in May, 1903.

The town at the time had a population of more than 11,000, including 2000 Chinese; piped gas; a sugarcane mill; a high school for girls and kerosene street lamps.

Over the next few decades, Cairns quickly developed into a bustling town with major services like an ambulance centre, a school of arts building – currently the Cairns Historical Museum – a newspaper and a railway from Cairns to the Atherton Tableland ensuring its future.

One of the drawbacks of the region, tropical cyclones, devastated the township of Cairns on March 16, 1911 destroying the banana crop. But the same year saw town water connected from Freshwater Creek.

Three years later, the first aeroplane arrived in Cairns but crashed during a demonstration flight. Over the next few years, Cairns sent a regiment of troops to fight in WWI and the first motorised vehicle drove up the Kuranda Range highway.

During the 1920s and 1930s, Cairns continued to grow with electric light and power installed in 1925; the Cairns City Council building – now the home of the main Cairns city library – opened in 1930; and in 1932 Dr Hugo Flecker established what would later become the botanic gardens that are still operating on Collins Avenue in Edge Hill.

By 1940, Green Island had become a national park; the first commercial radio was broadcast and another devastating cyclone hit the coast near Cape Tribulation killing 75 people.

During World War II, the Cairns region played its part supplying the Allied forces and becoming a training base for mainly American troops. The region was pivotal during the battle for the Coral Sea and despite concerns that the Japanese could invade, most residents chose to stay in the area.

Post World War II, Cairns began to develop as a tourist destination for Australians. Over the next decades, the city continued to grow with a private hospital, and Technical and Further Education institute, a drive-in cinema, the Trobuk Memorial Baths (swimming pool) and an automatic telephone exchange adding to the amenities.

In 1965, a new 7000ft runway was added to the Cairns Airport and a year later the last log was cut at the old Cairns Timber Mill. In 1968, the first passenger jet air service between Cairns and Brisbane began.

By the 1970s, Cairns was home to a naval patrol boat, a new fire station in Gatton St and traffic lights. But it was the opening of the Cairns International Airport in 1984 that saw the city become an international tourist destination.

<b>Leisure:</b> People were using the Esplanade as their favourite leisure spot soon after Cairns was settled in 1876. The Esplanade was surveyed soon after by John Sharkey. Picture supplied and published in Growing Up With Cairns by Alan Hudson <b>Architecture:</b> The Commonwealth Bank on the corner of Abbott and Spence streets, was one of the city's first. Picture supplied and published in Growing Up With Cairns by Alan Hudson <b>Community:</b> Cairns residents supported the war effort enthusiastically during World War II. Several groups of volunteers included the Women's Emergency Corps. Picture supplied and published in Growing Up With Cairns by Alan Hudson. <b>Industry:</b> Small sugar lighters brought bagged sugar from district mills to Cairns where it was loaded on to larger vessels to be taken to southern ports or overseas countries. Picture supplied and published in Growing Up With Cairns by Alan Hudson.

recent history of cairns

Since then Cairns has developed in leaps and bounds, suffering a few setbacks with cyclones and the Pilot’s Strike in 1989, but continuing to grow into a modern city.

The redevelopment of the Esplanade foreshore was officially opened in March, 2003 featuring Muddy’s Playground, the Lagoon and Fogarty Park recreational areas to ensure more tourists and residents would flock to the area.

The final stage of the redevelopment was opened in December, 2006.

Cairns is now a city with an estimated resident population of more than 130,000, about 3.3 per cent of Queensland’s population.

The population of the Cairns region is expected to grow by about 1.8 per cent between 2001 and 2026.

If the domestic and overseas visitors are included, the estimated population of Cairns is about 145,000 at any one time.