Contributed by
Mary Thompson – “Mareeba a Boom & Bust Town”
Mary Thompson – “The Last Tobacco Crop”
Mary Thompson – “My Multicultural Family”

Mareeba, a town of many stories as told by Mary Thomspon

The land on which Mareeba stands has been the traditional land of the Muluridgi people for thousands of years.  They lived on this land without interruption until the late 1800’s when the growing world need for minerals saw prospectors investigate the far north-eastern region of Queensland striking it lucky with the Palmer River goldfields.  Miners flocked to the Palmer goldfields and those looking to make their fortune set up businesses and service industries in Cooktown, the port servicing the Palmer.

The First Wave – The Granite Creek Stopover

The Muluridgi people remained relatively undisturbed until the 1870’s when prospectors looking for new finds found the precious metal in the Hodgkin’s goldfield and later in 1879 they found significant tin deposits in Herberton.  Cooktown was too far away for the long lines of teamsters carting minerals to a metal hungry world, so a second port was constructed in Port Douglas.  The Track from Herberton to Port Douglas led through the Tablelands and onto the lower plain at the end of the Great Dividing Range.  Half way between Herberton and Port Douglas was a small flat parcel of land situated between the Barron River and Granite Creek, just before the junction of those two streams.  This spot became known to the non-indigenous settlers as “The Granite Creek Stopover”.

About this time, a cattle breeder near Cardwell, John Atherton, reasoned that droving his cattle from the southern port to the far north seemed a waste of time, money and effort so he took a herd of cattle and set up a station just below the junction of the Barron and Granite rivers.  From there he sold beef to miners.  By 1880 he was established enough to expand his business.  Seeing an opportunity to service the teamsters, he built the “Wayside Inn” on the high bank overlooking what is now the Granite Bridge.  A concrete plinth at the end of Eccles Street’s “T” junction with Byrnes Street marks the spot of the first permanent structure in the town we all now know as Mareeba.

The Second Wave – The Trains

As the mines and the businesses servicing them became established, the people began to petition the government for easier transport routes.  Wheeled vehicles had to be hauled up the mountains from Cairns and in the wet, any form to transport was delayed or cancelled due to bogging.  These problems meant it was difficulties to provisioning the mines and get the minerals to port.  Trains had become increasing popular and useful across the westerns world and in the southern states.  In 1886 the Queensland government commissioned Christie Palmerston to identify a track for a possible railway line from Herberton to Port Douglas and the growing settlement at the nearest point with the best port, in Cairns.  Palmerston found several potential tracks including a track along the remnants of the range to Port Douglas; a second winding through the mountains dividing the tableland from the coast and down to Cairns; and a third branching off before reaching Mareeba and going down the mountains to a settlement called Geralton which was later to become Innisfail.  The Government surveyor settled on the track leading from Mareeba to Cairns.

The building of the railway line was contracted out in three sections.  The first from Cairns to the bottom of the range.  The second and most difficult was from the foot of the range and up to Myola.  This section was led by John Robb. The third and final section was led by William Sutherland from Myola to Mareeba.

Many nationalities assisted in the construction, in particular Irish and Italian immigrants.  These workers had to supply their own shovels.  The railway track reached the settlement in 1892 and in that year it was proclaimed a town and formally named “Mareeba”.  The name Mareeba is a local aboriginal word meaning ‘meeting of the waters’, celebrating the junction of the Barron River and Granite Creek just to the north east of the town. 

Many of the railway builders stayed to work on the railway they had helped build, and to add extensions from Mareeba to other settlements.  This began a period during which Mareeba was primarily a railway town sending trains to the mine fields and down to the ports. At the same time farmers established themselves to provide food for the mines and the busy port towns, using the railways to get their goods to market.

The Third Wave – Populate the North

Like many regional towns across Australia, Mareeba lost many young men in the terrible conflict known as World War 1.  This brought home to the region and the Governments in Canberra and Brisbane the temptation that the vast unsettled areas in the Far North of Australia could pose to the heavily populated nations to our north.  In 1920 a policy was developed to “Populate the North”.  Land was offered to returned soldiers first and then immigrants by ballot.  Stories remain of Albanian immigrants with bicycles hearing of the ballot and landing in Perth being told to ride east until the hit the sea and then turn north. While the success of these first settlers was mixed, it saw the rapid ‘development’ of the land surrounding Mareeba and other towns in the Far North.  The government recognised that in order for these ‘settlements’ to be successful, they needed to establish an industry beyond ‘servicing the mines’.  In 1924, the Bacon Factory was established in Mareeba and in 1929 the federal government established tobacco growing in the region.

Subsequent waves – The lost Stories of Mareeba

As communication made the world a more interconnected place, world events continued to impact on the settlement of Mareeba. Waves of immigrants came after the first and second World Wars and subsequent conflicts. Today Mareeba is made up of people from more than 64 different cultural backgrounds making Mareeba the town it is today.  These stories need to be collected and saved for our children to learn, for historians to research, for all of us to know what makes us who we are. 

The Mareeba Heritage Centre has launched a project to collect some of these stories.  We seek to interview the people with these precious stories and record any mementos they have to preserve them in audio form with supporting pictures to make them accessible for future generations. This is an investment in our future – preserving the lost cultural stories of Mareeba.

Janet Greenwood Operations Manager

Janet commenced work with the Mareeba Heritage Centre in July 2016. She had the vision to create this project and was instrumental in acquiring funds and putting the right people in place to bring this project together. Janet is passionate about community engagement and development.

Al Kirton NQ Radio Group General Manager

Since the age of 20, Al has been part of the radio industry working at stations 4VL, 4CD, 4RO, 2ST, 2LT, 3BO, 4ZR, 4VL (again) 4KZ, KOOL FM, 4AY, KIK FM & 4AM. Al’s former roles have included announcer, salesman, sales promotion manager, sales manager and part owner. His interests include bushwalking, cooking, music and 4 wheel driving.

Angela Musumeci Volunteer Project Officer

Angela was born in Mareeba but like most young people left to pursue a career in Corrections and then Community Services. On retirement, she returned to her home town and is happy to be contributing to progression and preservation.​

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