Cairns History involves a famous gold rush, larrikin's and scoundrels, the area North of Cairns has some of the oldest Aboriginal art on our planet

Cairns History from shantytown to a modern tourism hub

Cairns first residents

The first recorded human occupants of the Cairns area were Australian Aboriginal peoples.

Archaeological evidence shows Aboriginal peoples living in the Cairns rainforest area for at least 5,100 years and probable for the often said 40,000 years.

Tribal groups speaking the Gimuy Walubara Yidinji language were generally on the south side of the Barron River.

On the northern side, particularly in the coastal area from the Barron to Port Douglas, Yirrganydji groups generally spoke dialects of the Djabugay language.


Captain James Cook

However, in 1770, Captain James Cook discovered the area on his first voyage aboard the HMS Endeavour.

Captain Cook needed all his seamanship skills to navigate the treacherous channels between the Great Barrier Reef and the mainland.

Despite his skill, the tiny 30-metre Endeavor ran aground on the coral reefs.  The Crew onboard repaired the boat in a river, later known as the Endeavor. Now the site of present-day Cooktown.

While Aboriginal inhabitants had lived well in the rainforest and from the sea, immigrants found the land harsh and ungiving.

The dangerous reefs, dense vegetation, debilitating climate and advent of disease took their toll.

Palmer River Gold

Cairns History
Palmer River Goldfields

It was not until gold fever lured hundreds of thousands of fortune hunters to the region for these reasons and more.

After the discovery of gold at the Palmer River in 1872, the area became developed.

Initial access was via the Barron River.

Cairns was officially founded in 1876 and named after Sir William Wellington Cairns, following the discovery of gold in the surrounding area.

Cairns industry

Trinity Bay provided a port, and the relatively straightforward, flat land to the north and south of the proposed site allowed for more natural development.

However, Cairns remained a mangrove swamp, uninhabitable by all but the most challenging pioneers.

Cairns was far from secure as a future city until the building of the railway.

To instal a railway line at such a steep incline was an engineering feat.

The railway allowed for the opening up of fertile agricultural lands over the ranges and provided a livelihood for the pioneers after the decline of gold.

While fruit and dairying dominated in the high country, sugar cane became the main crop.

In 1903, Cairns officially declared a town with a registered population of 3,500.

In 1909, The Cairns Post newspaper commenced publication, with a publishing schedule of six days per week.

Cairns remained a low-key place until after World War II.

Forty thousand excited locals attended Queen Elizabeth’s visit to Cairns in March 1954, which was twice the local population at the time.

The opening of the Cairns International Airport in 1984 helped cement the city as a destination for international tourists.

With its rich history and warm tropical climate, tourism plays a significant role in the economy of Cairns.

Cairns is the gateway to exploring Australia’s Great Barrier Reef and the Daintree Rainforest.