History of Cairns

The Cairns region is the traditional land of Bama Aboriginal people and continues to be home to Aboriginal people from three main language groups and 15 clan groups. About 9 percent of the region's population is Indigenous - one of the highest populations of First People in Australia.

European settlement

Officially founded in 1876 and named after the State Governor of the day Sir William Wellington Cairns, it wasn't until 1903 that Cairns was formally declared a town with a registered population of 3,500. Initial white settlement in the region in the 1860s was driven by beche de mer fishing however it was the discovery of gold to the north (Palmer River field) and Atherton Tableland (Hodginkson River field) that saw the population begin to climb.

Throughout the 1870s and early 1880s European and Chinese settlers opened up the region to agriculture generating a large enough population base for the borough of Cairns to be declared a municipality and for the alderman to elect the first mayor, R.A. Kingsford, in 1885.The development of the Cairns to Herberton rail line in 1886, and subsequent expansion from Redlynch to Myola, is widely considered the catalyst for the City's expansion as it made travel through the difficult terrain easier as well as attracting a large number of immigrants involved in the construction. These immigrants went on to settle in the region and were responsible for establishing the sugarcane industry, predominantly in the low lands, and extensive fruit orchards on the cooler tableland.

A more detailed history of Cairns and who and what helped shape the region is available in the Cairns Heritage Study (A Thematic History of the City of Cairns and its Regional Towns 2011) ( PDF, 5.43 MB ).

Significant milestones


Municipal government in Cairns began with the creation of a borough. By 1887, the town had a population approaching 1,500.

1886 (10 May)

Premier of Queensland, Sir Samuel Griffith, turns first sod on Cairns-Kuranda Railway.


Cairns-Kuranda Railway opens for goods traffic and passenger travel


Cairns declared a Town.


Mulgrave Central Mill Company Ltd first registered.


Construction 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.)


Natural gas supply company established


Cairns declared a town. Registered population of 3,500.


Local Harbour oard founded


The Cairns Post newspaper opened


First water supply opened

1912 (July)

Brick and timber Cairns District Hospital started accepting patients


Mulgrave Shire Council Chambers built at 51 The Esplanade (now used as TTNQ Visitor Centre)


Queensland’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


Gillies Highway over the range to Atherton opens


Public electricity supply switched on


Cairns High School and Technical College opens to students


Cyclone Willis causes widespread destruction


The first Cairns City Council Chambers is built in Abbott Street (now houses the Cairns City Library)


Cairns’ population recorded as 11,993 in the 1933 Census


Cook Highway to Port Douglas was opened


Bureau 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


4CA becomes the City's first radio station


Cairns City Council buys 162ha of land for Cairns Airport and constructs three runways made of cinders, red earth, rock and sand.


Cairns 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.


Cairns 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.


Clock 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.


Strong winds from Cyclone Agnes damage vegetation and property

1956 (November)

Olympic torch passed through on its way to the Melbourne Games


Sewering of the City began


The 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.


Tobruk 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.


Barron Gorge Hydroelectric Power Station was commissioned.


Bulk sugar terminal was opened on the Cairns waterfront

1966 (July)

ABC becomes the first local television station, closely followed by FNQ10 (September).


Cairns 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


HMAS Cairns naval base established.

1974 (May 31)

Prime Minister Gough Whitlam officially opened the much-awaited Cairns Civic Centre.


Local 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


Supply of city’s water from Copperlode Dam begins.


Residents could borrow books from the newly-constructed Cairns Public Library


Drive-in shopping centre opens at Earlville


The 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.


Smithfield Shopping Centre opens


Tjapukai Dance Theatre opened in Kuranda bringing attention to Indigenous tourism. The Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park at Smithfield opened in July 1996


Wet Tropics was included on the UNESCO World Heritage list


Sugarworld Waterpark first opened. The facility was subsequently redeveloped in a $5.5 million project by Cairns Regional Council in 2011.


Cyclone 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.


Court and police complex in Sheridan Street opened


Construction began on SkyRail rainforest cableway. It officially opened on 31 August 1995.


Mulgrave Shire and Cairns City Council amalgamated


The first public internet café in Cairns opened


James Cook University opened its Smithfield campus


Work 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


Cairns Port Authority commences construction of a cyclone wave barrier around the Marlin Marina.


Olympic 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.  


Cairns 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.


Formation of new Cairns Regional Council through amalgamation of Cairns City Council and Douglas Shire Council


Cairns Cruise Liner Terminal redevelopment completed.

2011 (February)

Cyclone Yasi (Category 5) crosses the coast 150km south of Cairns

Last updated: 17 October 2016