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A little bit of Cairns, Now and Then

From the international tourists who flock here to visit the wonders of the reef and rainforest, to the regular holiday-makers from the southern states escaping cold winters, many people enjoy a little bit of Cairns now and then, and some of us are lucky to experience it every day.

A quick look at Cairns in the present is followed by a glance at its interesting history, which commenced with mining and related services over 127 years ago, and soon developed into a tourist hotspot famous for the same unique environmental characteristics that make it popular today.

Cairns Now

As I write, the skies have opened here in tropical Far North Queensland today, sending the humidity to 96%, and signalling the end of our long and glorious winter and the impending arrival of the wet season – which is very special in its own ways.


The Lagoon, Cairns EsplanadeCairns is a beautiful and popular international tourist destination, famous for its tropical climate, pristine palm-lined beaches, and tourist experiences such as the Great Barrier Reef, the Daintree Rainforest, Cape Tribulation, Palm Cove, Mission Beach, Paronella Park, Kuranda, Cooktown, the Atherton Tablelands, the Skyrail, waterfalls, crocodiles, mangoes, bananas, coffee, sugar cane, just to name a few.

The CBD bustles with tourists, shoppers, performers, resorts, hotels and eateries. The lagoon is a favourite meeting place for visitors of all nationalities, and there is usually entertainment of some description and a lively atmosphere along the length of the Esplanade. The wharf attracts huge cruiser liners that tower impressively over our modest town, and the marina flaunts vessels of all types escorting people out to the reef and islands, as well as on nature tours up the inlet.

Tropical Environment

The Cairns Esplanade, 1922 - State Library of QueenslandFor residents living in the suburbs that weren’t even a thought bubble a century ago, we still enjoy the same conditions and unusual wildlife in our tropical environment that the pioneers of Cairns likely experienced:

  • Stunning sunrises announced by dozens of species of birds performing their varied and unusual birdcalls, some quite amusing.
  • Daytime brings lizards galore, beautiful tropical butterflies such as the Ulysses, electric blue dragonflies, curlews and their chicks braving the open areas, golden-orb spiders in their huge webs, sacred egrets placidly pecking the lawns, tiny yellow-breasted honey eaters hovering and building nests, kookaburras and butcher birds on the alert for reptiles, and cockatoos swinging on the tall tips of palm trees.
  • At dusk the bats fly overhead ('bat-hour'), and the geckos chirp like birds (outside and sometimes inside, which is okay, as they eat spiders and cockroaches!).
  • Night-time brings out the chocolate fruit-eating bandicoots, screaming curlews, stunning orange-thighed green tree frogs singing around the pool, bats wrestling in the trees, tree snakes (rarely seen, but they occasionally leave a moulted skin near the porch), the occasional wallaby or enormous carpet python on the move, and yes, the ugly cane toads also emerge when it rains.
  • Sunset is very early all year round, so we always eat dinner in the dark - evenings are warm and balmy, often to the sound of cicadas, sometimes to torrential rain pounding on the tin roofs.
  • It is always hot (or at least warm), and the rain is warm and refreshing.

Although Cairns now appears very different to its humble and practical beginnings, it is definitely as lovely a place to live or visit, and the very early prediction of the popularity of the Esplanade was very accurate!

Cairns Then

Foundation of Cairns

100 years ago this month, Robert Sturt published an article in The Cairns Post, describing the Foundation of Cairns 27 years earlier, on 1 November 1876. Cairns was previously known as Trinity Bay, and was used by sea cucumber fishermen calling in for wood and water. Sturt describes the opening of the port, the establishment of Cairns, Smithfield (which was later wiped out), and Port Douglas due to the Hodgkinson goldfields, the first businesses in Cairns, and the first pub (a tarpaulin stretched over a bush frame).

Sturt names some of the prominent locals, who made up the population of about 200, including the great “Poo-Bah” Robert Hartley, who was “THE government, parson, and everything in an official capacity”. The population subsequently declined to about 80, but the sugar industry revived the region in 1882.

