Captain James Cook sailed up the North Queensland coast on his first Voyage of Discovery in June 1770, aboard his ship the HM Bark Endeavour. Captain Cook was the first known European to visit the site where todays City of Cairns is located.
There is ongoing debate about Dutch explorers arriving on Cape York almost one hundred and seventy years before Captain Cook. Whilst it is accepted that they reached the western side of Cape York there is no evidence that they made it down the east coast.
The journey down the coast by the HM Bark Endeavour was not a pleasant one. The Great Barrier Reef is one of the most difficult waterways in the world to navigate. The Bark Endeavour was only 30 metres long, a small ship indeed for the perilous journey that it had undertaken. The Bark Endeavour ran aground on a coral reef and sustained serious damage. The crew managed to limp to shore where they found a river mouth where they could beach the battered ship. This river was later name the Endeavour River and the town that grew on its banks became known as Cooktown. Other geographical features were named to reflect the somewhat somber mood of the Captain and crew: Cape Tribulation, Hope Island and Weary Bay.
North Queensland was a rugged area that would prove difficult to explore. Aboriginal tribes lived throughout the region having learnt to adapt to the environment that white settlers later found so harsh and inhospitable. Whilst repairs were being made the crew supplemented their diet with kangaroo’s and other native animals.
The ship was eventually repaired and after many attempts to find a way out of the Great Barrier Reef they managed to escape…continuing their journey northward to the coast of Papua New Guinea and Java, and then finally returning home to England. Captain James Cook lost his life in the Hawaiian Islands on his third (and last) Voyage of Discovery in 1779.
Due in no small part to the dense vegetation, severe cyclones and the associated wet season, treacherous reefs, disease and dangerous animals such as crocodiles it took a further 100 years before white settlement took a firm hold in the region.
The discovery of gold by the early explorers started development, as is often the case in isolated and remote areas around the world. The areas north of Cairns, particularly Cooktown were initially established as frontier towns to support the ongoing gold rush in the area. Cairns and Smithfield (north of Cairns) were not officially founded until 1876.
The gold rush started on the banks of the Palmer River in 1872. This area is east of Cooktown and approximately 370km northwest of Cairns. Thousands of fortune hunters were lured to this area as news of the gold rush spread throughout the country. An early explorer, James Mulligan is credited with discovering gold in the area and starting the famous gold rush.
Whilst the gold rush focused on the Palmer River it wasn’t long until it spread to the surrounding area including the Mitchell River, Gilbert River, Fitzroy River and Einsleigh Rivers. Shanty towns grew up overnight to support the miners and many of these grew into large and prosperous towns that no longer exist.
Copper and tin was also found at Mt Garnet. At its peak the main mine had over 500 men working on site.
There are many stories documenting the conflicts between the white settlers and the indigenous Aboriginals throughout North Queensland. There were many deaths on both sides and it easy to understand the fear and lack of trust that was prevalent. The local Aboriginals had lived in this harsh area having come to terms with the natural hazards over thousands of years. Within a few short decades they were being told what to do, where they could and could not go and how they could live. Some early explorers were violent, setting an example for other Aboriginals who may have considered retaliation against these strong arm tactics. As is often the case in history though there were many brutalities on both sides and even today, the rift whilst much smaller, still exists in modern Australia.
The initial site for the city of Cairns was a sandy bank lined with dense rainforest and mangroves. The main access into the surrounding area was by the Barron River. This enabled land to be developed in close proximity to the river and it provided the start of access to the surrounding areas, particularly the Atherton Tableland. The areas north and west of Cairns had already been established and it took some convincing to establishing a town on what was really nothing more than mangrove lined swamp land. The main reason for Cairns being established was the sheltered port provided by Trinity Bay and the relatively flat land North and South of the proposed site which was less densely vegetated than other parts of the coast.
Cairns was named after Queensland’s first Irish born Governor, Sir William Wellington Cairns. There was some debate about the naming of the town and in fact it was often called by any one (or more) of the following:
Thornton – after William Thornton the Collector of Customs in Brisbane
Dickson – after the Colonial Treasurer of the time
Newport – by the people of Cooktown
Trinity Bay – by the people unsure of its correct title
The first street to be surveyed in Cairns was The Esplanade (in October 1876). It was initially named Troughton Esplanade after the Captain Fred Troughton, Travelling Superintendent of the Australian Steam Navigation Company. The original plans were lost and subsequent plans omitted the name Troughton hence the street simply became known as the Esplanade.
It is hard to imagine life in the early city of Cairns when faced with todays modern city. One thing is certain is that the climate and the wildlife would have made life interesting. Starting as no more than a tent city the first structures to be built were wharves and sheds. There were many Chinese and Malaysian immigrants living in the area. They had come to work in the gold fields and as the towns grew they developed their own businesses and living areas.
Cairns looked like passing into obscurity until it was chosen as the starting point for a railway line that serviced the Atherton Tableland taking up workers and supplies and bringing back tin and timber. Cairns was the starting and ending point for the rail system providing a transport route for raw materials to be shipped to the main southern ports where demand for these products was very high.
The development of this railway was a feat in its own right. Cairns is surrounded by a very steep and densely vegetated mountain range which made travel to and from the coast almost impossible.
The gold rush eventually began to die out and the people living in North Queensland began to look for other ways to make a living. The rich soil on the Atherton Tableland were perfect for farming just about any crop and they still remain a major source of fresh produce for Australia. Sugar Cane farms were developed close to Cairns as there was now access to transport the cane to the southern mills. The flat coastal lands became major sugar growing plantations. Other crops such as rice and even cotton were tried but they lacked the commercial viability that sugar cane possessed. Even today sugar cane farms dominate the entire North Queensland coastal strip. The cooler Atherton Tableland is good for dairy, fruit and vegetables as well as substantial tobacco crops.
Cairns continued to grow, fishing and pearling became large industries attracting a new type of explorer. The diversity of industries that were now well and truly established in the north guaranteed to long term viability of this tropical city.
North Queensland played its own part in World War 2. The allied forces, predominantly the USA had troops stationed throughout the region, which also served as a supply centre for the Pacific fleet. There was concern that with the fall of Singapore it would only be a matter of time before the Japanese would actually invade Australia with the logical route being down the isolated Cape York Peninsula. In fact the Japanese bombed the far north several times during the war.
Things began to return to normal in the post war era. North Queensland continued to row and develop and it started to become popular as a holiday destination for other Australians.
Awareness of the Great Barrier Reef sparked this tourism growth and in 1984 an international airport opened and a major tourism boom began which converted Cairns from a sleepy regional town to the thriving city of today.
All in all it has been a colourful past for this vibrant part of the world. There is a museum in Cairns (Corner of Lake and Shield St – upstairs) that is well worth visiting if you are planning a trip to Cairns and you would like to know a little more about this truly unique place.