a colourful history of gold & the sugarcane industry
In 1770 Captain Cook passed Port Douglas – very soon after the Endeavor struck the Great Barrier Reef. They beached the ship at Cooktown for some very lengthy repairs.
In 1873 gold was discovered by James Venture Mulligan at the Palmer River. To service the mining, Island Point was identified as a suitable Port or inlet.
Bally Hooley is the little train that runs in Port Douglas for the benefit of visitors and locals of all ages, who enjoy the magic of traditional locomotion, with its sounds and smells of a more gentle and tolerant era. The historic train service plays an essential role in the pioneering story of the town and district.
Port Douglas was established as a port in 1877 to service both the booming goldfields west of the Daintree range, and to support the growing agricultural district. Christie Palmerston, William Little and indigenous guide, Pompo, cleared a route, known as the Bump Track, from the Hodgkinson goldfield to Island Point, which would become the port. Port Douglas was quickly settled by merchants, with the establishment of government offices, banks, a courthouse and the lighthouse on Low Isles.
A couple of years later, the town also had hotels, banks, a community hospital, and two newspapers. Race meetings were held on Four Mile Beach. At its peak in this era, the population got to 12,000, with 27 hotels ‘Chinese Josh houses’ in the town.
Boom was not so long-lived though, and when Kuranda rail was established in 1891 just north of Cairns, the significance of Port Douglas diminished for the transportation of gold, as did the population. Fortunately, the sugar cane industry continued to grow, with the first crush at the Mossman Sugar Mill in 1897, helping to maintain the local economy.
In 1877 the inlet at Island Point was officially surveyed and named Port Owen. It went on to be known as Terrigal, Owenville, and White Island Point before it was finally called Port Douglas.
In 1878 a town lot in Port Douglas would have cost 25 pounds. Lot 28, on the corner of Macrossan and Wharf Streets, was valued at six pounds and fourteen shillings and sold only to become a single storey hotel, The Buchanan Family Hotel. This hotel was later named the Courthouse Hotel.
In 1886, the Queensland Census lists the Chinese population of Port Douglas town as 142, and Port Douglas hinterland as 487. Chinese were almost two-thirds of the district's entire population.
In 1911 on March the 16th a severe cyclone hit Port Douglas and two people were killed. In 24 hours, 16 inches of rain fell. Most buildings were damaged and many were never rebuilt because of the town’s uncertain future.
The steam train service was originally owned and operated by the Mossman Sugar Mill. Initially, about eight miles (almost 13km) of two foot (60cm) gauge track was laid for the purpose of cane haulage. One of the more significant early sections to be laid, was from a jetty on the Mossman River to the site of the Mossman Sugar Mill. New equipment just arrived from Glasgow on board the SS Westfield, was therefore able to be transported to the Mill site. From then on, the extent of the ‘tramway’, as it was called, expanded at a steady rate, accommodating the difficulty of transporting cane from the fields to the Mossman Mill on essentially non-existent roads. In 1900, an extension to the rail line was built from the Mossman Sugar Mill to the Port Douglas Sugar Wharf for transporting freight, sugar and passengers. The line included the branch up the Mowbray River Valley. During that year, the tram traveled almost 6,000 miles carrying over 23,000 passengers.
The first steam locomotive to operate on the line was the Mossman, built and supplied by John Fowler & Co. of Leeds in England. This proved to be a highly successful venture, so that the Mill management decided to standardise the use of these locomotives. Consequently, a second train, the Pioneer, came in to operation soon after.
The final Passenger rail service between Port Douglas and Mossman was discontinued on Christmas Eve in 1935. Passengers then caught the sugar trams.
Port Douglas did survive from the late 1800s until 1958 as a sugar port but when Mossman Mill decided to transport its sugar to Cairns, the population decline continued. The Konanda shipped the final load of bagged sugar in 1958, with all later cargo freighted by road to the Cairns Bulk Sugar Terminal.
the decline of sugar and the boom of tourism!
In 1957 electricity was switched on in Port Douglas.
In 2001 ex President Clinton was in the bar of the Central Hotel at the time of the 11th of September World Trade Centre tragedies.
With the shutdown of sugar transport to the wharf, there were no industry requiring local labour, so the population dwindled to only 100 people in 1960. Throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s Port Douglas survived mainly as a fishing and holiday village. Then in the 1980s the town emerged as a booming exclusive tourist destination, the jewel in north Queensland’s crown. When Christopher Skase unveiled his new five-star Sheraton Mirage resort in 1988, Port Douglas was transformed from a sleepy beachside village into a sophisticated tropical playground for the rich and famous. Celebrities including Tom Hanks, John Travolta, Mick Jagger and Claudia Schiffer were spotted playing in paradise.
The first daily reef cruise from Port Douglas began with the Martin Cash to Low Isles in 1979. Quicksilver began its first daily cruise to the Outer Barrier Reef in 1982. With new tourism opportunities recognized, came the development of The Reef Marina in 1987. The Reef Marina was purchased by the Crystalbrook Group in 2017 and is now known as the Crystalbrook SuperYacht Marina, and is indeed home to an astounding array of floating palaces!
After the Mossman Mill stopped transporting sugar into Port Douglas in 1958, the rail line was actually pulled up. It was re-laid some 30 years later in 1987 by the Mill. Recognising the development in the tourism economy, the Mill started tours from Port Douglas to Mossman, including a tour of the Mill operation. In early 2000, the steam locomotives Speedy and Bundy were relocated to Port Douglas from Mossman. Over time the distance of the train trip was shortened to approximately 4kms within the Port Douglas area, and for a number of years the service was run on Sundays only, by a group of enthusiastic volunteers. The Mill ran the tourist train until late 2002. It was then purchased privately by the John Morris Family.
The steam train has run for many years on Sundays and was staffed by a volunteer group until June 2016 when a change was made to run a seven-day a week commuter service during the busy tourist season. The business recently purchased another locomotive, the Nelson, built in 1934. The restoration is expected to be completed shortly. All the rail line and rolling stock has served its life in the cane industry and has now been refurbished to excellent condition.
We thank the Historical Society for their invaluable insight and records. The Douglas Shire Historical Society is a wonderful group of enthusiasts who operate the Court House Museum, and amongst many other things, conduct historical walks along the Heritage trail in Port Douglas. The Museum is open on Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays between 10am-1 pm and is staffed by knowledgeable volunteers.
Douglas Historical Society