Cairns History

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Cairns history began in 1876, but the early development started long before that.

Today we see Cairns as a modern city in a tropical paradise, where tourism is our major industry. People from all around the world travel here to swim on the Great Barrier Reef or explore the natural wonders of our World Heritage Rain forest.

However, our past wasn't so magical.

Early Aborigines

Initially, Cairns struggled for quite a few years and some of the characters that graced our shores have experienced hardships and adventures that they could never have dreamed up.

Great Barrier Reef history intertwines with Cairns history when in 1770 Captain James Cook sailed along the northern Australian coast.

The Esplanade ca1890

Captain Cook, along with botanists Joseph Banks and Dr Solander, went ashore to search for fresh water, however they were unsuccessful. From then on, their troubles began. They struck a reef and were almost lost. Eventually they sailed off north to Cooktown, where they struck further trouble. After quite a few mishaps they finally found a way through the reef and sailed away to safety.

Marine surveys were carried out around Cairns between 1819 and 1871. The most accurate survey of the coast was completed in 1871 by Captain Moresby.

Cairns Hospital

Beche-de-Mer fishermen however had been around from the 1850's and they'd found that the mangroves of the Inlet (now known as Trinity Inlet), provided a smoke highly suitable for the cutting of their catch.

Gold was discovered on the Palmer river in 1873 and Cooktown became the port for the Palmer goldfields and the base for the beche-de-mer fishermen. In 1876 another gold-rush was announced on the Hodgkinson River, due west of Trinity Bay. Access to the new field was from Cooktown. This was a long (even by todays standards) and difficult journey and they needed to find a better route from the field to the coast. A site was chosen and was named Thornton.

First Cairns City Council Chambers

The opening of a settlement at Trinity Bay was announced in the Queensland Government Gazette and the public was notified that "any persons erecting buildings on Crown lands at Trinity Bay, will do so at their own risk,……."

William Wellington Cairns

On October 6, 1876 Thornton was officially renamed Cairns after Queensland's new governor, William Wellington Cairns. After his death, he was described as a sickly, peevish man, of a stingy disposition and unpopular. Despite this, he was also known for his humanitarian approach to the problems of the Aborigines and the immigrant workers on the gold fields and sugar plantations.

The beginning of Cairns history as a settlement, was a collection of tents housing 300 people, until ships from Maryborough brought timber for building.

The sugar industry was a vital factor in increasing its fortunes. The Chinese originally moved here for the goldrush, however turned their hand to market gardening after the gold was diminishing.

The township suffered many setbacks and settlements sprang up in Smithfield and Port Douglas. Both these places were preferred because of easier routes to the goldfields, however eventually Cairns won over.

Cairns railway

There was soon call for a railway, and after loud objections from the citizens of Port Douglas and Geraldton (Innisfail), the terminus for the line was built in Cairns. The railway passed through seemingly impossible terrain and remains one of the world's great engineering achievements.

With the completion of the railway and connections to the south of the state, the future of the town was assured.

Cairns history was established in 1876, finally becoming a municipality in 1885, a town in 1903 and a city in 1923.

Cairns State School

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