History of Kuranda Region

From 3.2 Strategic intent > 3.2.1 Setting the scene > Mareeba Shire Council Planning Scheme July 2017

The Mareeba Shire’s history and landscape includes a rich and robust Aboriginal heritage. The Shire includes the traditional lands of the Bar Barrum, Djabugay, Kuku Djungan, Muluridji, Wakaman and Western Yalanji peoples. In fact, the word Mareeba is a word used to describe where the waters meet, referring to the Barron River being joined by Granite Creek, in the local Aboriginal dialect.

The Muluridji people were a prominent group that occupied the Mareeba area as their traditional lands. The Muluridji people led a hunter-gatherer existence living off the lands, which extended from the Mitchell River to Mount Carbine, east to Rumula, south to Mareeba and west to Woodville. The main area of occupation for the Muluridji people was in the drier country west of the main rainforest between Biboohra and Mount Molloy. The land was rich and fertile attracting early European explorers, and later, settlers. In times that would follow, the history of the Muluridji people as well as other local Aboriginal peoples became entwined with those of the settlers growing together and apart.

As an example of the entwined history of Aboriginal people and new settlers, the Mona Mona mission was established by the Seventh Day Adventists in 1913, when 4,000 acres near Kuranda were gazetted as an Aboriginal Reserve for the Aboriginal inhabitants of Kuranda and the surrounding area. The mission was closed in 1962 under the belief that the area would be flooded to create a new dam, which was never built.

The history of Mareeba Shire, as an emerged local government area stretches back to as early as 1874, when James Mulligan commenced prospecting the Walsh River area. A year later Mulligan, after whom Mount Mulligan is named, discovered gold deposits around the Hodgkinson River, within what became the Hodgkinson minerals area. In 1876, Thornborough and Kingsborough, the two major settlements in the mining area, were formed.

Development of the area’s mining activities continued into the early 1880s, with abundant deposits of tin and copper also discovered by Gibbs, Thompson, McDonald and Molloy. Numerous smelters were established around the area in Irvinebank (previously Gibbs Creek), Chillagoe, Montalbion, Stannary Hills (previously Eureka), Rifle Creek and Mount Molloy. Mineral activities in the shire area slowed after 1910 due to a variety of factors, however many towns survived on new industries. Mount Molloy developed a new economy based on foresting and dairying, which led to the establishment of a sawmill and small butter factory by the 1920s.

Development of Mareeba Shire’s strong agricultural sector was also commencing in the 1880s and 1890s, with William Atherton forming a pastoral station on Chillagoe Creek in 1887, to supply meat to the mining operations. John Atherton, William’s father was a prominent pioneer within the broader region from the 1870s to 1890s and is acknowledged as the founder of Mareeba township. A key driver in the development of Mareeba Shire during this period was the construction of the Tablelands Railway between 1887 and 1916, which reached the town of Mareeba in 1893. The railway provided a pivotal connection between the coastal port of Cairns and mining and agricultural activities within the Shire. It also led to the establishment of the town of Kuranda in 1888, in anticipation of the completion of the railway.

While the construction of a railway to the shire was approved by the State Government, an associated proposal for electrolytic processing at Barron Falls was denied in 1900. This led to the construction of a number of private railways to enable coal to be supplied to local mining operations, including a tramway to Stannary Hills from the Mareeba-Chillagoe railway line, which was completed in 1902, and a railway line to Etheridge copper and gold deposits. Five years later, the Stannary Hills tramway was extended to Irvinebank. The growing of tobacco in the area commenced in 1930 and quickly expanded, with tobacco grower cooperatives established in Dimbulah and Mareeba in 1935 and 1937 respectively. Coffee was also grown in Kuranda for a brief period, until severe frosts in the early 1900s wiped out the harvest. Agricultural production continued during the Second World War, due to the stationing of armed services personnel in the Mareeba Shire area and the transporting of livestock by rail to the Mareeba saleyards. Agricultural industries continued to grow after this time, with operations around Mareeba and Dimbulah supported by the construction of the Tinaroo Dam in the now Tablelands Region in 1958.

The late 1960s saw the growth of Kuranda as a key alternative lifestyle location, attracting musicians, artists and other creative individuals, ultimately contributing to the unique architecture and atmosphere of Kuranda. The emergent and sustaining mining and agricultural sectors saw numerous changes to divisional and shire boundaries over the years, with Walsh, Barron and Chillagoe shires formed only to be later disbanded due to the growth of Mareeba as a town centre. Mareeba Shire was officially formed in 1947. At this time the new shire was estimated to have a population of 6,262 people. Mareeba Shire was briefly later amalgamated with Atherton, Herberton and Eacham Shires, to form Tablelands Regional Council in 2008. However, after only a few years Mareeba Shire Council subsequently de-amalgamated in 2014, with the balance area retaining its Tablelands Regional Council name.

The end of the 20th century saw Mareeba Shire’s tourism sector grow significantly, particularly around Kuranda (the “Village in the Rainforest”), with the ongoing development of the Kuranda Tourist Railway and the opening of the Cairns to Kuranda Skyrail in 1995. This period also saw the decline of the tobacco growing sector, due to broader trends, with the industry eventually ceasing in 2004.

Today, Mareeba Shire is dependent on a range of agricultural activities including the growing of coffee, sugar cane, tropical fruit, vegetables and nuts. Forestry, mining of gold and marble also contribute to the local economy. The tourism sector is another contributor to the local economy, providing depth and diversity to the economic fabric of the shire. Kuranda, Gateway to the Atherton Tablelands, is a key tourism location, underpinned by a strong creative economy.

Did you know?
Kuranda has almost four times the State average of professional people identifying as “Arts Professionals”, and attracts over 1 million visitors per year, making it the most visited destination in Far North Queensland.

The current resident population is estimated at 20,826 people distributed across the shire. This population is largely concentrated in urban areas, particularly Mareeba, which has an estimated population of 7,816 people.

Largely a result of the European explorers and Aboriginal heritage, Mareeba Shire is culturally diverse with 12.2 percent (compared to 9.8 percent in Queensland) speaking a language other than English at home. 13.4 percent of the population identifying as Indigenous (compared to 3.6 percent in Queensland) and there are now 17 registered Native Title determinations and three Indigenous Land Use Agreements (ILUAs) in the Mareeba Shire area.

Mareeba Shire has experienced a significant amount of change over its 142 year history and this is anticipated to continue as the Shire strengthens current activities and captures growth in new industries. Proximity to, and close ties with the regional City of Cairns will also contribute to residential growth. The population of the shire is estimated to increase to 25,304 by 2026 and 28,623 by 2036, equating to population increases of approximately 21.5 percent by 2026 and 37.4 percent by 2036. Considered planning is required to ensure projected growth within the shire is appropriately managed and located.