The Kuranda Train – A Magnificent Australian Engineering Feat


The Kuranda Train is also known as the Kuranda Scenic Railway or the Kuranda Tourist Train. It runs between Cairns and Kuranda.

The distance by rail is 34 km and takes less than 2 hours. It’s a narow gauge of 106.7 cm (3′ 6″).It’s a magnificent engineering feat journeying throught picturesque scenery and the wonderful rainforest of the Barron Gorge National Park.

It’s privately owned and is Queensland’s only profit making railway.

On 24 August 1873 James Venture Mulligan (13 February 1837 – 24 August 1907) arrived at Georgetown. He reported a gold discovery on the Palmer river.

So began the Palmer River Gold Rush in Cape York Peninsular in Far North Queensland (FNQ), Australia.

It was a major gold rush. It probably was the wildest, booziest and brawliest gold rush of them all.

Few people know anything about it. It occurred in an isolated part of the world. Today the area does not support a sizeable population.

There’s only a few isolated cattle stations. Towards the end of the gold rush even the Chinese were starving and they could live on almost nothing.

The gold rush and subsequent mineral discoveries brought the white man in large numbers to FNQ. In those early days Cape York Peninsular showed enormous promise.

Gold was found at many locations. But where is the source – the gold reef? It’s a matter of time before it’s found.

The area attracted many big financial speculators. Most went bankrupt as the alluvial gold ran out and the source was still not found.

Geologically and geographically Australia is a very old continent. It’s the second oldest to Antartica. The gold is weathered, eroded and mixed in with the sand and soil.

There is no big gold reef to be found (the mother lobe). As a general rule, the deposit’s of most minerals occur in rough, rugged and isolated country.

In Australia, that general rule holds up more loosely. Because of the continent’s age, everything is so weathered.

There’s two minerals whereby it’s possible for a man to make a livelihood by working alone and swinging a pick and shovel. That’s tin and gold.

They usually occur together. Sometimes copper when conditions are ideal. Tin usually occurs in remote, rugged country and in small deposits.

Most tin is mined by small operators. The process of mining tin and gold is identical. They’re both very heavy, tin is a little lighter.

You can dig up a shovel full of dirt almost anywhere in Cape York Peninsular and find gold. Wash it and there’ll be a few gold specks floating on top.

A gold speck must be very light to float on water. It takes a lot of them to make an ounze. There’s a lot of gold in FNQ and it’s easy to find. But there’s no gold nuggets. Metal detectors are of little use here.

As the gold petered out, the prospectors dispersed and turned to other means to earn their bread and butter.

In those days it would’ve been damper and dripping. Occasionally, if they were extremely lucky, they got a little jam.

As FNQ colonized, settlers raised loud and heated voices and agitated for a railway from the coast going inland.

Politicians visited and promised a railway. In March 1881, the Minister for Works and Mines, Mr Macrossan announced the search for a route from the coast to the Atherton Tablelands.

He commissioned Christie Palmerston, an expert bushman and a colourful pioneering character, to find a suitable route.

In February 1882, Cairns and Port Douglas each formed Railway Associations. They engaged in a long and bitter struggle for the railway.

Not long after, Geraldton, later named Innisfail, entered the competition boasting the sound virtues of Mourilyan Harbour.

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 Innisfail to Herberton in 9 days. He repeatedly came across a track marked by an inspector named Douglas in May 1882.

On arrival, Inspector Douglas 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.”

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 FNQ. The Barron Valley gorge route was chosen.

It was an inevitable chose for the simply reason that Cairns is the only truly sheltered harbour. But there’s a problem.

The inlet is shallow and the surrounding land is swampy. The solution is obvious. The inlet needs to be dredged and the dredgings used to fill in the swamp.

Who ever gets the railway will go on to become a big metropolis. The storm of indignation that followed from Port Douglas and Innisfail was as enormous as the jubilant celebrations from the people of Cairns.

On 10 May 1886, the 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 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.

It was to surmount the Great Dividing Range. Proceed to Kuranda and onwards 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 marauding aborigines.

The climb began near Redlynch 5.5m above sea level. It continued to the summit at Myola with an altitude of 327.1m.

In all, this section included 15 tunnels, 93 curves and dozens of difficult bridges mounted many meters above ravines and waterfalls.

Section one of the line ran from Cairns to just beyond Redlynch. The contract was won by Mr. P.C. Smith for $40,000. However, work was dogged by bad luck and a lack of tradesmen.

Sickness was prevalent among the navvies and the working conditions in the swamps and jungles were almost 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 Colonial Queensland Government.

On 21 January 1887, John Robb’s tender of $580,188 was accepted for Section two. He and his men tackled the jungle and mountains with strategy, fortitude, hand tools, dynamite, buckets and bare hands.

Great escarpments were removed from the mountains above the line. Loose rocks and overhanging trees had to be moved by hand.

It was during this work that the first fatality occurred. At Beard’s Cutting, a man named Gavin Hamilton stood on the wrong side of a log as it rolled into a fire. He was killed.

Earthworks proved particularly difficult. The deep cuttings and extensive embankments that were moved totalled a volume of 2.3 million cubic metres of earth.

The Barron Valley earth is especially treacherous. Slopes averaged 45 degrees. The entire surface was covered with a 4.6m to 7.6m layer of disjointed rock, rotting vegetation, mould and soil.

During construction, navvies’ camps mushroomed at every tunnel and cutting. Small townships thrived at Number 3 Tunnel, Stoney Creek, Glacier Rock, Camp Oven Creek and Rainbow Creek.

Even comparatively narrow ledges supported shops. They catered to the men’s needs for groceries, clothes and, of course, alcohol.

Kamerunga at the foot of the range boasted five hotels. At one stage 1500 men, mostly Irish and Italian, worked on the project.

Faced with poor working conditions, on 20 April 1888 the workers met at Kamerunga and formed a trade union.

Nevertheless, relationships between employees and employers remained harmonious as all appreciated the necessity of the railway.

In August 1890, Australia’s great maritime strike spread to the railway workers. They formed the United Sons of Toil. They demanded .90c per day.

By September differences were resolved. The navvies’ wages were increased from .80c per day to .85c per day.

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 there were no speeches due to the roar from the waterfalls.

By 13 May 1891, rail was laid to the end of the second section at Myola. On 15 June 1891, Mr Johnstone, one of 3 Railway Commissioners opened the line for goods traffic.

Ten days later, the Cairns – Kuranda Railway line was opened to passenger travel.

Port Douglas died rapidly and the town became a quiet, little retreat. Today it’s a popular holiday destination.

Geraldton (Innisfail) prospered in its own right because of the growing sugar industry. The Atherton Tablelands, with a reliable supply of goods and freight, bloomed into a wealth of rich grazing land. Cairns was destined to become the modern, international tourist centre it is today.

Construction of the Cairns – Kuranda Railway was an engineering feat of enormous magnitude.

This enthralling episode in the history of FNQ stands as testimony to the splendid ambition, fortitude and suffering of the huge number of men engaged in its construction.

It stands also as a monument to the many men who lost their lives on this incredible project.

This story continues in The Savannahlander and Gulflander Trains.