Search for a suitable route announced by the Minister for Works and Mines
Desperate calls for a railway to the coast
The setting was the prolonged North Queensland wet season of 1882. Desperate tin miners on the Wild River near Herberton were unable to obtain supplies and were on the verge of famine. The boggy road leading inland from Port Douglas was proving impossible. As a result, the settlers at Herberton raised loud and angry voices and began agitation for a railway to the coast.
Coming general elections and increasing cold weather in the south saw visits to the north by leading politicians. All promising a railway. In March, 1882, the Minister for Works and Mines, Mr Macrossan announced the search for a route from the Atherton Tablelands to the coast. He commissioned Christie Palmerston, an expert bushman and a most colourful pioneering character, to find a suitable route.
In February 1882, both Port Douglas and Cairns formed Railway Leagues and engaged in a long and bitter fight for the right to the railway. Not long after, Geraldton, later named Innisfail, entered the competition boasting the sound virtues of Mourilyan Harbour.
During that year Palmerston marked several possible routes from the coast, inland along the Mossman River, the Barron Valley from Cairns and the Mulgrave Valley. In November 1882 Palmerston made the trip from Mourilyan to Herberton in 9 days and repeatedly came across the track which had been marked by an inspector named Douglas in May of that year. On arrival, Inspector Douglas had wired the Colonial Secretary: “Arrived Mourilyan 28th May. Fearful trip. No chance of road. 20 days without rations, living on roots principally. 19 days rain without intermission.”
Cairns win the railway bid
In March 1884, a surveyor named Monk submitted reports from investigations carried out on all the routes marked by Christie Palmerston. This culminated in a decision that would shape the future of North Queensland. The Barron Valley gorge route was chosen. The storm of indignation which followed from Port Douglas and Geraldton was as enormous as the jubilant celebrations from the people in Cairns.
An incredible engineering feat
Construction of the Cairns-Kuranda Railway was, and still is, an engineering feat of tremendous magnitude. This enthralling chapter in the history of North Queensland, stands as testimony to the splendid ambitions, fortitude and suffering of the hundreds of men engaged in its construction. It also stands as a monument to the many men who lost their lives on this amazing project.
On May 10th 1886, the then Premier of Queensland Sir Samuel Griffith, used a silver spade to turn the first sod. Celebrations involving almost the entire population of Cairns lasted all that day and long into the night. Construction was by three separate contracts for lengths of 13.2km, 24.5 km, and 37.4km. The line was to total 75.1km and surmounts the vast Atherton tablelands leading to Mareeba. Sections One and Three were relatively easy to locate and construct. But the ascent of Section Two was extremely arduous and dangerous due to steep grades, dense jungle and aboriginals defending their territory.
The climb began near Redlynch 5.5m above sea level, and continued to the summit at Myola with an altitude of 327.1 m. In all, this section included 15 tunnels, 93 curves and dozens of difficult bridges mounted many meters above ravines and waterfalls.
A railway constructed by hand
Section one of the line ran from Cairns to just beyond Redlynch. The contract won by Mr. P.C. Smith for $40,000. However, work was dogged by bad luck and a possible lack of supervision. Sickness and prevalent amongst the navvies and the working conditions in the swamps and jungles were approaching unbearable.
In November 1886, P.C.Smith relinquished his contract for Section One. It was taken over by McBride and Co., but they too had packed it in by January 1887. Section one was finally completed by the Queensland Government.
On January 21st 1887, John Robb's tender of $580,188 was accepted for section two. He and his men tackled the jungle and mountains not with bulldozers, jackhammers and other modern equipment, but with strategy, fortitude, hand tools, dynamite, buckets and bare hands. Great escarpments were removed from the mountains above the line and every loose rock and overhanging tree had to be removed by hand. It was during this type of work that the first fatal accident occurred. At Beard's Cutting, a man named Gavin Hamilton stood on the wrong side of a log as it was being rolled into a fire, and was killed.
Earthworks proved particularly difficult. The deep cuttings and extensive embankments that were removed totalled a volume of just over 2.3 million cubic metres of earthworks. The Barron Valley earth was especially treacherous. Slopes averaged 45 degrees and the entire surface was covered with a 4.6 m - 7.60m layer of disjointed rock, rotting vegetation, mould and soil.
During construction, navvies' camps mushroomed at every tunnel and cutting. Even comparatively narrow ledges supported stores - some even catering for the men's need for groceries and clothes! Small townships were thriving at Number 3 Tunnel, Stoney Creek, Glacier Rock, Camp Oven Creek and Rainbow Creek. Kamerunga, at the foot of the range, boasted no fewer than five hotels. At one stage, 1500 men, mainly Irish and Italian, were involved in the project.
Faced with poor working conditions, on April 20th 1888 a meeting of predominantly Irish workers at Kamerunga resulted in the formation of the Victorian Labour League. Even so, relationships between workers and contractors remained harmonious as all realised the magnitude of the task before them. In August 1890, the great maritime strike spread to the railway workers and they formed The United Sons of Toil. They made a demand for 90c per day. By September differences had been resolved and the navvies' wages were increased from 80c per day to 85c per day.
The railway nears completion
By April 1890, Stoney Creek Bridge was almost complete and the project was paid a vice-regal visit by the Governor of Queensland, general Sir Henry Wiley Norman. To His Excellency's astonishment, John Robb prepared a full banquet atop Stoney Creek Bridge with tables, food and wine dizzily suspended may metres over the gorge. History records that there were no speeches that day due to the roar from the waterfalls.
By May 13th 1891, rail was laid to the end of the second section at Myola. On June 15th 1891, Mr Johnstone, one of three Railway Commissioners at that time opened the line for goods traffic only. Just ten days later, the Cairns- Kuranda Railway line was opened to passenger travel.
Trade at Port Douglas died off rapidly and the town became a quiet little retreat. However, today it is a popular holiday destination. Geraldton (Innisfail) prospered in its own right because of the growing sugar industry. With a reliable supply of goods and freight, the Tablelands bloomed into a wealth of rich grazing land. And Cairns was destined to become the modern, international tourist centre it is today, still expanding in leaps and bounds.