Prominent men of Cairns, 1877 - State Library of Queensland


The photo above, courtesy of the State Library of Queensland, includes:
Back row, L-R: Hartley; Warner; Sealy; Spence; Pritchard & Alf Smart.  Front row, L-R: Willie Smith; Tomlin (Q.N. Bank) & Stow (B. NSW).

Land Sales in Cairns

On 10 November, 1876, The Rockhampton Bulletin published an interesting account (Cairns, Trinity Bay) of the lead up to the land sales in Cairns. Prospective buyers were anticipating imminent sales, clambering to claim and mark out their desired piece of land.

Day by day the anxiety of almost every man, woman and child of the population to become possessed of a "corner allotment" has become intensified. The surveyor's every movement has been watched with cat-like vigilance, and hundreds of men, singly and in groups, may have been seen daily, from cock-crow in the morning till late at night, tomahawk in hand, wading through the tube-like lines cut through the scrub, with the object of "pegging out." This state of things culminated yesterday, when a sort of vague idea of the general plan of the town appears to have been arrived at ; hundreds of tomahawks were at work at the same moment, and pegging and clearing commenced in earnest. This was continued by the "pale light of the moon" during the greater part of the night, and this morning has been resumed with unabated vigour. More than one fight has taken place for the possession of an allotment, and these are but the preliminary to many others”.

Excitement was dampened when it was declared that any labour expended on improvements would be wasted. Ultimately, the land sale did not occur until 15 February 1877. The article describes the petition and demonstration against the new smaller frontages of 33 feet instead of 66 feet. Land was set aside for public buildings and facilities, and Spence, Aplin, Shields & Abbott streets were laid out.

the esplanade along the beach will be a delightful and healthful location for villa residences in the event of the place going ahead. There is every prospect of its doing so, although it is not at all improbable that two other settlements will be formed within a few miles of this port.”

The article also describes harbour & channel improvements, jetty construction, stories of shooting at ‘alligators’, and the engineering of roads and tracks.


Land Sales in Cairns, 24 February 1877 - TROVEOn 17 November, A. C. McMillan, Under-Secretary for Works, at Barron River Camp, submitted an update Latest from Cairns to the Queensland Times on the exploration of the Range with the intent of clearing a dray track to Thornborough (to access the Hodgkinson goldfields).

As short-lived as it was, the gold rush in the north triggered the development of Cairns as a service port for North Queensland, which by the early 1900s had also developed into a thriving tourist destination, with thousands of visitors cruising by steamer and ship, from as far away as Albany, WA, and with stops all up the east coast of Australia.

It is fascinating to take a glimpse at Cairns back then - the images and details of daily life may have been very different to that of Cairns now - but the toil of those pioneers in setting the foundations has allowed current generations to enjoy the geographical beauty and environmental attractions that are still very much the same!

Further Information

For more information, follow the links to the articles above, see the Cairns Historical Society's website, which contains interesting content about the history of Cairns, including tourism, timber, mining, and railways, and also visit the Cairns & District Family History Society Inc, which holds an extensive range of materials on the history of Cairns, its surrounds, its people and pioneers.  Contact or visit them for further information and to inspect their collections, or become a member to utilise their family history resources more fully.  Another informative source is A Thematic History of the City of Cairns & its Regional Towns, available on Cairns Regional Council's website.

Photo Links

The Esplanade, c1888 - State Library of QueenslandTo enjoy more early photos of Cairns, visit the State Library of Queensland's Picture Queensland, SLQ images on Flickr, the Queensland State Archive's Image Queensland, Trove Pictures & Photos, the National Archives of Australia's PhotosSearch (use the slider under the search box to narrow the search to earlier years), Lost Cairns on Facebook, and Google Images.

Feel free to add any other good links on the history of Cairns via the comments below.

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