Imagine being handed a pick and a shovel, a section of jungle and mountainous terrain, and being told to build a railroad. The year is 1886, the location, Cairns, and the first shovel full of dirt to begin this engineering feat is overturned by the Premier of Queensland, Sir Samuel Griffith. Construction of the Cairns-Kuranda Railway had begun!
Why the need for a railroad? Miners in the Atherton Tablelands were desperate for supplies and were on the verge of starvation. The boggy road leading inland from Port Douglas was impossible to travel in the Wet season and angry settlers voiced strong opinions as to the need for a railroad.
This job would require strategy, fortitude, hand tools, dynamite, buckets and bare hands. Great escarpments were removed from the mountains above the line. Loose rock and overhanging trees had to be removed by hand. Slopes could average forty-five degrees and the entire surface was covered with layers of disjointed rock, rotting trees and loose soil. At conclusion, the deep cuttings and extensive embankments that were removed totaled a volume of over 2.3 million cubic metres of earth.
Out of poor and dangerous working conditions, the Victorian Labour League was formed to improve relations between the railroad navvies and the contractors. Due to the magnitude of the job, relationships between both remained harmonious to complete the task before them.
In celebration of the completion of the early sections to Kuranda, a banquet was prepared for a visit to the site by the Governor of Queensland, Sir Henry Norman. The full banquet was served atop the Stoney Creek Bridge, swaying dizzily at a spectacular height above the gorge. Speeches for the occasion were suspended due to the roar from the waterfalls below!
Within a month, the Cairns-Kuranda Railway line was opened to passenger travel. Future sections constructed to the west created a reliable supply of goods and freight to the early settlers. The Tablelands blossomed into a wealth of rich grazing lands to the west and beyond.
Suggested learning activity: investigate an engineering feat (e.g. a road/railway/bridge) local to you and find out its history: how it was constructed, by whom and for what purpose. What tools and technology did they have available to them and compare how things might be different if they were to build the same feature today?