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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
and tin was also found at Mt Garnet. At its peak the main mine had
over 500 men working on site.
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.
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.
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
- after William Thornton the Collector of Customs in Brisbane
- after the Colonial Treasurer of the time
Newport - by the people of Cooktown
Trinity Bay - by the people
unsure of its correct title
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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