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

1885

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.

1891

Cairns-Kuranda Railway opens for goods traffic and passenger travel

1893

Cairns declared a Town.

1895

Mulgrave Central Mill Company Ltd first registered.

1896-98

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.)

1899

Natural gas supply company established

1903

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

1906

Local Harbour oard founded

1909

The Cairns Post newspaper opened

1911

First water supply opened

1912 (July)

Brick and timber Cairns District Hospital started accepting patients

1913

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

1923

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

1924

Gillies Highway over the range to Atherton opens

1925

Public electricity supply switched on

1925

Cairns High School and Technical College opens to students

1927

Cyclone Willis causes widespread destruction

1930

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

1933

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

1933

Cook Highway to Port Douglas was opened

1935

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

1936

4CA becomes the City's first radio station

1936

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

1942-1945

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.

1943

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.

1948

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.

1956

Strong winds from Cyclone Agnes damage vegetation and property

1956 (November)

Olympic torch passed through on its way to the Melbourne Games

1958

Sewering of the City began

1961

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.

1962

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.

1963

Barron Gorge Hydroelectric Power Station was commissioned.

1964

Bulk sugar terminal was opened on the Cairns waterfront

1966 (July)

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

1970

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

1973

HMAS Cairns naval base established.

1974 (May 31)

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

1975

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

1976

Supply of city’s water from Copperlode Dam begins.

1979

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

1980

Drive-in shopping centre opens at Earlville

1981-83

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.

1986

Smithfield Shopping Centre opens

1987

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

1988

Wet Tropics was included on the UNESCO World Heritage list

1989

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

1990

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.

1992

Court and police complex in Sheridan Street opened

1994

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

1995

Mulgrave Shire and Cairns City Council amalgamated

1995

The first public internet café in Cairns opened

1995

James Cook University opened its Smithfield campus

1996

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

1998

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

2000

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.  

2004

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.

2008

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

2010

Cairns Cruise Liner Terminal redevelopment completed.

2011 (February)

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

Last updated: 17 October 2016