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 possibly for much of the often suggested 40,000-year period.

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 had ‘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 and was repaired in a river, which later came to be 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

For these reasons and more, it was not until gold fever lured hundreds of thousands of fortune hunters to the region.

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 clear, 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 toughest pioneers.

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

The engineering feat required to the railway to be built up against steep inclines to the Atherton Tablelands.

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.

Queen Elizabeth’s visit to Cairns in March 1954 enthusiastically attended by an estimated 40,000 people, twice the official population.

Opening of the Cairns International Airport, in 1984 helped cement the city as a destination for the international tourist.

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

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

Locals are friendly and helpful, making this region wonderful to visit and remember for a lifetime.