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 is a city located in Far North Queensland, Australia. The area has a rich history that dates back over 40,000 years when the region was home to Aboriginal communities. Here is a brief overview of Cairns’ history:

  • Before European settlement, the area that is now Cairns was inhabited by the Yidinji people. They lived in the rainforest and along the coast and had a rich Culture that included hunting, fishing, and gathering.
  • Captain James Cook was the first European to visit the Cairns area, who sailed past in 1770. He named the area Trinity Bay.
  • In the late 1800s, gold was discovered in the nearby Hodgkinson River, which led to an influx of people to the area.
  • In 1876, Cairns was officially founded as a port for the goldfields. The city was named after William Wellington Cairns, the Governor of Queensland at the time.
  • The city grew rapidly in the late 1800s and early 1900s, thanks partly to the sugar industry. Many Chinese and Italian immigrants came to Cairns to work on the sugar plantations.
  • During World War II, Cairns played an essential role as a base for the Allied forces in the Pacific. The city was a hub for shipping and air transport and was the site of a significant US Navy base.
  • In the post-war years, Cairns became an important centre for tourism. The city’s proximity to the Great Barrier Reef and the Daintree Rainforest made it a popular destination for visitors worldwide.

Cairns is a vibrant city with a rich cultural heritage and a strong tourism industry. The city is home to various museums and cultural institutions, which offer a glimpse into the area’s history and cultural diversity.


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.

Industry and tourism timeline

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.

The building of the railway ensured the future of this vibrant city.

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

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

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

In 1903, Cairns was 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, 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.

Tourism has come a long way and is now a 3.5 billion industry.

 Early tourism advertising

Great Barrier Reef tourism history

Great Barrier Reef tourism

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