Kuranda Railway: From Pioneer Lifeline to Travel Experience

Kuranda station in 1924

In April 1880, prospectors uncovered a rich vein of tin ore in a gully along the Wild River, inland from the coastal town of Cairns. The town of Herberton sprang up to service the claim, on what would become known as the Atherton Tablelands. In July 1880 the first load of tin was consigned to Cairns, transported through the rainforest zone along roughly built tracks that during the rainy season were all but unpassable. By 1882 the unreliability of this route was causing the miners severe difficulties, and the decision came to build a railway. But where could the tracks be laid through such difficult terrain?

Opening the North Queensland Interior

With gold having been discovered some years earlier on the Palmer River to the northwest, and with the Tablelands now being opened up for farming as well as mining, the fledgling settlements of Cairns, Port Douglas and Innisfail (then known as Geraldton) were all vying to become North Queensland’s main port and commercial centre. Christie Palmerston was commissioned by the Queensland Government to search for a suitable route, and he identified several possibilities, ranging from the Mossman River in the north to Mourilyan Harbour.

On assessed the options identified by Palmerston, in March 1884 officials settled on the route that ran up the Barron River Gorge, through Kuranda and on to Mareeba. Cairns was the big winner, to the bitter disappointment of its rival settlements. They would make their own names later, Port Douglas as a tourist mecca and Innisfail as a service centre for the sugar industry. But this one went Cairns’ way, and the town would thus become North Queensland’s transport hub.

The Challenges of Building the Kuranda Railway

On 10 May 1886 the first sod was turned on the project to connect coastal North Queensland to the interior by rail. The planned line would be 75km in length and would rise from near sea level to an altitude of 327 metres at its highest point.

From the swamps immediately north of Cairns, the railway would strike westwards, hugging the rugged cliffs as it wound across the mountains, skirting numerous waterfalls and looking down on the river below to make its way through the rain forest that would in another time earn World Heritage status. Eventually the trains would have to pass through 15 tunnels and cross 37 bridges to negotiate the high escarpments and deep ravines of the Great Dividing Range.

For construction purposes the project was divided into three parts, section one the 13km from Cairns to Redlynch. Section two, the central stretch of 24.5km, would traverse the mountainous rainforest, the most challenging and expensive to build. There in the mountains everything had to be done by hand, removing trees and rock to create a base for the construction of the track. At times up to 1500 men were engaged, working on ground that was precipitous in contour and too often unstable. Inevitably accidents occurred, while illness also took its toll in the difficult working conditions of the tropics. There were many deaths before the project was completed in 1891.

Kuranda Turns to Tourism

In April 1890 the sweeping Stoney Creek Bridge was completed. After another year of backbreaking toil, section two of the project reached Myola, just past Kuranda, the small town that sits aside the Barron River before it plunges through the mountains. By then the money had run out, and that was as far as this project would go for now. The link was quickly put to use, and on 15 June 1891 the Cairns-Kuranda railway was inaugurated.

Tourism came early to Kuranda, an attractive little town where visitors could get some relief from the oppressive tropical heat of summer. Rail was the way to travel, and in 1913 Kuranda Railway Station was redeveloped “after the style of a Swiss chalet,” with its showpiece gardens added later.

Today the Cairns-Kuranda Scenic Railway is a major tourist attraction. It takes the traveller on a two hour experience that celebrates the great feat of engineering the pioneers of North Queensland put together with their rudimentary tools and their hard labour. A return journey combining the tourist train with the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway showcases the natural splendour of the region’s lush rainforest, at the same time giving an appreciation of the task that faced the teams of men who opened the Atherton Tablelands to industry and commerce.