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History of Cairns

The Cairns region is the traditional land of Bama Aboriginal people and continues to be home to Aboriginal people from three main language groups and 15 clan groups. About 9 percent of the region’s population is Indigenous – one of the highest populations of First People in Australia.

  • Learn more about the Traditional Owners and Indigenous history of the area today known as Cairns.

European settlement

The city that we now know as Cairns was officially founded in 1876 and named after the State Governor of the day, Sir William Wellington Cairns. It was formally declared a town in 1903 with a registered population of 3500. Initial European settlement in the region in the 1860s was driven by beche de mer fishing, and the discovery of gold to the north (Palmer River field) and Atherton Tableland (Hodginkson River field) saw the population begin to climb.

Throughout the 1870s and early 1880s European and Chinese settlers opened up the region to agriculture generating a large enough population base for the borough of Cairns to be declared a municipality. The first mayor, R.A. Kingsford, was elected in 1885.

The development of the Cairns to Herberton rail line in 1886, and subsequent expansion from Redlynch to Myola, is widely considered the catalyst for the City’s expansion. The rail line made travel through the difficult terrain easier and attracted a large number of immigrants during construction. Many of these immigrants settled in the region, establishing the sugarcane industry and extensive fruit orchards.

During World War II, Cairns was at the forefront of the Battle of the Coral Sea (1942) and the Pacific offensive (1943). Anti-aircraft gun emplacements were established along the Cairns Esplanade and Trinity Beach was used as a major training ground for defence forces for amphibious landings.

Shields Street Heart Stages 1 & 2

Council has created a new pedestrian oasis in the Cairns CBD, completing work on the Shields Street Heart project Stage 1 in July 2016 and Stage 2 in March 2017.

Shields Street Heart Stage 1: Grafton to Lake sts

Stage 1 works were undertaken along the Grafton Street to Lake Street section of Shields Street. Key elements of the $7.8 million Stage 1 works include:

  • creation of an urban park – roadway and car parking removed to make way for beautification works, recreating a rainforest experience (more trees, shade, turfed mounds, existing tiled walls re-surfaced, porphyry paving).
  • contemporary lighting to provide life, colour and atmosphere after dark – a range of white and coloured lighting will be introduced including feature lighting and moving projections onto buildings, trees and pavements.
  • public art components that have an Indigenous art focus.
  • vehicle access restrictions in place – the refreshed public space is a pedestrian-friendly zone.

Shields Street Heart Stage 2: Lake to Abbott sts

In this stage, the Lake Street to Abbott Street section has been transformed into an urban parkland. Key project elements include:

  • creation of an urban park—asphalt roadway and on-street car parking will be removed to make way for beautification works to recreate a rainforest experience (more trees, shade, turfed mounds, existing tiled walls re-surfaced, porphyry paving).
  • contemporary lighting will provide life, colour and atmosphere at night —a range of white and coloured lighting will be introduced including feature lighting and moving projections onto trees and pavements, and uplighting in the garden beds to show off the tropical surrounds after dark.
  • public art components showcasing the diversity and creativity of local and regional Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists.
  • a total of 22 trees, 41 palms and 2922 smaller plants were planted along with 728 square metres of turf.
  • vehicle access restrictions in place – the refreshed public space is a pedestrian-friendly zone.
  • Abbott Street 4870.
  • Aplin Street 4870.
  • Bunda Street 4870.
  • Dutton Street 4870.
  • Esplanade 4870.
  • Florence Street 4870.
  • Grafton Street 4870.
  • Hartley Street 4870.