The History Of Cairns

cairns history

Cairns was named for Sir William Wellington Cairns and officially founded in 1876, following the discovery of gold in the surrounding area. However, Captain James Cook had ‘discovered’ the area more than a century earlier, on his first voyage of discovery in 1770 aboard HM Bark Endeavour. Captain Cook needed all his seamanship skills to navigate the treacherous channels between the Great Barrier Reef and the mainland. Despite his skill, the tiny 30m Endeavour ran aground on the coral reefs and, limping to land, put in at a river that was named for her, the Endeavour, which became the site of present-day Cooktown. The dispirited crew named other features according to their mood: Cape Tribulation, Hope Island and Weary Bay.

While Aboriginal inhabitants had lived well in the rainforest and from the sea, immigrants found the land harsh and ungiving. The dangerous reefs, dense vegetation, debilitating climate and advent of disease took their toll. For these reasons and more, it was not until gold fever lured hundreds of thousands of fortune hunters after the discovery of gold at Palmer River in 1872 that the region became developed. Initial access was via the Barron River, Trinity Bay provided a port, and the relatively clear, flat land to the north and south of the proposed site allowed for easier development. However, Cairns remained for a long period a mangrove swamp uninhabitable by all but the toughest pioneers.

Cairns was far from secure as a future city until the railway was built, being the starting- and finishing point for the rail track to the south and up to the Atherton Tableland. The engineering feat required to build the railway up the steep inclines to the tableland was enormous. The railway allowed for the opening up of the rich agricultural lands over the ranges and provided a livelihood for the pioneers after the decline of gold. While fruit and dairying predominated in the high country, sugar cane became and remains the main crop of the coastal flats. The all-important railway served the growing towns with access to markets and supplies.

The city remained a low-key place until after World War II, when visitors for pleasure started arriving. Tourism was cemented as the town’s major industry in 1984 with the opening of the international airport, and the subsequent listing of World Heritage areas. Cairns Museum, on the corner of Lake and Shields Streets, is worth a visit to learn more.


Significant milestones

1885Municipal government in Cairns began with the creation of a borough. Richard Ash Kingsford was the first Mayor. By 1887, the town had a population approaching 1,500.
1886 (10 May)Premier of Queensland, Sir Samuel Griffith, turns the first sod on Cairns-Kuranda Railway.
1891Cairns-Kuranda Railway opens for goods traffic and passenger travel
1895Mulgrave Central Mill Company Ltd first registered.
1896-98Construction of tramway from Cairns to Mulgrave linked agricultural lands to the port. It was the first public tramway in Australia to be constructed and worked by a local authority. (The tramway was taken over by Queensland Railways at the beginning of 1911.)
1899Natural gas supply company established
1903Cairns declared a town. Registered population of 3,500.
1905Cairns Harbour Board constituted by an Act of Parliament.
1909The Cairns Post newspaper opened
1911Cairns Water Board established. First water supply opened.
1912 (July)Brick and timber Cairns District Hospital started accepting patients
1913Mulgrave Shire Council Chambers built at 51 The Esplanade (now used as TTNQ Visitor Centre)
1915Babinda Sugar Mill constructed.
1923Queensland’s first mechanical sugar loading facility installed at Cairns Port (in what is now known as White’s Shed).
1923 (October 12)Queensland Government approves Cairns being listed as a city
1924Gillies Highway over the range to Atherton opens
1925Public electricity supply switched on
1925Cairns High School and Technical College opens to students
1927Cyclone Willis causes widespread destruction
1930The first Cairns City Council Chambers is built in Abbott Street (now houses the Cairns City Library)
1933Cairns’ population recorded as 11,993 in the 1933 Census
1933Cook Highway to Port Douglas was opened
1935Bureau of Sugar Experiment Stations releases South American cane toads (imported from Hawaii) near  Gordonvale as a biological control for beetle pests.  The number of toads quickly increased and the species became a well-established pest. Today the cane toad is listed as a key threatening species.
1935 (November)Barron Falls Hydro Electricity scheme begins providing power for a major industrial expansion. The Barron Gorge Hydroelectric Station came on line in 1963
19364CA becomes the City’s first radio station
1936Cairns City Council buys 162ha of land for Cairns Airport and constructs three runways made of cinders, red earth, rock and sand.
1942-1945Cairns served as a base for Australian and Allied, especially American, troops destined for the Pacific arena.  It was also used by US and Australian military forces as a trans-shipment port for northern Australia and New Guinea. A Catalina airbase operated from Trinity Inlet.  The fall of Singapore heralded a mass evacuation of the north with more than 7000 people leaving the region; many never returned.
1943Cairns Airport runway first sealed.
1947 (September)The corvette HMAS Warrnambool collided with a sea mine killing 3 crew and injuring 86 others. 2000 mines were cleared from shipping lanes over the next 2 years.
1948Clock tower installed at Cairns Port. The clock was silenced in 1953 and restored in 1986.
1954 (March)Queen Elizabeth 2 visited Cairns. A crowd of 40,000 turned out to welcome Her Majesty, more than twice the city’s official population at that time.
1956Strong winds from Cyclone Agnes damage vegetation and property
1956 (November)Olympic torch passed through on its way to the Melbourne Games
1958Sewering of the City began
1961The city’s first drive-in cinema opened  on the Bruce Highway at Woree. (It closed in early 2000.)
1961 (May 26)Green Island Jetty was opened as a highlight of the inaugural Cairns Tourist Festival. The event was renamed Fun in the Sun in 1963, and has since evolved to become the annual Cairns Festival.
1962Tobruk Memorial Pool opened. The facility was built at a cost of £85,000 upon a proposal by returned servicemen to commemorate the contribution of the Rats of Tobruk during World War II. Cairns Mayor S.D.E. Chataway officially opened the complex.
1963Barron Gorge Hydroelectric Power Station was commissioned.
1964Bulk sugar terminal was opened on the Cairns waterfront
1966 (July)ABC becomes the first local television station, closely followed by FNQ10 (September).
1970Cairns Council was the first municipality to have a Burroughs mainframe computer. It was the size of a domestic freezer and had a memory of 200 words
1973HMAS Cairns naval base established.
1974 (May 31)Prime Minister Gough Whitlam officially opened the much-awaited Cairns Civic Centre.
1975Local identity Emrys “Rusty” Rees formalised the “hippie” market.  Rusty’s Markets continue to operate from the same site today, as a predominantly fruit and vegetable market
1976Supply of city’s water from Copperlode Dam begins.
1979Residents could borrow books from the newly-constructed Cairns Public Library
1980Drive-in shopping centre opens at Earlville
1981-83The city’s first high-rise buildings, apartments and a hotel complex, dominated the skyline
1984 (March 31)Official opening of dual International and Domestic Airport terminals. In its first year as an international airport, there were more than 45,000 international passengers through Cairns.
1986Smithfield Shopping Centre opens
1987Tjapukai Dance Theatre opened in Kuranda bringing attention to Indigenous tourism. The Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park at Smithfield opened in July 1996
1988Wet Tropics was included on the UNESCO World Heritage list
1989Sugarworld Waterpark first opened. The facility was subsequently redeveloped in a $5.5 million project by Cairns Regional Council in 2011.
1990Cyclone Joy caused $6 million damage in the Cairns area.
1990 (September 3)New dedicated Cairns International Airport Terminal officially opened by then Queensland Premier Wayne Goss.
1992Court and police complex in Sheridan Street opened
1994Construction began on SkyRail rainforest cableway. It officially opened on 31 August 1995.
1995Mulgrave Shire and Cairns City Council amalgamated
1995The first public internet café in Cairns opened
1995James Cook University opened its Smithfield campus
1996Work began on the Cairns Convention Centre. The Centre hosted its first major conference in 2000, and it has since won many prestigious awards for its innovative architecture and congress excellence.
1996 (May)Cairns Railway Station demolished to make way for Cairns Central Shopping Centre which incorporated a new train station
1998Cairns Port Authority commences construction of a cyclone wave barrier around the Marlin Marina.
2000Olympic Torched visited the region on its way to the Sydney Games. Vision of the torch travelling on SkyRail and on the Great Barrier Reef was beamed around the world.
2003 (March 29)The multi-million dollar foreshore redevelopment of the Cairns Esplanade, featuring the 4800sqm saltwater swimming lagoon, was officially opened in the “Big Splash” event.
2004Cairns Convention Centre names as World’s Best Congress Centre by the International Association of Congress Centres.
2006 (March 20)Cyclone Larry (Category 5) crosses the coast near Innisfail, south of Cairns.  Cairns airport and harbour were closed, and all flights were suspended.
2008Formation of new Cairns Regional Council through amalgamation of Cairns City Council and Douglas Shire Council
2010Cairns Cruise Liner Terminal redevelopment completed.
2011 (February)Cyclone Yasi (Category 5) crosses the coast 150km south of Cairns
2014 (1 January)Deamalgamation of Douglas Shire from Cairns Regional Council.

Source :

Cairns Population

Census DatePopulation

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